Rejection isn't an easy pill to swallow, but it happens even to the best artists. In 1863 Edouard Manet's painting "Déjeuner sur l'herbe" was rejected by the Paris Salon. James Whistler's "The White Girl" was rejected by the Royal Academy. Highbrow institutions apparently didn't take kindly to depictions of prostitutes and mistresses, but the Salon des Refusés didn't mind. The 1863 "exhibition of rejects" did show their works, providing a rebellious alternative to the juried-as-usual art institutions.
In Missoula, a back alley gallery is taking a cue from the salon des refuses tradition. This First Friday, Frontier Space hosts Triennial Refusés, an exhibit of works from artists who were rejected from the Missoula Art Museum's Triennial show. They might not be Whistler or Manet yet, but the list of "rejects" includes some pretty hot namesmany of whom have been shown in MAM showssuch as ceramicist Brandon Reintjes (of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture), photographers Lucy Capehart and Chris Autio, painter Jean Albus and sculptor Eva Champagne.
Frontier Space is a bricked alley between Sushi Hana and Sean Kelly's. It's closed in by a wrought-iron gate on one side, and the vibe is a mix between industrial and Dickensiana hidden sanctuary with doors leading to two concrete-floored galley spaces. It was established in the fall of 2010 as a collaborative project between art students William Hutchinson and Nathan Tonning, and it has served as a non-commercial art space that has hosted some intriguing, experimental installations and performance art. Tonning and Hutchinson recently passed the space to MFA art students Josh Eck, Burke Jam and James Louks. They'll get the ball rolling with exhibits in the fall, but as a jumping off point they decided to do Triennial Refusés after being approached about it by artists Lisa Jarrett and Rebecca Weed. The refuses idea fit into their philosophy.
"I think that idea of an alternative is really the core of Frontier Space," says Jam. "It's not alternative to just be moving against the grain but I think in the arts what really creates cultural enrichment is providing as much critical dialog as you can and really blowing open what the possibilities are. The key is creating the alternative experience."
Triennial Refusés is a cheeky ode to the salon des refuses, but it's not meant to be an antagonistic statement about MAM in any kind of David-and-Goliath scenario.
"We don't want this to come off as an 'eff you' to the art museum," says Jam. "The idea behind it was not necessarily to be abrasive or to protest. It's a small community and I think we're all really working cooperatively to advance the artistic dialog in Montana. There's just so much happening right now with contemporary work that we wanted to, with the refuses show, provide a wider view of that."
"There might be some rivalry historically," adds Eck. "But that is not our intent."
MAM has often embraced edgy artists along with traditional, mainstream Montana artists. Its Triennial this year, which includes work from renowned artists such as Lela Autio and Shalene Valenzuela, plus large-presence installations by Joel Allen and Toni Matlock, was juried by Keith Wells, curator of art at Washington State University's Museum of Art. Wells picked 38 artists out of 160 for the show. The outsider eyes, says MAM's curator Steve Glueckert, always adds an element of surprise: This year, it's about half artists the MAM and Missoula audiences know well and half lesser-knowns. There were plenty of artists left out: "That's just part of the nature of the beast," says Glueckert. When he was approached by Frontier Space about their wanting to sift through the unselected artists to put together the Triennial Refusés, he was happy to oblige.
"There's been a tradition of [salon des refusés]," he says. "They wanted to make sure that the audience was aware that there was serious work being done outside of the academy, so they would do these exhibitions. I'm sure there were hurt feelings back then, but also it was a way to create dialog. I'm excited that these guys are taking this on. I think it's cool. The more art that's seen, the better," says Eck.
Jam and Eck emit graciousness rather than pretentiousness. They get that they're a back-alley gallery without a real address. But their niche is real.
"I'd say if we are challenging anything it would be maybe people'sand even our ownexpectation of what art is and what it can be."
In that spirit, the three Frontier Space artists are looking to make a space that explores contemporary artlocally, internationally and in-between. Plans for the future include a poetry series, a cross-disciplinary lecture series and visual art exhibitions, like Triennial Refusés, that keep people talking. Even more, they say, they want to challenge the notion that Montana art fits into one box.
"As soon as you get outside of Montana, people think that it's just landscapes and horsesand that definitely exists and there's value to that," says Jam. "But there's also a lot of other really incredible minds living and working here. The model of Frontier Space is not new, it's been around for a long time, but it's exciting. A lot of really phenomenal art that ends up at PS1 in New York starts out at weird little alternative crazy spaces that are formed by collectives. I think being at ground zero is exciting."
Triennial Refusés opens at Frontier Space, in the alley behind Sushi Hana, Friday, June 1, from 5 PM to 9 PM. Free. Check out Montana Triennial the same night, at the Missoula Art Museum, from 5 to 8 PM, or during museum hours through August.