The assemblage art of Michael deMeng seems to occupy a strange space between fragmented dreams and myths.
That made deMeng a perfect invite for "Mind Fields," a group exhibition meant to draw viewers into the artists' psychic spaces, said Radius Gallery co-owner Lisa Simon.
The former Missoula resident is well-known around the Pacific Northwest and farther afield for his assemblage art — sculptures meticulously crafted from found objects and treated surfaces.
DeMeng's interest in myths, whether ancient or even the modern pop-culture equivalent, are visible: the Tin Man and the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz." Pluto and Persephone, the Greek gods of the underworld. Kali, the Hindu goddess related to life and death. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the infamous symbol of duality dreamed up by the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
DeMeng's vivid creations are plastered with details, almost too many to take in during a single viewing. Take "The Tin Man," who stands at attention — a repurposed nutcracker from a discount retailer. The label on the base identifies him as "Nick Chopper." Attached to a chain around his hand is a little heart — the classic Valentine's symbol, not the organ. His armor is constructed from zippers glued together like plates of a steampunk tortoise shell. Instead of a spike atop his helmet, he bears an oil can spout. A TeleType logo adorns his chest piece.
When DeMeng moved to Missoula from California in the mid-1980s, he was studying painting and intended to stay for perhaps six months. It's a "magical place" to be a starving, emerging artist, he said in a phone interview.
During the almost three decades he lived here, he transitioned from painting into assemblage. While he had no previous desire to sculpt, a trip to Mexico spurred his interest in repurposing objects.
"Nothing goes to waste in Mexico. It's true artistically, but it's day-to-day as well," he said. He saw works in galleries with found objects, and had an epiphany about the shrine-like paintings he was creating.
DeMeng, who didn't have a religious upbringing, said he developed a passionate interest in deities, mythologies, legends, symbologies and the way they evolve over time and across cultures. He's interested in both the cosmologies and the visual motifs. Now based in Vancouver, Canada, he does a significant amount of travel for workshops. He still travels to Mexico every year for the Day of the Dead.
Missoula, like any college town, wasn't the easiest place to find second-hand materials. Like good vintage shoppers, he'd take road trips to outlying towns, too. Ideas for pieces are often spurred by the objects themselves. When he came across a cache of those zipper-pulls, he knew he could make them into armor for "The Tin Man."
He said there are roughly two extremes in the assemblage art world. At the one hand are purists, who don't modify the colors or forms of their found items. At the other end are artists like himself, "a bit of a cheater," he said.
He freely mixes old and new items. Some pieces might have dozens of individual items that he's modified and painted so they have the aged surfaces he prefers. He likes the vagueness it creates, the way it spurs viewers into a game trying to determine where one piece stops and another begins.
Take his "Persephone" and "Pluto" pieces. The wall pieces began with torsos from mannequins. He began adding objects for shape and texture. Once he's happy with the base, he begins painting.
"For me, the painting is the part that matters," he said. He doesn't typically work with a set goal in mind, instead stopping himself when it reaches a moment that surprises him.
"I strive for that weird moment where it exceeds my anticipation," he said.
The Radius exhibition is deMeng's first since he moved to Canada, his wife's home country, in 2012. Still, he said Missoula played a key role in his development as an artist. He said it's a small town with an outsize, nurturing passion for the arts.
Many of the other artists are active in the Missoula and Montana art scenes. Susan R. Carlson's assemblage boxes, in the general mode of Joseph Cornell; abstract encaustics by Pamela Caughey; pop-surrealist paintings by Philip Slagter; finely illustrated ceramics by Lauren Gallaspy, a former Archie Bray resident.
There also are mind-warping wood-cut illustrations by Theo Ellsworth. As an unrelated aside, earlier this year, the author Jeff Vandermeer had a cross-over critical and commercial hit with "Borne," a post-apocalyptic tale that involves a gigantic flying bear. Before he set out for readings across the country, he commissioned Ellsworth to create a large woodcut illustration of the bear that he brought with him to arrange on stage during his talks.
One artist who's lived in Missoula for decades but hasn't really shown at local galleries is Joe Boddy, who recently transitioned into sculpture. For "Tall Trees," he arranged a bisection of log in the teeth of an old saw, with three rectangular visual accents joining the two. Another smaller work functions like a memorial to shared mental space now gone forever. The little wooden frame holds a brick from the Missoula Mercantile.