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Liberal Arts

An exhibit that asks: Can’t art and politics be the same thing?

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Let’s all go ahead and own up to the fact that this notion of art-as-politics, as of today, is meaningless. The very term “political art,” whatever it meant, rang false ever since it was coined in the 1960s, when sobersided Manhattan art critics—faced for the first time with something other than form, line and color—found themselves at a loss to describe artwork that actually had something to say. It became a catch-all, and, not too long after that, a cliche. When a woman filled a shadowbox with Barbie dolls and tampons, it was called political. When a Jew painted a buffoon in a pointed white hood, it was called political. When a Hispanic painted the alienation of the barrio, it was called political. Soon, everyone was taken in by the idea: If an artist expressed a notion that smacked of social relevance, that projected a message instead of reflecting the viewer’s own starry dreams, it was taken as a statement of politics, not a work of art. But that argument doesn’t work anymore.

Corky Clairmont understands that as well as anyone. Born and raised on the Flathead Reservation, he struck out for Los Angeles in the early ’70s, just as American art was turning the corner on politics. He fell in with the city’s crowd of “conceptual artists”—for whom the execution, delivery and context of artwork was as important as its message—and he has spent the past three decades refining that idea. The show now on view at the Art Museum of Missoula, Halfway Between Here and There, looks back on Clairmont’s efforts to find the common ground between issues and images, and in the end it gives you a glimpse of an artist who—despite all trends to the contrary—actually got better as he got more political.

In the beginning, everything was subtlety. Take Clairmont’s “Sidewalk Survival” from 1981, a series of 12 square close-up photos of Los Angeles pavement, mounted on hinges. Some pictures depict grotesquely pitted bitumen. Others show blades of grass trying to force their way through cracks. Others still portray concrete’s marks of humanity—graffiti, grains of terrazzo, the generations-old stamps of city inspectors and cement contractors. But on the back of each photo, scenes from vintage first-aid manuals are reprinted, offering unsettling scenes—setting splintered bones, tourniquetting bleeding limbs, applying the Heimlich maneuver. Seen together, the message is clear, and the wit is painfully dry: There’s something unsafe behind all this pavement. We have made for ourselves a dangerous place.

Clairmont’s more recent work, by contrast, sets aside such polite formalities. You can sense it in the mere title of his 1995 work, “The Yellowstone Pipeline Series.” Zeal and destruction are the themes here, in a sequence of expressive abstract prints, which themselves transmit a sense of chaos, excitement and anger. But the barb is sharpened with an added touch—each print is affixed with ripped-up color photographs of oil tankers lumbering down Montana highways. Surely, there is no ambiguity here, when it comes to politics.

This same technique is carried over in Clairmont’s newest work, a succession of prints called “Turtles X’s 93.” Here, 10 large monoprints flaunt a dense layering of images. Outlines of buffalo, stencils of turtles and pictures of ramping bears float randomly on paper, interacting with some harsher realities—manhole covers, roadsign symbols, bulldozers, and again, shredded photos of Montana landscapes. And as you progress through the series, the interactions grow deeper, the symbolism more glaring. Tire treads blaze through some prints. Machines begin to outnumber animals. And one motif comes to overwhelm the entire scene: the number 93.

If Clairmont applies his argument with thunder when it comes to specific issues—like the effects of the Yellowstone Pipeline or the widening of Highway 93—the true grace note of his show is the piece that takes the broadest target. In the room-consuming installation called “Asphalt Storm Clouds Over the Reservation,” Clairmont invests all of his best abilities—his use of materials, his strident politicking, and his background in conceptual art—to create an impressive indictment of what white settlers have done to the rez. Here, four lodge poles stand to form an ersatz tipi frame. Suspended just above the floor is a canvas covered with topographic maps and photographs of the Flathead Nation. They are scenes we all recognize: the dignified profile of the Mission Mountains, the russet grasslands of Moeise, the chill waters of Flathead Lake. But just above this loving arrangement hover eight cumbersome chunks of asphalt, hanging from the frame by rope. The chunks are thick and black and coarse. A few have stripes of yellow highway paint still on them. As you walk around the display, they sway ominously. And you can tell it’s intentional that they are not tied up too tight. The threat of destruction is imminent, and you can’t escape the feeling that you can only watch helplessly as it happens. It’s harrowing stuff.

In the end, all art is about turning the conceptual into the physical, and then back again. Labels just distract from that. After all, people make politics, and people make art. There’s nothing that says the two can’t meet up in the middle. And after spending an hour at the museum, you can tell Clairmont wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Art Museum of Missoula hosts an opening reception for Halfway Between Here and There this Friday, April 6 from 5 to 8 p.m. At 335 N. Pattee. Call 728-0447.

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