Like many of us, Steve Glueckert has long held a rather pedestrian point of view when it comes to cast iron.
"I've always thought of it as something extremely utilitarian - making manhole covers or industrial gears or machinery that'll last forever," said Glueckert, the curator at the Missoula Art Museum. "So people who learn to cast iron, it has this association of creating something for the oil rigs or a car body or something that's functional."
But in recent months, Glueckert has experienced an immersion in one of the newest mediums in sculptural art: cast iron. These days, around America, a small but dedicated community of
artists has solidified around one of our culture's most significant metals, a now-common material that was first put to use in India more than 2,800 years ago.
Despite that long history, iron has long been seen as something of an ugly stepchild of bronze and aluminum in the art world, noted Glueckert.
"Bronze shines up and you can do lots of creative things with the surfaces," explained Glueckert, who is himself a well-respected sculptural artist. "Because of the nature of how it's worked, it tends to be very grainy and coarse-looking. But as I've gotten to know this work, one of the things that came out is that folks today are really pushing the limits of the surfaces of this material."
That fact is suddenly evident around Missoula this weekend, where cast iron works are on view at the Missoula Art Museum, the University of Montana, and two local galleries, the Tsunami Gallery and Gallery 615.
It's all happening in conjunction with the second biennial conference of the Western Cast Iron Art Alliance, a gathering devoted to the advancement and promotion of iron as an important modern art medium.
Brandon Reintjes, curator at UM's Montana Museum of Art and Culture, said the exhibits highlight not only the technical abilities of today's iron artists, but the diversity of their creative approaches.
"You have this idea of iron as slaggy and a rough process, but I was very stunned to see what sensitive and refined castings these artists were able to produce," said Reintjes.
The MMAC is featuring the work of two of today's most important cast iron artists, Elizabeth Kronfield and Matthew Wicker, at the Paxson and Meloy galleries as part of the conference, which was brought to Missoula by UM art professor Brad Allen. Reintjes said the husband-and-wife duo exhibit some of the most bleeding-edge ideas in the world of sculptural art in their work.
"Elizabeth (Kronfield), she's using iron as a medium to make total installations where you have to physically react to the work in a spatial environment," said Reintjes. "They're both really taking preconceptions and subverting them a bit in their work."
In fact, Reintjes noted, focusing on the medium might even distract from the message of this work.
"They're pushing it past the media; they're incorporating iron as a part of their whole arsenal of artmaking," he said. "So they're defined as being iron artists, but when you see the work it's first and foremost really great, sensitive sculpture."
That sentiment was echoed by Glueckert, who served as co-adjudicator (along with David Lobdell, a professor of art at New Mexico Highlands University) of a juried group showing of iron work at the Missoula Art Museum.
"I found that people were pushing limits more than I ever imagined might be possible," said Glueckert, noting that some of the works in the show incorporate other elements, from cloth to video. "I must have anticipated a bunch of iron elk or something. But none of that was there; it was pretty expressive work as a whole. I think that's what I'm most excited about. I feel a little like, as an outsider to the medium, I was impressed with what people were able to do with it."
During this weekend's conference, several public events will take place for people interested in learning more about the creative and technical processes involved in utilizing cast iron in artwork.
On Friday evening, the Missoula Art Museum will host an opening and artists' reception, with a beer garden and music by Joan Zen, starting at 5 p.m. At 7 p.m., David Lodbell and Steve Glueckert will present a jurors' gallery talk at the MAM.
Also on Friday evening, an opening of a showing of cast iron artwork will take place from 6-10 p.m. at Gallery 615, located at 615 Oak St. Another opening featuring student artwork will take place from 7-9 p.m. at Tsunami Gallery, located at 101 S. Higgins Ave.
Then, on Saturday evening, a "performance pour" of cast iron artworks will take place at the Rock Creek Lodge east of Missoula. That event is $10, and begins at sundown. Overnight camping is available for registered conference attendees only.
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358 or email@example.com.