Missoula artist Abe Coley favors the cliché of having your cake and eating it too. He's abrasively straightforward at times, coy at others. He outs people on Facebook: When his girlfriend cheated on him he posted a note about it. When an acquaintance left town without paying him the $60 she owed him he posted a picture of her with the words "deadbeat" across her face. Some of his Facebook friends are supportive of his antics, while others chide him for being petty and vengeful.
"One of the more valid criticisms I get is I have a huge ego and I don't take criticism very well," he says. "But I'm also a pretty laid back guy." The Facebook postings are, he claims, "more of an intellectual exercise than trying to fuck with someone. I don't like fucking with people, but I do like creating interesting circumstances."
Coley wears a few different hats. He's coordinated underground rock shows with touring bands at his art studio, the BSMT. He's the outreach and tech coordinator at the building materials re-use center, Home Resource. For his job there, he uses Facebook to highlight used items, but in an alternative way. A set of kitchen cabinets, for instance, is advertised with the idea that you can put it in your backyard for an alley cat apartment complex.
Coley translates that prankster attitude into his art work. He likes to create paintings that make others uncomfortable or, at least, uncertain about what they're looking at. Some of his portraits look like two or three faces, plus a floating ear. One painting shows an asexual crotch, a sort of ambiguous bulge between two legs with two hands holding the unidentifiable mass.
"It wasn't a penis, it wasn't a vagina, it was just this bulge," Coley says with an impish smile. "It was really bizarre because all the ladies thought it was a woman because that's what it looks like giving birth, and all the dudes thought it was a huge penis wider than it is long. That was my most successful piece of all."
With his sculptures he often adds so many artifacts that it's hard to look at the art in its entirety for too long, and you know what he means when he says some friends say his work makes them queasy. He cites artists like Takashi Murakami as his inspiration. "He has an impossible amount of depth in his paintings. It's really hard stuff to look at. It makes your brain hurt. That's really what I go for."
Even in more innocuous works you notice Coley's penchant for odd angles and an array of colors: the mural at the Orange Street underpass isn't controversial—though he and his friends initially started painting it without permission—but it is loud.
A couple of years ago for a summer First Friday, Coley had two exhibits at once—one at now-defunct burrito bar, La Parilla, and another at the Piece of Mind head shop. A year later, he accidentally ended up with three shows at once that fell into place at the last minute.
"I wasn't ready at all," he says. "I put up some really bad art."
This year he decided to be more prepared and, true to character, more over-the-top. His June First Friday show is called Megalobamboozlementarianism: Abe Coley for Dictator of West Montanastan. It's a walking-biking-skateboarding tour of his exhibits, which Coley will guide and which spans six locations around town starting at Bernice's Bakery and moving to Betty's Divine, Piece of Mind, the Missoula Aids Council, Taco del Sol, and Zoo City Apparel, changing location every half hour to 45 minutes. Instead of the usual exhibition fare of wine and cheese, Coley plans to hand out healthy snacks: broccoli, rhubarb from his garden, spinach, and bananas. The guide—which is downloadable from his website at abecoley.com—is a table of corresponding chakras, energy states, and elements that go with each venue.
The exhibit name has several meanings for Coley. It's about absurdity, for one thing, given the long name. It's also bamboozling in that he's occupying so many venues and because he didn't tell each venue—at first—that he was setting up art shows elsewhere. The dictatorship part is a joke about the overseas political uprisings of late—a paradoxical embrace of being a dictator, but also making fun of dictators.
"It's the ultimate fantasy to be in charge of everything," he says. "Since 2011 has really been the year of dictators getting a black eye, I thought it was the perfect tongue-in-cheek move to declare my candidacy of a country that doesn't really exist but that exists in the minds here, in Montana, where it's a hotbed of whackos and free-thinkers. That's my demographic."
The "serious joke," as he calls it, also serves a practical function for something Coley cares about: supporting local businesses. The exhibit is a kind of scavenger hunt. If you buy a cake at Bernice's, underwear at Betty's, and other items listed on Coley's exhibit tour guide, you get one of his paintings for free.
"You spend a little more but you get lots of stuff and it spreads the love to other businesses," he says. "That's one of the pieces of my dictatorship platform, is being pro-business."
Coley says he knows what you're thinking. You think that he thinks he's better than he is. That he's just self-centered enough to take over six venues for First Friday. But Coley says that over-the-top jokes have to be followed through to get to the punch-line. It's a way to shake up expectations people have of First Friday.
"It's a total joke, but it's also real because I'm actually doing it," he says. "And it is a commentary. There's so much drama in politics and it seems like it's not working for a lot of people so this is just about that: Let's try it a different way."
Coley talks as much about other local artists' work as his own, including favorites like Courtney Blazon, Adelaide Every and Dane Hansen, while acknowledging the role of mainstream artists like Monte Dolack, whose art is a far cry from Coley's. In this art exhibit Coley might be the dictator, but as he sees it, the Missoula art scene should always be a democratic Petri dish.
"There are so many great artists in Missoula," he says. "We should all be working together to be constantly blowing each other's minds."
Abe Coley's art tour begins at Bernice's Bakery Friday, June 3, at 5 PM. Go to abecoley.com for a downloadable schedule and info on the scavenger hunt. Free.
First Friday Hot Picks
Expect cowboys, sunset countrysides, haunting portraits, and textured forests at the Dana Gallery All Star Show. As you might guess, this showcases star artists from the popular gallery at 246 N. Higgins, with works by Andy Cline, Paul Dykman, Jim Connelly, Alan Chan, Nicholas Oberling, Jennifer Li, Parvin, Robert Schlegel, Caleb Meyer, Robert Moore, David Mensing, Francis Switzer, and Scott Switzer, with an opening reception from 5 to 8 PM.
Stephanie Frostad is already a respected Missoula artist with her deep, crisp country imagery that seems straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale. This First Friday she let's you peek at new work when you head to Montana Art and Framing, 709 Ronan Street (between 6th and Russell), for a reception from 5 to 9 PM.
Sounding is the ancient processes of determining the depth of water. The Brink Gallery 111 W. Front, carries that idea out in all sorts of directions with the group exhibition, "sounding," curated by Kerri Rosenstein, showing works by James Agard, Fred Green, Ariya Martin, Wes Mills, and Rosenstein with an opening reception 5-8 PM.