The writing on the wall 

Reading Polemic Voices at the Art Museum of Missoula

Everyone is aware that from time to time messages come in bottles. Some moviegoers prick their mind’s ears for messages during a cinema sit without regard to “Who’s in it?” Most folks know that fiction is typically narrative, and lecturers (hopefully) have points to get across. Not a few follow ballet, knowing there will be something more than a pretty tutu and toe shoes for consideration. But even those aware of the narrative systems at work don’t always expect to read between the pictures. But here, at the Art Museum of Missoula, is an exhibition that tells a story; there is gestalt in this gallery.

This is not a review about the individual works of art in the current show, Polemic Voices in the Art Museum of Missoula Collections. This is not a critique of the artists included, nor a detailing of their techniques. Rather, I’m suggesting you notice the exhibition that frames the works, and visit the Art Museum not as a casual, passive contemplator of visual art, but as a viewer aware of the designed whole of the surrounding space. As with movies or novels, art exhibitions can have underlying structures, languages and linguistics. But often there is little to “read,” no structured theme. Sometimes art is just brought out of storage and randomly hung wherever there is space, a sort of 52-card pick-up approach to display.

This is not to diminish the specific expression or creative intention of the individual artists. Without them and their work, there would be no “words” to arrange into meaningful exhibition language. This is to call your attention to the whole, without disregarding the parts. In the case of Polemics, a rich text is available for consumption, whether it is relished like a summer novel or dived into for a dense dissertation.

The “authors,” the curators of Polemics, are visual artists themselves. Jennifer Reifsneider, Steve Glueckert and Renee Taaffe have researched, interpreted and staged an intelligent selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection.

So, what’s it about? “Creating a cultural and historical context for the Art Museum of Missoula collections,” according to the exhibition’s accompanying brochure. The works the curatorial team has selected to illustrate that theme are handsome, thoughtful, concise, and as a whole, brilliant. To step into the gallery is like stepping into the pages of the politically rich lifetime of the museum, from 1975 to present. Visually, this is conveyed by a black timeline running around the four walls of the gallery. The graphic design of Polemics is beautifully executed, and the samplings of text corresponding to each year are provocative. Not in a heavy-handed, agenda-driven way, but rather by sly association. “The audience politicizes the work. People bring reaction,” says Glueckert. “The exhibition is neither right nor left, it’s about daily life.” Glueckert emphasizes that the exhibition celebrates our community’s pride in the museum’s collection, within the context of a look back at the institution’s history and at the artists involved in its evolution.

Not far from one of the world events documented by the timeline for 1979—“November 24, 1979: Saturday Night Live’s Joe Piscopo goes ‘in search of the last black Republican’”—hangs Missoula artist Sheila Miles’ tempura on paper, “Black Woman at the Republican Convention,” 1984. Another timelined event is, “February 1, 1993: Two Mc-Donald’s restaurants in Belgrade, Yugoslavia close as they run out of supplies of foreign toppings.” The subtle connection (sometimes you have to read a sentence twice) is to James Todd’s woodcut take on the relations of East and West Berlin, circa 1993, “Wessis and Ossis.” Greg Siple’s 1993 political cartoon, Earth Firsters take a sudden interest in the fate of Wilma and do their part to save the historic structure, portrays the Missoula landmark with a gigantic tree spike driven through its side. Wall text, dateline December 12, 1993, tells us what was happening that year: “Edward Sharp, co-owner of the Wilma Building for 50 years, dies of natural causes.”

The timeline’s details, the color-coded graphics and the arrangement of the exhibition contextualize the works on display. The time taken by the museum staff produces a narrative context. It may hit you only later, as often happens after turning the last page of a well-written book, or exiting a movie, when you realize there was a clue, a marker—seemingly inconsequential on first reading—that makes you go, “Hmm.”

Think about this: Museum collections evolve. No one could predict in selecting works for the collection in 1976 that a work added in 1984, or a group of works added in 2000, would, in 2003, mingle to illustrate political issues paralleling the life of the institution.

But if you are of a mind that sometimes art is just art, go ahead, enjoy some metaphorical popcorn and a light summer reading of “who’s in” Polemics. Admire their technique. You, after all, are the reader, and either way, it’s a fine read.

Polemic Voices in the Art Museum of Missoula Collections is on view in the museum’s second-floor gallery through August 23. Museum hours are Tuesday, 10 AM to 7 PM; Wednesday through Friday, 10 AM to 6 PM. 335 N. Pattee Street, 728-0447.

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