Chris Bauder began working with latex paint when he was in graduate school. He found that he could solidify it a little and create something almost like a skin.

He could wrap custom ceramic objects in them, or objects that he found. Or he could fill them with other material. He likes the texture, and the way he can work with color and texture: shiny black, muted white, and muted beige. He uses other materials, but it remains the most predominant.

"I'm always going back to the latex: the manipulation of the form and the surface," he said.

The playful and tactile, erotic and disturbing sculptures he crafts from latex and other materials are on display for "Nuclear Saturday," his exhibition at the University of Montana's Gallery of Visual Arts. The pieces, which range from six years old to the present, fill both of the gallery spaces.

The Las Vegas artist knows his home city has influenced the appearance and concepts. "I don't reference the town a lot with what I talk about, but it's there," he said.

His environment of concrete, bright lights and consumerism and culture are there. So are other sources of his concepts: interactions with objects, the body-horror films of director David Cronenberg, the Catholicism of his childhood. He's filtered them through his artistic influences, such as the soft sculpture art of Claes Oldenburg, the satirical pieces of Tom Friedman, and the 1970s toys of Yayoi Kusama and the chance work of Lynda Benglis. He's hesitant to mention Jeff Koons, but admires his balloon animals and steel sculptures.

Bauder said many of his pieces can begin when he's working with materials considering "what if" questions.

"A Study of Navels" comprises a three-by-six grid of different latex belly buttons, in a reference to drawing studies of specific body parts that artists undertake. He'd heard that people are undergoing augmentation of navels, and imagined this as a sample board you'd see in a lab. In "Pink Balloon Box," he inflated balloons and dipped them into different shades of pink latex paint, which coats and preserves them.

Once complete, he arranged them in rows of three on white store shelves with lighting underneath, as though they were something you'd see in a shop, as comment/question on consumerism and the way taboos become widely accepted, particularly in the Las Vegas-Los Angeles area.

"Breast implants and augmentation of the body are really kind of the norm now. Tattoos were kind of forbidden for awhile, and then piercings became big and then body augmentation and now it's like 'Where do you go from here?' " he said.

Preserving is another theme is in work: dipping the objects into latex extends their lifespan. Many of the pieces in the smaller gallery relate to procedures. The large pink circular form of "Pocket" is interrupted by a black latex pocket with stitching, which he said the viewer could imagine is being removed. He was inspired by a form of cancer that runs in his family.


While he's in town, Bauder gave a gallery talk, spoke to classes and gave critiques to grad students. Drawing classes have come through to sketch his work. Gallery director Jack Metcalf said it's a good show for students, since the subject matter push boundaries. The use of materials is instructional as well: soft sculpture doesn't require welding or casting.

"I Need You" is Bauder's first use of neon. In a narrow glass display case, he arranged several shelves and a sign in bright red. He researched which colors are mostly likely to attract the eye. The answer, red, had a nice symmetry with the neon he sees all around him in Las Vegas, enticing people to buy something — hence the title. The shelves have various latex objects such as gloves and pills. He built the piece for a group exhibition of erotic art, in which the artists were given a store-front or multi-room space in an old strip mall. He placed "I Need You" at the front, and a shrine-like piece, "Sweet Jesus," at the back.

Crucifixes recur in his work, including a series of paper-towel prints. He wanted to use a throwaway material to create a large number of prints. It's simple enough: he presses layers of Bounty over an object. Once removed, it leaves a concave "print." They include smiley faces, guns, lips and a small crucifix. He wanted to explore the ideas of spirituality appearing in objects all around us.

One of the earliest is "The Glove Maker," from 2011, when he was thinking about relationships between synthetic and organic objects: machines that "might eventually run biotechnology" he said.

It appears to be a sentient machine making itself: rows of tiny hands producing gloves, in a stark pattern of red and white.

"It entices you to want to grab it and maybe interact with the balloons," he said. He's considering a show in the future where people can pick up and wear sets of latex gloves.

He's aware that people often touch the work even when they're not supposed to — "look don't touch" is another concept that has come up in his work.

Some pieces are arranged under Plexiglas. 

"The work is really tactile and visceral," he said.