When confronting an exhibit in which everything is painstakingly fashioned out of metal, you ask: How does it occur to a person to do this? Drawing, yes. Painting, sure. Ceramics, maybe. But taking hundred of nails and somehow making them appear to be in motion, a clump of grass swirled by water to and fro, how do you do that?
If you ask the question out loud you may get a technical explanation involving tongs, temperatures, tensile strength, power hammers, the lore of the blacksmith. But what you really mean is: How do you commit yourself to creation that looks rigorous, dangerous, sweaty, complicated, and possibly expensive, yet results in the same useless beauty (okay, “inutile” beauty) as any other artwork—as Anne Appleby’s simple rectangles of pulsing color, or Wes Mill’s tremulous pencil scratches, or John Hooton’s nothing-fancy photos of eyes?
We, the viewers, can hardly get over the technical aspect of the Noellyn Pepos metal sculpture exhibit currently at the Art Museum of Missoula. Questions asked by adults at the artist’s lecture, and also by fifth grade students during a visit from Lone Rock School, were invariably about the “how-to’s” of the exhibit , i.e., How do you get it to look like that?
“I threw clusters of nails on the ground, then I welded them together just as they lay, then I got my big, hydraulic press...” Pepos seems to enjoy providing the technical answers.
Rust is the old skin of steel,
It doesn’t glimmer or shine,
It’s just rust.
A Lone Rock student named Matt writes these words during a poetry session directed by Marnie Prange of the Missoula Writing Collaborative, part of the school visit. Matt’s poem seems interested in the “thingness” of an artwork, an idea Martin Heidegger also chews on in his philosophical essays. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger goes further, addressing the thing-making aspect of being an artist:
“Great artists prize craftsmanship most highly... It has often been pointed out that the Greeks, who knew quite a bit about works of art, use the same word ‘techne’ for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites.”
Technites. Surely there are art clubs, artist coalitions, and punk rock bands bearing this name. It has a nice, hard-consonant, anti-emo sound to it. Roll up your sleeves. We’re doing art.
A woman at Pepos’ artist lecture shares the fact that she was a welder by trade. (Would anyone at a lecture given by a watercolorist be inspired to volunteer the information that he or she paints houses?) A discussion about the practical aspects of blacksmithing ensues and metal-working terminology are clarified. But then Pepos points out to the non-initiates that blacksmithing isn’t, in fact, “this harsh, beat-the-world-into-submission kind of thing.” She says that heated iron can be manipulated like clay and coaxed into shapes. Nails, for example, might be “combed” into a flowing pattern. A metal sculptor doesn’t whack things into works of art.
So maybe metal sculpture isn’t hugely different from painting or ceramics. Still, most of us feel in awe of it. Most of us have never made a metal sculpture, while, from our earliest days, we’ve experimented with those other forms. (Pepos, on the other hand, played with her dad’s acetylene torch when she was a kid, a lucky thing for her. She applied the torch to discarded musical instrument parts that her dad brought home from his job as a music teacher and band instrument repairman. That’s one story of how a metal sculptor is made.)
The fact that artists do not force material into art matters to Pepos. Some of the pieces here are environmental statements. For example, a flat grid of crisscrossed nails and flattened leaves is painted over with two lines of highway paint. Living down the Bitterroot, Pepos is worried about what’s happening with the natural world. As a thesis, that’s not so fresh. And as art, that could be uninspired and uninspiring. But it is the tension of contrasts that seems to fascinate Pepos most in her work, the “texture of the happening,” as Jolene Suckow put it, the assistant who wrote the exhibition notes.
Pepos explains her process this way: “You look and gather and make. Then you see where the correlations are.” She has found that the correlations can be both beautiful and grotesque. Pepos experienced a stint at an artist’s colony that was located in a rural, marshy area. This place, as it happened, was toxic with pollutants. Everything around her was lovely and poisonous. But out of the bog, art and artists were emerging. That’s how Pepos sees it.
All of the pieces in this exhibit—with the possible exception of the stark “Inside Passage,” a series of rough, unfinished circles of scary-looking iron, accompanied by charred sticks of iron crisscrossed on the ground—might be called beautiful. But they carry surprises. “Beyond the Easy” is a long, delicate branch that rocks gently at the mere brush of a finger. (Don’t do it! “Touch with your eyes.” ) “Stole on Serving Table” looks immobile, a bristling clump of nails fashioned into button-like, mushroomy forms that are displayed on a handsome iron and slate sideboard. But “Stole” really means “stole”—this is a metal shawl. You could hoist it up (if the museum let you) and wear it.
A focal point of the traffic paint and nails piece is the grid work of shadows it casts; the nails become a thicket. Education Curator Renee Taafee points out to the school kids that shadows—things with no tangible substance whatsoever—are an important part of these metal sculptures. Taken with the idea, a fifth grader named Clay writes:
A shadow is the best friend of a sculpture.
A shadow is the amazing Siamese twin.
The material mastery exhibited in these metal sculptures is impressive. But their shadows give them the life-with-a-soul that is art.