Art in the round 

Installing MAM’s New Spaces/New Visions

Less than a year after reopening in a completely renovated space, the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) is about to embark on a series of transformative exhibitions. With funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, MAM will invite five installation artists to convert different rooms of the museum into art, says MAM Curator of Exhibitions Stephen Glueckert, that “attempts to deal with the entire environment…creating environments that viewers and the audience walk through so it’s like walking into a picture.”

The first exhibition in the series, collectively titled New Spaces/New Visions, will be New American Relics: The Sacred and the Mundane by multidisciplinary artist Bently Spang, a Northern Cheyenne American Indian. In a recent telephone interview Spang says New American Relics aims to turn the “sensitivity that my people have about objects and symbolism within our living experience” toward contemporary American life. To do so, Spang will create cast glass sculptures “reifying everyday objects”—a stapler, for example—“and re-expressing them as spiritual forms that almost replace standard religious relics. The premise is that these were discovered and that will be revealed within the installation, that these are almost ancient forms that have been unearthed.”

The sculptures will be suspended, says Spang, “not anchored to the floor” and accompanied by video “that ties it all together.” Incorporating video with sculpture requires balancing two different mediums, one of the common challenges presented by installation art.

“To activate that space in terms of one entire piece…takes a lot of negotiating with the space and with yourself and these materials,” he says. “What I like is that these spaces, these materials, this whole process is alive. It’s like beings coming together, maybe, to kind of negotiate out this piece and walk away, hopefully, with everyone satisfied. The mediums get respected for their own powers and then your own vision of it is in there and the space is dealt with as well.”

Brad Allen, a University of Montana art professor who works in sculpture and installation art, will join Spang in transforming MAM when he puts up LooM: Captive Moon and the Freckled Lake Bed. The exhibition will go on display in the Aresty Gallery, a three-tier space. Allen uses the tiers in his exhibition, the main feature of which is a 10-foot internally lit yellow sphere squashed by a net—the “captive moon”—that will be placed on the top level. Dotting the area lit by the moon will be small cabins built from Roy Toy Log Cabin Playsets, wooden children’s toys Allen will supply to visitors during the three days preceding LooM’s opening on Thursday, May 17. Allen hopes to have children (ages 6 and up, including “adult children”) populate the “valley” with dwellings made from the 170 playsets, all of which will be watched over by the moon and two red neon letters, an “L” and an “M” that will be affixed to the wall.

Allen says the piece is a reaction to the recent birth of his son and the daycare his wife runs from their home, as well as to the view of Missoula he gets during his commute from the South Hills.

“I want to do something like a landscape painting of the valley of Missoula,” says Allen, “and I thought about it more in terms of how landscape paintings used to function. They were these kind of idealized, romanticized, super visual things that halfway serve as a document but more than anything serve like an ideal or a standard.”

In addition to the installation in the Aresty Gallery, Allen has created a host of objects for a simultaneous exhibition, for display in the Shott Family Gallery and titled More LooMing Thoughts, that evokes LooM’s fanciful aesthetic. Small globes made of plaster and crushed rock are a nod to the captive moon; oversized slabs in an array of colors make up a collection of remote controls, arranged like a row on a coffee table and titled to indicate their function—TV remote, night remote, good morning remote. A cast bronze blue whale suspended in a pole barn speaks to the valley’s aquatic history and, potentially, future.

“These objects only deal with the immediate space around them,” says Allen, speaking of the sculptures. “With installation…you’re walking through an environment where all the space inside the volume of the gallery has been dealt with on some level…An installation is something you immerse yourself in. It has more to do probably with interior design than objecthood.”

Spang concurs, saying that installation art tries to “create a moment of awareness…[and] immerse the viewer in this moment of discovery.” Doing so requires more than crafting an object and displaying it and so installation may be a form unfamiliar to some viewers. At the same time, says Allen, installation art can be more accessible because it is enveloping.

“Everyone can experience the ‘Whoa’ factor,” says Allen, “so that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Bently Spang’s New American Relics: The Sacred and the Mundane opens Thursday, May 10, at 6 PM at MAM with a members-only artist talk at 7 PM; the exhibition opens to the public Friday, May 11. LooM: Captive Moon and the Freckled Lake Bed and More LooMing Thoughts, both by Brad Allen, open Thursday, May 17, at 5:30 PM during Artini. Museum admission is free.
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