Before even opening the door to Goatsilk Gallery, an art space recently opened by Missoula artists Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters, you know you’re not in for the usual boutique-style experience of the downtown commercial art scene. Goatsilk Gallery occupies a garage-sized space in a complex of three utilitarian industrial buildings just west of Russell Street on Wyoming.
The structures were designed for big-rig trucks, which explains Goatsilk’s peculiar shape: a long rectangular box with sky-high ceilings and an overhead door on either end. While most gallery spaces in Missoula sit between, say, a coffee shop and a fly-fishing shop, Goatsilk is wedged between Bitterroot Welding and Casey’s Auto Body. Other neighbors include an outfit that converts kitchen and soybean oil into diesel fuel and a manufacturer of patented draft control units for home fireplaces.
Bloch and Peters, 28 and 27 years old, respectively, received MFA degrees from the University of Montana in the spring of 2002. After moving out of studio space provided by the University, they consider their gallery’s location to be an artistic statement in itself.
“There are real things going on here,” explains Bloch, his overalls and hands smeared with paint, looking out Goatsilk’s door toward the clanging and banging of workaday Missoula. “Fine art used to associated with realism, craft and labor. We want to bring that back, in a sense. What we envision is a place for formal presentation amidst the practical, grease-on-your-hands world.”
After finishing graduate school, Bloch and Peters kicked around a series of ideas that all seemed to involve moving to distant cities and spending exorbitant amounts of cash on limited studio space without reliable jobs. Bloch, disillusioned by the prospect of returning to his native home in the Bay Area, suggested joining the art scene in Chicago, Peters’ hometown. Both artists had shown works in a number of Missoula galleries, and after considering the options limited by meager financial situations, they decided to stay in town and accept adjunct positions in the UM art department.
The pair pooled their teaching wages and incomes from part-time work in order to rent the Goatsilk’s commercial stall. After building a loft and moving in supplies, they had plenty of space left to construct a “stray” gallery where they could exhibit works by other artists without the financial constraints of attempting to run a profitable art dealership.
The notion of a “stray” gallery certainly isn’t new, and Peters admits that her inspiration was informed by the proliferation of similar makeshift art spaces around industrial areas near the Loop in Chicago. “The point was to create a place where art can exist in its most magnificent space,” Bloch explains, “Not to see how much saleable stuff can be crammed in.”
“We wanted to design the gallery so that it became a part of the experience,” adds Peters.
The couple keeps the gallery’s doors open to the public Wednesday through Saturday evenings while they work in back. The gallery’s name comes from a little-known engineering process of injecting a goat’s embryo with genes for making spider silk.
Inside the gallery, with the door closed behind you, Goatsilk’s space becomes as elemental to the displayed art as the glass walls of an aquarium are to a fish. No receptionist sits at a nearby desk, pretending not to listen to everything you and your companions say.
There are no signs or price tags or ringing phones. The walls are high and white and empty save for the featured piece. The floors are bare concrete. The sensation of experiencing art outside of the usual social atmosphere is at first unsettling; it’s like someone’s holding the back of your head and forcing you to watch. But such comfort is at once rewarding: you are literally within the art. There is no need to say “Just looking,” because no one has asked.
Goatsilk Gallery’s first show (which is on display until Friday, Oct. 11), is an installation titled “Super Real Brown Bags,” by Oakland, Calif. artist Eli Robb. The piece, which covers portions of two gallery walls, is mixed media: generic brown grocery sacks and an array of spray paints. A peculiar use for the annoying grocery sacks that amass around everyone’s kitchen, I thought, but after a few moments of looking, the installation came alive like some hybrid of a flowering vine and an infectious disease.
Next in line at Goatsilk is a show titled “Offhand Paintings by Barbarians,” which will open with a formal reception Saturday, Oct. 12. “Barbarians” will feature three anonymous found-art pieces and also some paintings and works of mixed media by Chicago artist Andrew Mackow that were recently featured in the Midwest publication New American Paintings. And after that?
“We don’t know what we’ll be doing here in a long-term sense,” says Bloch.
“In fact,” laughs Peters, “we don’t know what we’ll be doing next month. We’re just going to try to keep things exciting.”
Goatsilk Gallery, located at 1909 Wyoming #5, is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 2 to 6 PM. Saturday’s reception for “Offhand Paintings by Barbarians” runs from 6 to 9. Call during gallery hours for more information: 728-9251.