Not your average bear 

Matthew Kirscht’s creepy candyland

At first glance, Missoula artist Matthew Kirscht’s artwork emits a sort of carnival vibe: obnoxiously bright colors, lush landscapes sprinkled with sugary sweets, and cartoonish creatures hopping and frolicking about. From a distance it’s as playful as a McDonald’s display, as dazzling as a children’s book.

But upon further review and a closer look, it’s freakier than the Neverland Ranch. Kirscht’s work looks like somebody slipped a tab of brown acid to Milton Bradley before he created Candyland. And that’s exactly the sort of double-take Kirscht craves.

“I’ve got people who will run up at first and say I should paint murals on children’s walls,” he explains, “and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to be responsible for the psychotherapy.’ But I like the approachability of the color and the initial imagery because it’s easy for someone to walk up and start a dialogue with the painting. And then when you spend some time with it, you realize the ramifications of what’s going on.”

What’s going on is pretty creepy—an elaborate narrative of conspiracy, deception and treachery told through scenes eerily reminiscent of something you’d find in a Little Golden Book collection. In Kirscht’s current display at the University of Montana’s UC Gallery—his first solo exhibit since moving to Missoula more than a year ago—the stories range from character studies of his work’s many recurring figures to thinly veiled confrontations that involve Kirscht’s entire cast of misfits.

“I’d say it’s connecting with that sort of lied-to, adrift feeling that I think a lot of people have,” Kirscht says of the exhibit, titled The Clown Machine and Other Deceits. “A lot of what I’m dealing with is that feeling when you’re a child of being told through media and relatives and everything of what to expect out of life. And, of course, that isn’t what happens…These paintings are that beautiful, unattainable image that you’re surrounded by as a child, and reconciling that with what’s really happening now.”

It’s not exactly an uplifting message, but Kirscht executes his intricate stories with an author’s attention to detail and an ad executive’s gift for manipulation. For example, in “Afternoon,” one of the exhibit’s larger pieces, two different dramas play out on the canvas. In the foreground, a demonic looking bunny—it’s all in the tiny fangs and black eyes—approaches an innocent-looking bear relaxing under a tree; unless MSNBC’s “To Catch A Predator” is somehow involved, things don’t look good for the bear. In the background, a robotic clown’s head explodes with ice cream cones, cupcakes and balloons while a line of odd characters look on. There are other peripheral symbols, like the devious apples hanging in the tree above the bear, but Kirscht explains that the key to “Afternoon” is the misdirection, or, as he calls it, “that look over here, pay no attention to what’s important mentality.”

“I try to keep some consistency with the characters to help tell the story,” he says of the work, “and this is an example: Rabbits tend to be the antagonists, bears tend to be the victims and apples tend to be the sadistic watchers. Everyone in the painting is watching the robot when the real action, the danger, is happening elsewhere. The robot is like the media, government, any number of distracting things.”

Elaborating on the idea of using iconic imagery and recurring characters, Kirscht explains it another way: “It’s like the idea of using an image like Count Chocula or Franken Berry to make that cereal seem so incredible—it’s sort of the same thing I’m trying to do with such bright colors and my imagery. It’s a candy coating over what the substance really is.”

Predictably, Kirscht’s biggest obstacle is finding an accepting audience. A full-time artist who’s previously lived and exhibited in Portland, Ore., and New Orleans, he relies on commissions and gallery sales to pay bills. His most popular work has been Halloween illustrations, including a newly printed book of his vintage-style artwork (available at the gallery), but the clown machine series has been slower to catch on. And although his Missoula reception has been mostly positive—“It’s very open, very free, and a lot more edgy, to be honest, than some bigger cities,” he says—he’s still surprised when a gallery is willing to display his newest work.

“I didn’t really pursue [this UC Gallery show] because—what’s the diplomatic way of putting this, exactly?—I didn’t think they’d necessarily appreciate it,” Kirscht says. “What I do is different. I mean, there’s bears in it, but…”

Yet that difference is exactly what attracted UC Gallery Director Brett Svetlik.

“It’s full of questions,” says Svetlik, who chose Kirscht and six other artists out of more than 40 applicants for exhibits during the upcoming school year. “This is the type of work that will make people stop and come into the gallery, and what intrigues me most is there’s a lot more to it than just what you first see.” 

Matthew Kirscht’s The Clown Machine and Other Deceits is on display at the UC Gallery through Friday, Sept. 14. An artist reception will take place Thursday, Sept. 6, from 5 to 7 PM.
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