The Missoula Art Museum’s current exhibit, Kindred Spirits: Tracing Connections, almost turned its space into an impenetrable matrix of colored tape and printed definitions and lines linking and re-linking the historical, cultural and political connections of more than 30 objects of art. The Temporary Contemporary gallery was almost transformed into a rainbow-colored spider web of art history.
“That’s exactly how I pictured it 10 months ago when we started thinking about the idea of Tracing Connections,” says Kathleen Kurz, the guest curator and former MAM intern who turned her UM Master’s thesis into the museum’s current exhibit. “Originally, I was so overwhelmed by how many connections we could make that I saw it as that, a spider web. Almost everybody in the exhibit, in some way, could have been connected to Pablo Picasso [for instance]. I thought we were going to put tape on the floor, all over the walls, just all over the place, but I think this ended up turning out a little bit better.”
With the guidance of MAM staff, Kurz ended up developing a more structured, compartmentalized version of the web. In one section, a ceramic plate by Frances Senska, considered “the mother of Montana ceramics” and a teacher at Montana State University for almost 30 years, is linked by yellow tape to the work of two of her most famous students, Rudy Autio and Pete Voulkos, who, with brickmaker Archie Bray, helped found the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. That work is then linked to work from Peter and Henry Meloy, who also helped establish the Bray Foundation. On the same wall, but using a different color tape, Henry Meloy’s painting is connected to Jim Todd’s “Portraits of Printmakers Series,” which includes images of cubist Picasso, French painter and satirist Honoré Daumier and German painter and sculptor Kathe Kollwitz. Under each of Todd’s portraits, a strip of colored tape links to an actual work by each of the artists.
“How many connections are we going to make? That’s something we debated for awhile,” says Kurz. “The connections that are there are minimal. There are a lot more I think we could have made, but to simplify things we left it as it is.”
The Kindred Spirits exhibit began with MAM staff proposing that Kurz explore the idea of authorship within art and the provenance of objects—basically, what influenced the creation of particular pieces of art and, eventually, their worthiness for inclusion in museum collections. As Kurz delved deeper into her research—beginning with a series of Miriam Schapiro lithographs from MAM’s permanent collection titled “Anonymous was a Woman”—she started to expand the scope of the project, eventually gathering objects from three other local museums as well as from private collections. Kurz found connection after connection, and the challenge became how to simplify what she found for presentation.
The first step was to establish the groupings—in addition to the linkages from Senska and Todd, there’s a wall dedicated to art that incorporates letters and words; a section of American Indian art, both traditional and contemporary; and Schapiro’s piece about the lack of recognition for early domestic crafts, such as quilting, is hung next to knitted work on loan from the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and a contemporary fabric piece from local artist Nancy Erickson.
In addition to the colored tape connecting objects within each grouping, the exhibit is also adorned with definitions of pertinent words placedhigh on the walls. “Influence” hangs above the Senska section, “Homage” above Todd, and then others—“Contemporary,” “Informed,” “Provenance,” “Borrow” and so on—are scattered throughout. Kurz says the definitions were not placed intentionally above certain groupings, but to trigger thought about the exhibit as a whole.
“What we’re looking at is what sort of influences have informed the art we’re looking at,” says Kurz, who has a background in both art history and anthropology. “Why is it important to understand those influences? Does it create a better exhibit, or would it be better to not clutter the art with that sort of information available?”
MAM is putting the exhibit to work as part of its annual fifth-grade art experience, touring classes through the space and discussing art within the cultural, political and historical contexts Kurz presents. The advantage is that students can see, in one show, examples from different eras, artists and mediums, and trace at least a portion of the evolution of each. Considering the younger audience, perhaps the spider web concept wouldn’t have worked so well. But Kurz still thinks the opportunity is there for more mature, imaginative viewers to see the full matrix.
“What we did was just get the ball rolling, but not necessarily spell everything out,” she says. “The way we ended up setting it up, the exhibit is full of suggestions.”
Kindred Spirits: Tracing Connections is on display at the Missoula Art Museum’s Temporary Contemporary gallery through Tuesday, May 30. A Member Night reception will be held Thursday, March 2, from 5 to 8 PM with guest curator Kathleen Kurz. A First Friday reception will be held Friday, March 3, from 5 to 8 PM.