The painter of blight 

Edgar Smith’s post-industrial landscapes on display

A good place to begin an appreciation of Missoula artist Edgar Smith’s paintings is, oddly enough, a couple thousand miles east in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery of Buffalo, New York. The Albright-Knox houses one of the minor works of Greco-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, founder of the metaphysical school and an early influence on surrealists Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy. The painting shows a landscape ominously emptied of any human comfort apart from the presence—and not an altogether comforting one—of two mysterious stick figures casting long shadows next to an earthen wall. The 1914 oil on canvas is dominated by a towering, dormant central smokestack. A mysterious yellow boxcar with its doors tightly fastened squats in the foreground. The painting is called The Anguish of Departure, and like much of de Chirico’s work it suggests an uneasy dream state of the kind that Dalí would later embellish with melting timepieces and sagging flesh propped up with wooden braces.

Edgar Smith’s paintings of forlorn industrial sites, currently on display in an upstairs gallery of the Art Museum of Missoula, also seem both anguished and relieved by a departure, or mult-iple departures. First there’s the historical vanishing of money and natural resources from Montana—the old familiar quasi-colonial extractive-industry model, now updated for the 21st century—depicted in slag heaps and the blocked-off road to a smokestack in Limited Access Road and Road to the Stack. The Big Stack, which is strikingly similar to the one in de Chirico’s painting, is the last vestige of the Washoe Smelter Complex, once the world’s largest copper processing plant, which operated between January 1902 and September 1980. For a time, the 585-foot stack (affectionately known as the “Penis Pinnacle of the Pintlers”) was the tallest structure in the western United States. It remains the tallest free-standing brick structure in the world. But as with so many other lingering relics of Montana’s industrial heyday, today it’s more monument to grim pride than anything else—in this case, the pride of Anaconda citizens who fought to preserve it when the rest of the complex was demolished in 1986 as part of ARCO’s Montana bailout. The Big Stack was declared a state park in 1990, but remains fenced off to the public on account of leaking arsenic. The blocked-off road in Smith’s painting says it all: Montana and Montanans got reamed by decades of corporate plundering, and now we can’t even have our history—though maybe that’s just as well. braces.

Several of the 20 oil paintings in Smith’s exhibit reflect on the departure of industry and the scars left behind. The bereft hills—or are they slagheaps?—of Granite Mountain, Autumn seem to moan volubly, half longing for and half bewailing some kind of usefulness now that they’ve already been gouged for their innards; Storm Over Laurel, one of a handful of canvasses in the show (most of the 20 paintings are oil on wood) shows an oily-looking storm converging on the oily stacks of an eastern Montana refinery. And some of the paintings simply address distance and space in the wide-open West: Eastern Washington Blur actually isn’t—a blur, that is—but nicely captures the green-and-brown striped agoraphobia of driving across the half of the state scoured bare by Montana’s most influential export, Glacial Lake Missoula. braces.

One of the paintings, Sanctuary for the Great Brain’s Voyage Across the Country, clearly reflects a departure of a personal nature for Smith. It shows, in cutaway, a cat curled up on a sleeping woman nestled in a whale. Holiday Village Mountain is one of the funnier works: a mound of filthy snow that might have stood in for a range of distant peaks if it weren’t for the blunt sense of scale provided by light posts and parking stripes. This particular mountain rises every winter and melts every spring in the parking lot of its namesake shopping plaza (some folks like to call it the “Fecal Matterhorn”). Honors for most petulant title in the exhibit go to Our Pulp Mill, in a Brisk West Wind, Burning its Usual 15 Tons of Plastic Per Day. It’s a realistic study of the Smurfit-Stone plant, and company executives probably wouldn’t mind seeing it hanging in a boardroom—sans title of course. Our Pulp Mill shows the de Chirico influence most clearly; the eight-ball and the roll of toilet paper in the foreground, though they do have a manufacturing relationship with the mill itself, recall the metaphysical painter’s trademark of juxtaposing unrelated objects in his works for the surreal quality that Dalí later developed in his own work. braces.

The real attention-grabbers in Smith’s exhibit, though, are the four paintings in his “Evil-Doers” series that show Dubya showering in oil, Dick Cheney bathing in gasoline, John Ashcroft “met[ing] out justice from his bathroom of fire,” and Judy Martz toasting Montana’s future while standing in a tub of green sludge. They are full of scathing detail and pointed references, like the dead geese lining the rim of an open pit mine (in the Martz painting) and a fork of lightning striking an electric chair outside Bush’s bathroom window. In his artist’s statement, Smith says they began as color experiments and became a means to feel like he was fighting back. In an exhibit otherwise brooding with quiet despair, the “Evil-Doer” paintings almost merit a show of their own. braces.

There will be a closing reception for The Paintings of Edgar Smith this Tuesday, November 19, from 6 to 8 PM at the Art Museum of Missoula. Call 728-0447 for more information.

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