Keeping it real 

Painter Andy Cline holds a mirror up to the myth of the Montana landscape

Andy Cline's landscape paintings capture scenes from Montana roads, including the classic features you'd expect: snowcapped mountains, hay bales stacked across green fields and big blue skies filled with cotton clouds. What's disconcerting about Cline's work, though, is how he details everything. Bright yellow highway signs poke into view. Power lines slice through the sky. The butts of big rigs aim toward the horizon. On the side of the road where you might anticipate—perhaps even hope fora jungle of wildflowers there is, instead, a crumpled dead deer, patchy with wounds and surrounded by skid marks of dried blood and dirt.

"They're sometimes graphic, some of the paintings," Cline says. "They can be a little bit depressing, but then again, it's what we see every single day driving around. I find it sad when I see a dead deer on the side of the road. But it's the reality of where we live."

Part of the allure of Cline's paintings is how much they look like photographs. The combination of his slightly unsettling subject matter and the mega-realism of his technique keeps viewers riveted. In 2013, Cline exhibited a large collection of his work at Turman Larison Contemporary in Helena. During the opening, Cline recalls listening in as visitors casually scanned his paintings.

"A lot of them knew the owners of the gallery," Cline says. "They'd go up and start chatting with them and they'd say, 'These photos are really neat.' And the owners would say, 'They're actually paintings.' It was fun for me to watch as the same people would go back and get up close, and it would dawn on them, 'Holy shit. It is a painting.' The fact that they are paintings forces you to spend some time with them. Yeah, you can ignore the deer and focus on how the trees are rendered or the colors are in the sky, but it's the whole picture that makes it."

Cline's new exhibit, Keep Right, opened at the Brink Gallery last Friday, and includes several of his Montana roadsides, plus a few outliers like a painting of Disneyland's Magic Kingdom. Cline grew up in Red Lodge where he learned to paint from a high school art teacher, but when he studied art at the University of Montana, he spent most of his time making 3D pieces of, for instance, stacks of matches. After graduating in 2003, he and his now-wife, artist Nici Holt Cline, took a road trip across the state. When they got home, he flipped through the pictures he'd taken and found himself captivated by the shots that seemed to challenge the notion of the ideal Montana landscape.

click to enlarge “Almost Home” is one of several paintings featured in Andy Cline’s show Keep Right at The Brink Gallery.
  • “Almost Home” is one of several paintings featured in Andy Cline’s show Keep Right at The Brink Gallery.

"All the ones I was drawn to were the ones where the mountains and the picturesque scenery of Montana were definitely present, but maybe the highway was slicing through it or there was the sign of man," he says. "I started painting and instantly fell in love with them. I showed them to friends and whoever would come by and a lot of them could instantly name random locations."

Another layer to Cline's work is his titles. "A Popular Watering Hole" plays with the viewer's assumptions. If you heard the title but hadn't seen the painting yet you might imagine a famous fly-fishing spot on the river. Or maybe an old dive barthe kind that Richard Hugo wrote about. Instead, the watering hole in Cline's painting is of the Town Pump parking lot outside of Rocker, where the ground is covered by pavement and rows of gas pumps sit outside the super-sized convenience store. (There are burly mountains in the background but it takes a moment to notice them.) "Prime Habitat" shows a cluster of trailer homes and broke-down trucks, again with a mountain range in the background. "Riding the Range" is a Buick cruising down the highway, driven by a man in a cowboy hat.

If you ask Cline whether his works are political, he won't say they are for certain. Some of his titles come off as critique, while others feel like nonjudgmental observation. His ambivalence goes back to childhood. Besides Red Lodge he spent a brief time as a young kid in Colstrip while his father worked at the coal plant. He lived in a trailer park. He still sees so many of these human-made marks on the landscape as necessary or understandable or, at least, worth noting. He likes the way the paintings don't erase the truth, even when the truth is ugly or mundane or sad. Often, though, the story told through the painting isn't as straightforward as it seems.

"I've done some paintings of these trailer houses," he says. "The yards are filled with crap and it looks neglected. But after a while I'm looking at them and thinking, 'Look where they live!' Maybe they don't have as much money or maybe they don't care what their house looks like, but look at their view every day. So maybe the joke's on us. Maybe they've got it figured out."

Andy Cline's Keep Right continues at the Brink Gallery through October. Visit thebrinkgallery.com for more info.

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