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At Missoula printmaker's studio, the art is in the experience

On First Friday, the most unconventional scene in Missoula's busy arts community is not far from downtown, on a discreet dead-end block on Hawthorne Street on the Westside.

At Real Good art space, a carnival-like atmosphere with a conceptual bent, is likely taking place in printmaker Jack Metcalf's rental studio.

He's built an interactive shooting range, hosted absurdist bingo games, or a Dadaist version of Twister. There was no game mat, only cut-out circles that could be moved during the midst of the game, tying participants into yoga-like poses.

Twice now, he's invited MaryAnn Bonjorni, a University of Montana art professor, and her "Icon-o-Clash" artists to come and deface (or improve) thrift store paintings.

He hopes to "have the community open up to possibilities that art can be more than an object on the wall, a sculpture on a pedestal, or a performance you sit in a theater and watch," he wrote in an email. "Typically, I want to find new ways to shift from having passive spectators to active/willing participants, without seeming forced (though, self-admittedly not always successful)."

He wants to "creat(e) an environment that fosters innovation by blending creative disciplines/formats in new and exciting ways."

"All the Pretty Horses," a game that he's brought to Butte, was perhaps the most surreal. It involved a miniature horse-racing track, small enough for two pet rats to "race" at their own pace, live emceeing by a local actor pretending to be "Percival Limburger," a race-track announcer from Boca Raton, Florida, and betting from the audience.

All of these scenes were surrounded by and emblazoned with Metcalf's instantly recognizable print and design work, which use humor and sometimes caricature to get his point across.

"I always try to think of a way I can segue it into something unpredictable, whether it's a contestant on a game show, or horse racing," Metcalf said.

***

Metcalf likes to take a long view of his art form, looking back to its past and its contemporary siblings.

"I think of printmaking as a technology that really impacted our lives," he said. "The Gutenberg Press, for instance, making the Bible available for the masses."

"I think there's definitely a link between the printing press and the contemporary tweet or Instagram - using technology to spread a message to impact as many people as you can and make things readily available," he said.

One of his printmaking instructors at UM, Elizabeth Dove, said Metcalf taps into that history by taking advantage of printmaking's repetition, except he uses its ability to distribute art and not information, all the while raising questions about authenticity.

"What does it mean to be authentic and have multiples?" she gave as an example.

His influences are all over the map, including Guy DeBord and his book, "The Society of Spectacle," in which he encouraged the use of detournement – a situationist technique encouraging artists to hijack viewers' attention from the distractions of commercial society.

And there's less high-brow ones, like comedy team Tim and Eric and their absurdist television show, "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" and "Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule." Or even the early work of gross-out comedian Tom Green at his weirdest.

He likes to think of the Canadian oddball "as (a) contemporary pop culture situationist, but especially interesting when compared to the more historical/scholarly writings of Guy Debord, or Walter Benjamin, or even John Berger."

He doesn't want the humor, though, to overwhelm his other interests.

"While I do not want Real Good to be viewed as a purely entertainment venue, but as a creative/unpredictable space, that questions and explores artistic possibilities," he said.

But entertainment frequently plays a role.

For instance, the announcer at "All the Pretty Horses" wasn't really an announcer. It was Jeff Medley, a frequent winner of reader polls for "best actor" in the city.

Medley said some of his "favorite characters and experiences have come out of it. Percival Limburger was born here," he said, referring to his recurring announcer character.

While acting typically puts him on stages removed from the audience, the ground-level interactions at Real Good have their own charms to Medley.

"There's not a lot of rehearsal time, so you just have to commit to being this person and see what happens and adjust as needed. Or dive in a little further if it starts to get strange."

***

Metcalf grew up mostly in Hollywood, North Carolina, and "came of age" in Savannah, Georgia. His father, Michael Metcalf, is an engineer who worked in product design for companies like Chrysler, where he helped build handicapped-accessible vehicles, and Proctor and Gamble, where among other things he designed adult diapers.

"He's very meticulous," Jack Metcalf said. "He redid the siding on our house when I was growing up. He had this elaborate pulley system so he could do it all by himself."

"I feel like he was very creative in his problem-solving," he said. "He was definitely more practical than I am, and still is."

His mother, Deborah Metcalf, is a special education teacher who also brought a creative bent to her work.

When he was a kid, he helped her build a set for a lesson plan on the anatomy of the human head.

"She made the outside of her door look like a giant ear and people had to crawl through the ear canal to enter the classroom, and then there were all the parts of the inside of your head," he said.

Metcalf earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from East Carolina University, and then went back to school to study architecture at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He grew disinterested in the subject, though, and dropped out after two years. After a few years off, he moved to Missoula to get his master's in fine art at UM.

Even in his student years, he tried to bring multi-disciplinary elements to his work: whether dancers or musicians or actors.

He appreciates other art forms, but isn't interested in attempting them himself in an amateurish way.

"If I need dancers, I'm not going to dance, I'm going to go get the best dancers. Or if I need an outfit made, I'll find the best seamstress I can find and collaborate with her on what I want," he said.

He collaborates with them on concepts, and creates the visual aspects of the exhibitions, whether making large prints or building sets, like that miniature horse-racing track, which came complete with grandstands.

"I have a large skill set with printmaking and woodworking and drawing and graphic design. I always have something. I haven't abandoned creating or something like that," he said.

In retrospect, the signs of things to come at Real Good were seen in "Synthetic Spring," his 2013 thesis project.

It involved a Kickstarter for $2,500 and the rental of the Crystal Theatre. He built an elaborate stage based on his printmaking style, upon which dancers from a local troupe performed. He hired a seamstress to make costumes that also reflected the hard-edged, black-and-white visual theme he'd generated. There was a DJ. He hired Medley to play "Jack Metcalf" on opening night, and gave him a set of parodic artist's statement gibberish to tell visitors in lieu of any straight answers.

He even made stamps and water bottles with the "Synthetic Spring" logo.

After moving through the performance area, viewers reached the "inner sanctum."

There was something even more absurd: a homemade machine designed to turn 30-foot drawings into confetti. It's built with rotisserie motors, a garage door opener, a windshield wiper motor and a row of scissors rigged up to the machines.

And so viewers saw "a highly detailed, never-documented drawing that was slowly being destroyed," he said.

Dove said the whole project raised questions about repeated experience, from the dancers to the music to dialogue. "He's drawing attention to the notion of what's authentic," she said, or what genuinely constitutes a unique experience."

***

Metcalf still has that machine over at Real Good, which he opened in September 2014 to serve as a workspace and a staging ground for his First Friday openings.

One thing it is not is a proper commercial gallery. He typically doesn't have anything for sale, and often has small prints that he gives away.

"What he's doing in terms of opening up the space for all these different kinds of approaches and activities, that sort of generosity in a noncommercial way is very unusual," Dove said.

To keep it sustainable and heading in a direction he prefers, he works other jobs.

He teaches 100- and 200-level art classes as an adjunct at UM, and also tends bar at Al's and Vic's a few nights a week.

"It definitely supplements my income and I'm not too worried about making a killing here," he said.

At the Real Good openings, he does live T-shirt printing, where viewers can bring a shirt or buy one, and select on his designs or one by fellow printmaker David Miles Lusk.

He does commissioned work, like a shirt for KBGA and he sells greeting cards and does odd carpentry jobs.

"I made a lady a yard-sale poster the other day," he said. "I'm not above anything."

Dove said his work ethic is staunch, and he holds an almost romantic notion of the artist as a transformative figure, in his case dedicating himself to creating a community space.

Metcalf does have works planned that will filter out into the gallery world, such as a joint exhibition with fellow UM adjunct Steve Krutek at the Brink in January. He's shown there before, and also had works included in the Missoula Art Museum's annual Benefit Art Auction.

***

He doesn't worry too much about whether the events will seem confusing.

"I don't think what I'm doing is offensive. I don't think what I'm doing is cruel or mean to anybody," he said.

He acknowledges that there are always a few people who seem weirded out or reluctant to take part.

"They want to be a spectator and not a participant. But the people who come here regularly develop an idea of what goes on here, so I think they're slightly prepared for what goes on here," he said.

His work has a puckish sense of humor that can sometimes be ambiguous in its targets.

In November, Real Good is hosting an exhibition called "E-I-E-I-O," which is a collaboration with his 2-year-old son Dash. It consists of large-scale white and red crayon drawings on black paper. And his son, apparently, is an abstract expressionist. While initially seeming to be a joke about the easiness of abstract expressionism, it's really a comment on the "anyone could do that" attitude that sometimes greets the form.

In December, he and studio assistant Halisia Hubbard are building a fake arcade with fake old-school games.

"They're going to have people inside them. So there's going to be the claw game, where it's actually somebody's hand coming up. There's the joystick, but the joystick is kind of arbitrary to where the hand goes. And then we're going to have a fortune teller, kind of like in that movie, 'Big,' where Tom Hanks gets a wish, but instead there's going to be Jeff Medley standing there reading people their fortune," he said.

There will be Tetris, too, he explained while laughing, but without computer graphics of blocks plummeting down a screen.

"There's going to be a hand dropping random cubes," he said.

Real Good is located on the Westside at 1205 Defoe St. No. 1. It’s only open on First Fridays. For more information, go to realgoodartspace.com.

On Nov. 6, there will be a reception for “E-I-E-I-O,” a series of large-scale abstract expressionist drawings on Metcalf’s 2-year-old son, Dash.

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