The rich and nostalgic collage elements that accentuate the work of Inez Storer’s paintings, prints and drawings are seemingly incongruous and irreverent images: a cartoon of Ulysses S. Grant; dulled photographs of children in costumes; torn pages from a how-to guide on performing magic; browned postcards of European landmarks; and so on. Storer adds these items, either scanned or in their original formats, in layers to large-scale (48 by 36 inches) painterly pieces, or smaller prints that highlight the placement of the items themselves. While a typical barrage of artsy questions about mixed-media collages might aim to explore narrative, or decipher the meaning behind the arrangement of each item, Storer’s work deserves a more straightforward query: Where did you find all this stuff?
“I steal,” she says with a slight dramatic pause. “No, no—I am a junker. I just go searching everywhere. If I see stuff glued to walls, I’ll tear it off. I’m always looking.”
In fact, Storer is only half-joking about her larceny. While the artist primarily scavenges for items in second-hand stores, at yard sales and just about anywhere else in the course of a regular day, she talks sentimentally of her glory days dumpster diving—a skill she taught to her students at the San Francisco Art Institute—and of trespassing in an abandoned house near her home in Inverness, Calif. She discovered the latter when her then-nine-year-old son kept returning home with cool things; she offered him $1 to reveal his source.
“It was me and a bunch of artists who eventually discovered [the burned-down house] and we used to climb into it—they had left everything, water-soaked and otherwise, as it was, including stuff as old as from 1856. We thought we had died and gone to heaven,” Storer says. “The guy [who used to live in the house] moved next door so we had to go when it was really windy so he wouldn’t hear us. Then I got caught. I think he thought I would be some kid. He didn’t know what to do when he saw me. He had his dog, he had a BB gun and he was all ready to get me. So that kind of ended that aspect of my career.”
Storer no longer considers herself a dumpster diver or goes to trespassing lengths, but she remains a vigorous hoarder of all things compelling. Her eye for the odd, unusual and evocative is what inspires her work. She describes her Inverness studio as inundated with found artifacts, books and countless clippings displayed on the walls, stacked on shelves and overflowing from all corners.
“Obviously, they seep into my imagination,” she says. “And I’ll be sitting in that room and suddenly think, ‘That’s something I have to use now.’ It may be something really weird, but it leads me into a piece. And then I take off from there.” When she visited Missoula for the first time two years ago, Storer, as she does every place she travels, spent part of her time touring the second-hand stores downtown. Some of her discoveries at the Circle Square Second Hand Store on Higgins Avenue inspired three pieces that are part of her current exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery.
“Whenever I go to a city, I always look and go see what they’ve got because it reflects a whole different aspect to one’s work,” she says. “Those are the types of places I go because I always find something new and particular to that place.”
While in Circle Square, Storer came across an old children’s book full of seemingly innocent illustrations. On one page, however, she found drawings of a stove, a rattle and a doll in the same spread as a drawing of a cannon. The page became the focus of a digital pigment and collage on paper called “Flying Lesson.”
“I was taken by these little benign images—and then there’s a cannon,” she says. “There’s some kind of dangerous dichotomy between these kind of dorky, simple pictures and what potentially is destructive.”
Storer emphasized that juxtaposition by manipulating the raw image. “I wanted [the look] to be kind of acidy,” she says. “It’s nice-nice, but it’s not… My pieces are not supposed to be sweet and nice, totally. There’s a dark side to most of them—an evil side, which we have to live with.”
Stephen Glueckert, MAM’s curator of exhibitions, describes Storer as conveying “a certain intensity in every single piece.” While the collage elements of her work may immediately grab a viewer’s attention and curiosity, Glueckert points to Storer’s painting style as another defining element of her work.
“For me, I think here’s this person who’s visiting these places painting from a stream of consciousness, or out of a tradition of surrealism,” says Glueckert. “And even though the way she’s painting is rooted in modernism or modern movements in art, there’s a real fresh appeal. People who say painting is dead and we should move on would have a tough time saying that looking at these.”
Storer begins her paintings by covering the canvas with different swatches of color, and then covering the open areas with gold leaf—“the cheap kind”—to create “a sort of glow I could never get otherwise.” It’s a necessary process for her to overcome the intimidation of a blank canvas, she says, but also imperative to creating a surface that Glueckert believes “seduces the viewer.”
A perfect example is “I Go Where I Choose,” one of the exhibit’s larger pieces. It is dominated by Storer’s portrait of Binty, a cartoon character whose collaged comic strip borders the bottom of the canvas. To the left of the portrait are the words of a strict art lesson: “do not draw outside the lines painting a picture.” Binty, decorated with a textured veil, rebuffs the command by speaking the title.
“Binty is the Queen of the Nile, or something like that, and she wears this leopard-skin bathing suit, and what I did was get in her head,” explains Storer. “I think when you’re younger you have somewhat of a sense of doing the right thing. But as you get older, you sort of do more what you want to do. I started the portrait, and found this person is on a mission and she just does what she wants to do. So when I add the text, it’s there because I become that person in a way.”
Storer’s process hinges on developing a story in each piece. She says her actual painting and drawing is less important—“ I don’t draw particularly well”—than the compositions it serves.
“For me, the formalization of the placement is satire,” she says. “I use a lot of satire in my work, and irony, and double-meanings. It’s the idea of dark humor with a subtle nature that I love.”
The artwork of Inez Storer will be on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery in the Florence building through Saturday, Oct. 15. There will be a reception at the gallery (111 N. Higgins Ave.) in conjunction with First Friday on Friday, Sept. 9, from 5 to 8 PM. Storer will be an artist-in-residence at MAM Oct. 6–11.