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Populist Appeal

Scott Fife's Steunenberg Trial exhibit


In the winter of 1905, then ex-Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg was killed at his garden gate in Caldwell by an assassin's bomb. The killer was quickly apprehended and became a witness for the prosecution in the ensuing murder trial, in which an influential union leader was charged with orchestrating the fatal plot. The trial took place in the Ada County Courthouse and became a national sensation.

History, however, has a way of moving on. Events of significance lose the settings in which they were significant and stand before us like statues in a park. But the story of Frank Steunenberg's murder has fared better than that. It is at the center of an enthralling and panoramic investigation into turn-of-the-century American society and politics by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas in his 1997 book, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. In it, Lukas explores a time in our national history when class struggle seemed on the verge of boiling over into all-out war.

Seattle-based visual artist Scott Fife was inspired by the book, and shortly after its publication, started work on a collection of fabulously inventive sculptures that embody the book's cast of major characters in their haunted present. Currently on display at the Boise Art Museum, they make up the better half of two impressive collections of Fife's work being shown there.

Featured in the cast are such luminaries as Chicago defense attorney Clarence Darrow, Idaho's own Republican Sen. William Borah, renowned Pinkerton detective James MacParland, President Theodore Roosevelt and actress Ethel Barrymore. At the center of it all, we see some less widely recognized figures such as the defendant, "Big Bill" Haywood, and the assassin turned star prosecution witness, Harry Orchard.

In Fife's embodiments, which are formally based on the classical busts of the Roman Republic, we are presented with the most haunted surface on the planet: the human face. This, more than anything, is what makes his work so compelling.

Unlike the busts of Rome, which captured their subjects in a state of utter composure and stoicism so suited to polished stone, Fife renders his portraits in the more pliable and ephemeral archival cardboard. We get a compelling human presence. The cardboard, in its raw state, is the color of concrete and one is tempted, on first glance, to see the larger-than-life busts as the heads of crumbled statuary. But as one gets closer, they feel lighter, more fragile. The paper breathes. It's several steps closer to flesh than stone or bronze. As objects, they have great immediacy and interest. Fife's process is all his own. Every detail right down to the hair is constructed from cardboard. The drywall screws he uses to hold things together are visibly part of the finished pieces. Wood glue runs in thin tendrils from the hair like sweat, and the seams, abrasions and red pencil he uses to mark cuts are left behind like blemishes on the skin. The results are arresting because out of all that object-quality seeps the animation, the liveliness and the palpable presence of haunted human faces. Fife refers to the work as a public sculpture and says, "It is made to engage the viewer and inspire inquiry and knowledge about a significant aspect of Western history ... the sculpture speaks of class struggle, political intrigue and the country's economic and social landscape of capitalism and populism." Fife's decision to reference Lukas' book so directly brings up another aspect of his work: It's populist appeal. Bring the whole family and the neighbors because this is for everyone. It's refreshing to see an artist make such explicit reference to a popular book. He runs the risk of being called an uncommissioned illustrator, which is a step down from just a regular illustrator, which is a step down, in a lot of people's opinions, from an artist. Artists are supposed to be more mysterious, more challenging and less approachable.

A few years back, writer Jonathon Franzen contributed a piece to the New Yorker about avant-garde novelist William Gaddis. In it, he made a distinction between what he referred to as novelists who worked on the "contract" model and those who worked on the "status" model. Contract writers felt they were entering into a contract with their readers, in which the reader had a claim. The writer got to be a writer and make art, and the reader got to read books that were enjoyable to read. Status writers felt they were obligated to nothing and no one apart from themselves and the purity and authority of art. Contract writers are populist. They write books that anyone might enjoy and they can be quite good. I would trade the entire masterfully cranky and pathologically experimental oeuvre of Gaddis for any of Graham Greene's quintessentially contract-style works.

Of course, there are exceptions and degrees down the line, but I think the distinction is a valuable one, and one that undoubtedly carries over into the visual arts. In fact, the status model has become downright endemic in the visual arts. The art getting most of the attention, the "important art," has the strong scent of elitism, of coming from a "privileged" class­--mainly, the people who "get it." It's important that regular folks don't get it. It's important that regular folks be confused, subverted and flummoxed. It's important to manufacture mysteries and keep them closely guarded. If it made sense to regular people it wouldn't be special. It would just be part of the giant lie that is the regular people. If the regular people like it, it probably isn't "important."

But I think all kinds of people will enjoy Fife's work, and I still think it's important. I think making the things he does using materials available in anyone's garage is important. You could call it a populist aesthetic.

In the fine catalog essay, which accompanies the show, Fife says, "I like the physical nature of building the sculpture ... the idea of the material itself--it's friendly, flexible, there's a glow from in it. I'm the full-service artist--doing it all at the moment. I like the aspect of the low-tech tools that I need to make something like this ... the directness of it, that I could begin to shape this ... there is the sense of one person building this." I would add, there is the sense that one person is building this for other people to enjoy.

In addition to, "Big Trouble: The Idaho Project," the show includes a large selection of works from his "Shapers of the 20th Century" series including portraits in sculpture and large-scale ink wash drawings of cultural and historical icons from the last century. Though it doesn't have the powerful backdrop of Lukas' book, and can seem to rely on the mystique of celebrity somewhat, it is nonetheless, a stunning collection of works and one that should not be missed.

Fife's exhibit runs through April 15. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330, Gallery hours are Tues.-Wed. and Fri-Sat.: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thur.,: 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; and Sun.: noon-5 p.m.