Sex and the Garden City 

What makes for controversial art in Missoula?

It seems like it’s finally time for us to open up the discussion of what Missoula considers to be controversial. Judging by what took place downtown two weeks ago—and the reactions that have followed—it may be fair to say that our threshold for violence, at least, is appropriately low. That is to say, when we see scenes of conflict between our friends and neighbors, we take exception to it. We feel regret. And, in the end, we choose up sides in the hopes of deciding who was to blame, what we can learn, and how we can keep it from happening again. It was one group’s fault, or it was the other’s. Either way, we want to work out the remainders of what happened. Either way, we want to protect our own.

But what about sex? When it comes to the more libidinous side of Missoula’s cultural life, we don’t seem to have conducted a real litmus test on ourselves yet. Sure, there have been a couple of tentative outings. Like the nude figure-drawing classes that the Art Museum of Missoula holds every week, which no one seems to mind. Or the very visible work of Melissa “Mooncat” Mason, which recently appeared in local theater halls and coffeehouses, replete with the artist’s trademark nude self-portraits. And true, there was also the case of Vera, the seasonal installation that used to crop up in the Art Museum’s south lawn until some vandals destroyed it this summer. It was a life-sized statue of an old woman gardening, ostensibly in the nude, although it was somewhat hard to tell. And even if she was nude, that probably wasn’t the point—either of the piece or of the act that destroyed it.

No, what’s sexually offensive in Missoula still seems very much up for grabs, and one way we might want to test our limits is by viewing the work of Sarah Ashley Longshore, now on display at the Catlin Galleries. Longshore is 24 years old and comes to us by way of Alabama. She now lives here in town. But more importantly for our purposes, she is an entirely self-taught artist.

Ever since the days of Andy Warhol’s star-crossed protégé Jean-Michel Basquiat, artists without any kind of classical training have had an enormous amount of appeal in the art marketplace, for no other reason, perhaps, than that they’re so good at stripping American art of all of the pretentiousness that it has picked up over the years. These days, critics describe artists like Longshore as “naïve,” or “brutal,” or more frequently, as “outsiders,” but that somehow makes them even more identifiable, federating them into a kind of rebel gang. To put it another way, you know one when you see one.

And for sure, Longshore’s paintings bear many of the marks of outsider art. Her pieces are very expressive and free-handed. The colors are vibrant and primary. The figures she depicts are eerily flat, like the unforeshortened scenes we’re used to seeing in folk paintings or medieval art. And beneath it all, you can sense a strong desire at work to turn taboos into conversation topics. Without a doubt, there is something very earnest and very innocent about Longshore’s attempts to scandalize us. In the 40 or so paintings that she shows in the Catlin exhibition, about half of them are nudes, and many are aggressively nude. There are naked women, reclining freely. Unclothed men lounging. Bi-racial couples posing together. And, maybe most notably, a few depictions of a joyous kind of depravity. White women masturbating. Black men ejaculating. Couples copulating. But throughout all of these pieces, there’s a quality so innocent that it borders on the cartoonish. The paintings are so naively done, it turns out, that it’s almost impossible to be offended by them.

Looking over the paintings one by one, you can see the signs of innocence scattered here and there. The nudes have wacky proportions. Many of them are grinning manic half-moon smiles, as if drawn with the hand of a child. And all of their faces stare back at you with outsized, almond-shaped eyes, a feature that’s probably shaping up to be Longshore’s stylistic signature. Taken all at once, these things make the artist’s work recognizable as her own. But they don’t make her paintings very controversial at all.

As part of last Friday’s opening reception, a semi-nude woman strutted onto the floor of the Catlin showspace, slathered with red body paint and polka-dotted with big blue eyes, as if to remind gallery-goers that Longshore’s work was about looking at people, and being looked at. Which begs the question, what would viewers have gotten from the show without that little demonstration? Would they see carnality, exhibitionism, masturbation, divine love? Or would just they see a young artist’s playful dalliances, forays into things that only seem taboo, and only then because we expect them to be? It’s hard to say. But for now we can leave it up to this: In a town that is now shot through with controversy, we might be relieved to know that there is nothing really divisive about Longshore’s work. At least there shouldn’t be. If there is, we should all gear up for another fight.

The work of Sarah Ashley Longshore is on display at the Catlin Galleries, 241 W. Main, through Sept. 25. Call 327-6688.

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