A guy in a flannel shirt walks in, his fists balled up in his pockets. He looks at one wall, then a second, and all at once a look wipes across his face that resembles a perplexed kind of smirk. He turns on his heel and walks out.
Three minutes later, a pair of older women enter. They spend a bit more time measuring up the scenery. They peer around and talk quietly behind their hands. They point, whisper and giggle, as if gossiping. There is something girlish in their demeanor as they leave the room.
For sure, the reactions people have to Kathleen Stone’s new show, Wings and Other Things, now on view at the Art Museum of Missoula, seem decidedly mixed. If watching a few of her viewers isn’t enough, a look at the guest registry outside the exhibit appears to confirm it.
“We just don’t get it,” one couple writes. “Is it an inside joke?”
“Very playful,” says another. “Makes me feel 10 all over again.”
“It’s like wearing a feather boa.”
“I don’t understand.”
When it comes to the popular vote on this show, as people were so fond of saying a few months ago, the results aren’t in yet. But the vagueness and bewilderment that seem to surround Stone’s work don’t account for much in the end. Because not in many years in Missoula has an art show so simple and airy come across as being so complicated and dense, which accounts for some element of confusion. Wings and Other Things is a room-size installation in the museum’s upstairs center gallery, where a discriminating eye is required and patience is something more than a virtue. But in the confines of Stone’s ethereal space, what you’ll find called upon more than anything else is your instinct for play.
Over the door to the exhibit, two bushy sprays of giant white pipe cleaners, two and three feet long, hang down like eyebrows. Out of the left corner, a floor-to-ceiling sheet of acetate sticks out, cut along the edges and outlined in lime green paint to resemble long, slender waves, licking out like the frothing, finger-like surf made famous by the Japanese printmaker Hokusai. Descending at an angle from the opposite wall are more curly tendrils, these cut out of ruby-red plastic and accented with fans of wax paper. And everywhere there are drawings—sketches and set pieces, some scrawled out on tracing paper, others carefully lined and affixed with more colored plastic cut-outs. It’s unclear what they’re supposed to be. There are carmine Xs, seafoam leaf shapes, pink cones and faintly hairy-looking forms in aquamarine. But by and large, the obvious motif that consumes the room is wings.
The theme, if it weren’t made clear by the show’s title, shows up in almost every eyeful. There are wing-shaped leaves. Leaf-shaped wings. Spore-like fins. Cross-cut airfoils. But the idea is given its biggest expression in four sets of clear plastic blades, cut and painted to resemble the desiccated insect lacewings you find on your windowsill in the summer. Some five or six feet in length, the see-through wings are hinged with thumbtacks and anchored to the walls, with the bottom wing fixed to the floor and the top floating from a dangle of fishing line on the ceiling. Together, they create a sense of campy flight.
Given all this, the mixed reactions are easy to understand. Many of the matters of style that people usually look for when they go to an art show aren’t to be found here, at least not easily. Things like tricky materials, a deft technical skill, a heady narrative thread, are all made irrelevant by these playful forms. Because that’s all they are—shapes—and it’s their simplicity that helps make them effective. No matter what that effect might be. In her artist’s statement on the table outside the show, next to the registry, Stone alludes to her desire to evoke a “primary experience” in her viewers; and if you invite it, it will come.
The plastic wings cast neat shadows. The tracing paper sketches are stacked, in some places, many layers deep, leaving ghostly impressions in the background. And if you look closely, you’ll see a couple of secret wings, scarcely an inch long, sticking out of walls and corners and crevices. It’s like a muggy primordial swamp of the imagination, which is not a place that everyone likes to visit. The atmosphere Stone succeeds in creating here is one of discovery, and that can be more than some audiences can handle.
Wings and Other Things in on display in the Second Floor Middle Gallery through May 11 at the Art Museum of Missoula, 335 N. Pattee. Kathleen Stone will give a slide lecture this Tuesday, March 27 at 7 p.m. Call 728-0447.