Shoot straight, light up 

Behind the process of two artists represented at MAM's 42nd annual art auction

Theo Ellsworth's monsters and Francis Fox's bronze horses. Dudley Dana's digital paintings and Louise Montagne's sunsets. Stephanie Frostad's farm life and Tom Foolery's miniatures. These make up just a sliver of the work represented at the 42nd annual Missoula Art Museum Auction exhibit. This year's theme is "Artists in the Spotlight," through which the MAM seeks to honor artists they feel enrich the community. The exhibit of 100 artists—the largest in MAM's history—is on display now at the museum, but the auction hits the University Center Ballroom Sat., Feb. 1, where Missoula bidders go head-to-head buying up the best of our local offerings. The end goal, of course, isn't about winning the art—though that's part of the fun. It's to help give back to MAM for the work it does in providing powerful art exhibits that are free to the public.

Of all the auction artists, 28 have been represented in solo exhibitions at MAM and 15 are first-time participants. To give you a sneak peek into the exhibit and upcoming auction, we talked with two very different artists—Steven Krutek and Jeff Pernell—whose work captured our imagination.


Steven Krutek's mysterious photos

Steven Krutek's black-and-white photograph, "Salmon, Idaho 6," shows a woman standing on a lawn with her back to the camera, looking up at a bare tree. The cloudy white sky gives the scene that hint of late winter or early spring when the light is dim and wind chills to the bone. An RV peeking out from the side of the photo and a concrete building in the background add another layer of stark reality. A photographer bent on evoking conventional beauty might have edited those things out or taken the shot from a different angle or, at least, waited for the woman to turn and face the camera before capturing the moment. But in his body of work, Krutek, a photography professor at the University of Montana, doesn't seem fazed by things that might otherwise not seem photogenic. He seems to embrace those elements and, in doing so, captures the romance of everyday objects and places: A colorful bird lies dead on a leaf in the water. Muddy tire tracks lead to a red access gate, which opens onto a brown grassy field. An antler mount hangs from the wall of an empty town hall where you can imagine the lonely buzz of the fluorescent lights.

The woman facing the tree in Salmon, Idaho, ended up being a surprise success. As it turned out, Krutek was actually waiting for that woman to turn around, but she never did. "It was almost like she was turning her back on me," he says. "I think she was aware of me, but I'm not even sure."

In the photo, which you can view at stevenkrutek.com, there is something determined about the way the woman keeps herself turned away with her arms tucked away out of view, across her chest. Whether she's making a statement on privacy or contemplating the tree in front of her, it's hard to say. That mystery adds to the image.

"It wasn't until I shot the photo and developed the film that I liked her posture and felt like it was a better portrait with her back turned toward me," Krutek says. "I was able to go back and see there was value in it with her face turned away."

click to enlarge “Ice Cold Lemonade” by Steven Krutek
  • “Ice Cold Lemonade” by Steven Krutek

Krutek's piece in MAM's art auction, "Ice Cold Lemonade," has a little bit more of a classic feel than his other work. It's a black-and-white shot of a snack stand at the Western Montana Fair crisply contrasted with shadow and sunlight and accompanied by the blur of small children running by. For this one, he used a "toy camera" to give it a little more of a nostalgic look.

"I find myself meandering over there during fair time just to snap a few pictures," he says. "The pictures I do snap are with film, and the ones I take at the fair are taken with what's basically a cheap plastic camera with a horrible lens. It fits in with the fair atmosphere. I'm trying to capture the feel of the fair at face value."

Krutek uses some digital photography, but he's lured by film. And the toy camera offers more surprises than a high-end film camera because its flaws introduce warps and light leaks and other blemishes to his work that can often give it more texture. It also provides that antiquated feel found in old-timey photo booths at fairs and in touristy destinations.

That Krutek uses this style is fitting because in 1995, when he was a young photography student working at the SALT Institute for Documentary Field Work in Maine, he did a photographic study of Romanian gypsies who ran an old-time photo booth at a fair. "They took photos that they produce for people where they dress up in Old West gear," he says. "[A writer and I] documented their lifestyle—four generations of these folks, which was pretty interesting."

Keeping with that aesthetic, Krutek often uses modern tintype to get an antique look. In one, a raptor spreads its wings behind a chain-link fence. It's hard to tell what's happening in the photo—is the bird captured or free?but the contrast between the black spray paint Krutek uses in this processing and the image's exposure makes it seem like something you'd pull from the archives of a natural history museum rather than what you'd find in a collection meant to romanticize the West.

If Ansel Adams inspired artists to capture the majesty of Western landscapes, Robert Adams' 1974 book The New West and his exhibit Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape helped give it a reality check. Krutek prescribes to the latter. Whether it's a lemonade shack at the fair or an RV or some other man-made element, Krutek doesn't turn his lens away from it. Forced to face human elements, a viewer can find a way to embrace the landscape for what it is, or entertain the thought of how humans might work to change it.

"The West is romanticized with a certain aesthetic in mind," Krutek says. "Originally, I'm from the Midwest and then went to Colorado. In Colorado Springs there is some amazing natural beauty but it's intermingled with development we have brought upon the land. There's a rich photographic history of the Colorado Front Range, which was undertaken by several artists, including Robert Adams who photographed that West. He's still an influence on me. The images that I photograph are romantic to me because those were my experiences of the West."

Erika Fredrickson



Jeff Pernell's pyro art

Some painters experiment with wine or coffee on canvas. Others use massive, plus-size brushes or bath sponges to produce unconventional textures and shapes. Jeff Pernell pours gunpowder on his works and lights them on fire.

For three years now the Missoula artist has been igniting gunpowder on the surface of his art pieces, incorporating the resulting effects into the very framework of the image. The ashen, smoky blemishes left behind from the burning powder play an integral part in his space odyssey mosaics and shadowy abstractions.

"I'm kind of a pyromaniac at heart maybe," Pernell says with a laugh. "I love the chaos and how the material reacts with my actions."

Pernell developed an interest in the arts as a teenager at Flathead High School in Kalispell. His interest in incorporating gunpowder into his art existed even then, but he couldn't figure out how to pull it off. Once he obtained a cow skull, painted it and blasted it with a shotgun in attempts to achieve some artistic effect. Instead, he obliterated it.

Art took a backstage in his young adult years, but when he found himself coping with a divorce seven years ago, it made a resurgence as a catharsis for the emotional turbulence of his breakup.

"What I realized is I had all these huge emotions associated with current stress," says Pernell. "I let those flow through, and all of a sudden I stopped caring about what I was trying to paint, and just let those new emotions do their thing. And people started reacting to that in a very positive way."

click to enlarge “Space Cloud” by Jeff Pernell
  • “Space Cloud” by Jeff Pernell

One artist, Cai Guo-Qiang of China, has been exploring the possibilities of gunpowder artwork since the late 1980s. He has established himself as the world's foremost expert in the subject. Guo-Qiang creates murals—sometimes large enough to cover entire rooms—by igniting gunpowder on the surface of his canvasses in a manner that creates charred silhouettes and landscapes. Pernell first discovered Guo-Qiang's work while on a trip to France in 2010, and he began to apply some of the techniques to his own art.

On Pernell's website, gunpowderart.com, you can find a time-lapse video of the 14-hour process it took to make his 5-by-8 triptych "Celestial Balance." Using wood panels covered in a gel medium as his base, he masks off shapes that he wants to remain untouched by the explosion. He paints around the masking, and after the paint has dried he strategically sprinkles the gunpowder across the surface. He places panels on top of the piece in a manner that helps him control how the smoke escapes, and therefore how it alters the image. Then he lights the fire.

The result resembles an otherworldly satellite photograph. Bold acrylic colors fan out across the scenery or splatter about with dramatic Ralph Steadman-esque flair. The smoke stains from the ignited gunpowder swirl around the paint and masked-off shapes like deep space oblivion, the intergalactic brume of a science fiction story.

Pernell has learned to control what happens when he sets fire to the powder, but mistakes still happen. Using too little gunpowder the first time around calls for re-masking and re-burning, and excessive amounts of gunpowder interferes with the painting or harms the masking work.

"When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong," he says.

But even mistakes don't go to waste.

"I'm really conservative about my material," he says. "I don't throw things away, I just wait until they have a purpose."

Pernell sold "Celestial Balance" last year to the Pacific Unitarian Church in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and since then he has put more of his art out for public consumption. The Missoula Art Museum selected his piece "Space Cloud" as a silent auction item in its upcoming event.

Pernell intends to continue working on his "Space" series, and has ideas for a bonfire series that he would like to explore.

"It goes beyond the brain, in my art at least," he says. "I admire artists that can make humans look like humans and hands look like hands, but for me it's more like I'm an alchemist looking at the raw materials and how they interact with each other."

Jed Nussbaum
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