Recent grads revel in retrospective

No one ever said a young artist’s life is easy. When the most common qualifier used to describe your professional situation is “starving,” people generally understand that success is a long haul, and that even the smallest breaks are few and far between.

Ben Malouf will take his breaks any way they come. The award-winning recent University of Montana Art Department graduate and former student coordinator of the UC Gallery isn’t so much starving in the literal sense as he is yearning for an excuse to get back to doing what he studied. Ever since he graduated in May 2005, Malouf has been selling swimming pool equipment for a local company. His time creating artwork has been mostly replaced with hours logged behind a desk and on business trips so he can pay his bills. But on Thursday, Jan. 25, his illustrated ceramic molds will be on display in UM’s Museum of Art & Culture’s Paxson Gallery as part of 40 Years of Campus Art Awards. It’s his first show since graduation.

“To be honest, I’m a little self-conscious about the fact that I haven’t been more involved with my art,” says Malouf, who still maintains a studio in his house and, when he has time, occasionally experiments with turning his illustrations into animated films. “I think, like a lot of new graduates, I’m still learning how to settle into real life. You don’t have the access to the same resources. You don’t have the same motivation. It’s all excuses, I know. The thing is, I still love the work. I think I’ve been needing something to get me back into it.”

The upcoming show serves as exactly that for some of the more recent graduates featured in the exhibit. Not only are the pieces—all purchased by the museum when the aspiring artists were still students—slotted for display over the next month, but the work is also being presented in conjunction with a much different and higher-profile exhibit in the same building. In the companion Meloy Gallery, The Collectors’ Art will feature gems by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, among others.

“The fact that Warhol and Rauschenberg are right across the hall, I mean, that feels huge,” says Christine Cleveland, who is also showing her work for the first time since graduating last spring. “I wasn’t expecting an opportunity like this.”

Cleveland’s work, “U.S.S. Hancock,” is one of the more striking pieces in the student exhibit. Stretching across much of the main wall of the gallery are 174 prints on perfectly cut 6-by-8-inch plywood blocks. The images are woodcut portraits of Navy midshipmen taken from her father’s yearbook album of his Vietnam days, and Cleveland meticulously details each one to capture distinct expressions and identifying facial features. Interspersed among the 174 blocks are a handful of faceless outlines.

“The blank portraits are more to represent the forgotten aspect, the human aspect of that war,” says Cleveland. “I wouldn’t want to push [the commentary] into our current situation because it’s not about that. For me personally, it’s about and for my father. But I can see where the larger commentary comes in for other people.”

Cleveland’s piece isn’t the only one that makes a statement about war. Leonard Stach’s lithograph, “Elegy to War,” was created more than 40 years prior to Cleveland’s work, but the somber midnight-blue-and-black print represents a similar sentiment. Stach, who was awarded his campus art award in 1964 as a graduate student, went on to teach ceramics for 32 years and become a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.

“This isn’t just a nice way for us to show our appreciation of student work, but also a chance to show how timeless a lot of our collection is,” says museum curator Manuela Well-Off-Man. “Whether they are commenting on war directly or indirectly, or social commentary, or Native American identity, they all fit our current atmosphere.”

For the more recent graduates, however, the opportunity to display their work is just as important as making a statement. For Cleveland, who is still in school and working part-time for the museum, this exhibit is a precursor to her unveiling of a new body of work in a solo exhibit at the Gold Dust Gallery in March. “I’m working still!” she says in a sarcastic cry. And for Malouf, it’s a chance to reignite his passion.

“I may work a desk job, but you can ask anyone there about how my notepads and desk calendars and everything are filled like a sketch book,” says Malouf. “So even though I feel far away from it right now, it’s still there for me. Maybe this is the sort of nudge I need.”

Forty Years of Campus Art Awards and The Collectors’ Art open at the Paxson and Meloy galleries, respectively, in UM’s PARTV Center Thursday, Jan. 25. An opening reception will be held opening night at 5 PM.

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