It’s always arresting—sometimes shocking—to see money used for something other than its intended purpose. Some years ago, an advertisement appeared in several skateboard magazines featuring a skate pro dressed in a three-piece suit entirely covered with glued-on pennies. Not a large dollar amount—probably less than $20 if you steamed them all off—but arresting nonetheless because alternative uses for currency, whether functional or decorative, almost always run counter to the generally agreed-upon purpose of money, which at the end of the day is essentially spending. Or saving, which amounts to security through postponed spending.
Dollar bills figure significantly in the work of Texas artist Ken Little, whose retrospective exhibit Little Changes is currently on display at the Art Museum of Missoula. It’s an eclectic mixed-media show, featuring bronzes, neon signage and works in paper and steel mesh, among other media. But the pieces that zap you from across the room as soon as you walk in the door are the ones sheathed in the dull gray-green of the American greenback. And rightly so—the dollar bill is the most widely reproduced copyrighted item in the world, says the artist, with nearly seven trillion in circulation around the globe. And it gives you a lot to think about while you’re trying to rough out exactly how many of them are affixed to “Father,” an enormous lolling head, or either of two hollow, headless life-sized human figures in three-piece suits: “Past” and “Pledge,” one supine on the museum floor and the other standing with its handless right arm raised as though to swear an oath. You wonder if a restaurant would accept “Father” or “Past” as payment (it would probably cover dinner for four at a very classy place).
The frogskinned figures radiate ambiguity, suggesting among other things an external display not of intrinsic artistic value, but of the value of materials bound up in the piece. It calls to mind Ghanaian kings who wore their wealth and status in gold, or marriageable women in sub-Saharan tribes who still wear their dowries as jewelry. It’s a very old tradition, Little confirms—wearing one’s wealth. On the other hand, a skeptic might observe that Little’s own art is tellingly American—only a society as prodigal as the United States could support this extravagance of using money in artwork as well as artwork on money
And however you look at it, each roughly two-and-a-half-by-six inch rectangle of silk paper—packed with Masonic symbols and backed by less than three cents of gold in the U.S. Reserve—still cost Little, well, a dollar to put there.
“Formally, it’s a pattern that moves over the pieces in different ways,” Little explains, “but symbolically—yeah, it’s definitely symbolic. The dollar bill is really the building block of American capitalism. But it’s also a piece of paper with a picture on it. It’s an abstract thing—like an artwork. It only functions because people have faith in it.”
Which, again, is precisely why it’s jarring to see paper money so drastically repurposed—albeit still held in a kind of trust that could presumably be liquidated with a steam iron in the event of an emergency. Little readily confesses a healthy appreciation—tempered with a deep skepticism—of American capitalism.
“I have a deep respect for capitalism,” he admits. “Capitalism has created some wonderful things in the United States. It’s also created some monsters. It depends on which way you want to take it.”
Little, who visited Missoula last week long enough to participate in a number of gallery and children’s activities and even sit in on guitar with old Missoula friends David Horgan and Beth Lo, grew up in Texas and studied art in Salt Lake City. He taught at a Florida college for two years before relocating to Missoula to teach art at the University of Montana in 1974. He stayed until 1979, eventually chairing the school’s art department. Several works by Little are now part of UM’s permanent collection.
“Ken put quite a few years into this community,” says Art Museum of Missoula director Steve Glueckert, who met Little for the first time on his most recent visit, “so this was kind of a welcome home for him.”
Little Changes, Glueckert explains, is a “honed-down” version of a more extensive Little retrospective that was first exhibited in Salt Lake City. When the show comes down on March 17, it will move on to Casper, Wyoming.
“There’s this great relationship in his work,” says Glueckert, “between art and craft, pop culture and high culture. All kinds of things bouncing off each other.”
Little currently teaches sculpture at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and also acts as the school’s advisor of record for the MFA program in visual arts. He says he loves teaching—that it’s a great way to support himself while staying open to cross-pollination by other working artists.
“Teaching allows me an income to support the work I want to do without having to worry too much about it,” he says, “and it also puts me in contact with other people all the time who are working on their own things. It also occasionally gives me the resources to work outside the teaching realm, on sabbaticals and grants and things like that.”
As Glueckert points out—though he adds that it was actually brought to his attention by a group of high school students visiting the museum—most of the pieces in Little Changes are hollow: the decapitated “Father,” the suits of “Past” and “Pledge,” the smaller bronzes, the steel mesh-and-paper houses in the museum’s first-floor side gallery. According to Little, it’s part upbringing and part training.
“I grew up in west Texas,” he explains. “Amarillo, the high plains—where your sense of space is basically defined by holes. There aren’t mountains like there are in Missoula. There are holes, like canyons, so I think my idea of forms was partially generated by that and then reinforced by being a ceramicist for a long time, because everything you make in ceramics has to be hollow.”
And speaking of formative influences: One of the more disarming pieces in Little Changes dates from 1953, roughly 30 years before the earliest work in the rest of the exhibit. It’s a child’s painting of a snowman, and Glueckert says it was saved for posterity by Little’s mother. For such an early effort, it bears many of the same features that would later surface in the adult Little’s work, particularly the simple “Mr. Bill”-style mouth and eyes that characterize many of the artist’s smaller bronze pieces.
“That’s the reason I put it in there,” Little chuckles. “You feel like you’ve gone so far, and then you turn around and find out you’re right where you were. Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of smiley faces in there.”
In fact, most of Little Changes can be characterized by the repetition of certain forms, chiefly houses, headless figures in suits, and cars. Glueckert is practically beside himself when he discusses “Punt,” a car-shaped piece with unmistakable lines like a ’57 Chevy, matted with mostly sports-related clippings from an old yearbook.
“Look at this!” he crows. “Who’s who, here? Who’s going to succeed? It’s about reminiscence, but it’s also about the future. Just look at it—every inch is covered. It’s totally…American!”
Just a few feet away is “Burn,” a bear-shaped mixed-media sculpture covered mostly in red leather heels and pumps, with one of Little’s paper houses (covered in Bible pages) perched on its left shoulder. For Little, “Burn” might be the piece that best exemplifies what he’s trying to do.
“I look for patterns and forms that are kinesthetic,” he says, “meaning that they jump from one sense to the other. They make a sound or tone in your head when you look at them, the same way that colors and patterns do in paintings sometimes. I think you can see it most in the red-shoe bear.”
Looking at the bear covered in women’s footwear, it’s apparent that some strange tuning fork is pinging in the artists’ head. But does he think most other people experience the same kinesthetic reactions?
“Well, I don’t know,” admits Little. “Some people do and some people don’t. I thought everybody did because I did, but then when I started talking to people about it they said, ‘Huh? I don’t see that.’”
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