Imaginative Immersion: 3 days, 5 artists

Monster Island is an art collective at the University composed of five guys with a pretty reasonable outlook for a group of artists: “We really want to make art.”

Last November, the collaboration blossomed from the ashes of a group independent study run by Alexis Kuhr, director of graduate studies in the art department, and they have since done exactly what they said they wanted to. In response to Paul Shambroom’s modern photography exhibit, “Picturing Power,” Andy Brinkman, Brett Gustafson, Miles Mendenhall, Rhett Roberts and Travis Hetman – collectively known as “Monster Island” – labored for five straight days to construct a semi-impromptu mural in the Shepherd Room of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum. The installation’s title: “Mutiny.”

The five guys from Monster Island

“Put the work in artwork”
Feb 20 – Mar 4
Weisman Art Museum, Shepherd Room

Shambroom, a Minneapolis artist, deals with elements that comment on the way in which “power works,” Hetman says. “And the use of space to discuss these power relationships.”

Shambroom’s photography depicts ironically picturesque missile silos, restricted nuclear testing sites and confined office plants grasping for freedom. Each subject illustrates the way space can be employed to imply physical power and dominance in local and global systems. But Shambroom often undermines these arrangements with a subtle sense of “dark humor,” like the deadpan expressions on three portly town council members seated side-by-side at the head of a meeting table, a sensibility that Gustafson said most inspired him.

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In their five-day project, Monster Island sought to address this relationship between public and private space, and the power between and throughout those spaces, not only through the final piece, but also through the interactive experience of construction.

While the process unfurled as a sea of paper, paint and chalk onto the carpeted floor of the Shepherd Room, the guys encouraged museum-goers to enter, examine and discuss.

As Monster Island set out to comment on Shambroom’s depiction of American power and shed some light on the process of art – as collaboration and as conversation – I asked them what their ideal superhero name would be, drank a whole lot of caffeinated beverages, and watched the mural unfold.

3 p.m., Wed., Feb 20
Soundtrack: DJ Shadow

When we first join our heroes, a sea of plastic sheets, a whole lot of blue tape and a multitude of visiting fifth graders have already exploded around them in the Shepherd Room. A thin, grey laptop in the far corner continuously hums with music that is just barely audible. Four of the guys are positioned along four different walls, working separately on the project that will consume their lives for the next five days.

I introduce myself and Brinkman speaks up, “Oh, you’re the guy from the Daily.” We all exchange handshakes and I sit near a large steel ladder in the center of the room to observe the creative genius around me. An unrolled brown sheet of paper displays a chalked sketch of Christopher Columbus, about three feet tall – a scaled-down version of the product at hand.

Brinkman, the self-dubbed chatterbox of the group, has his blond hair swept up underneath a navy blue baseball hat. He works to the left on an outstretched hand as big as his torso. The painted paper is taped to the wall, and Brinkman presses into it, shading with sanguine and black chalk.

Roberts, wearing a pair of paint-stricken deck shoes, is chalking Columbus’s face to anchor the composition. He is working on all fours in the center of the room, periodically breaking to examine his work from afar.

I ask the guys what they feel the biggest challenge of the piece will be, and they unanimously agree: the restrictions placed on them by the museum administration. Since they are working on the wall of the museum, they are forbidden from leaving a single mark on the wall.

See They are confined to paper (sketched, painted, and chalked) and a whole lot of blue masking tape. So far, it is proving to be more difficult than anticipated, especially because the rolls of blue tape just don’t seem to want to hold Columbus to the wall.

Gustafson rocks a red and black plaid flannel un-tucked over his dark jeans. He laboriously cuts thin strips of colored paper, and begins filling Columbus’ enormous coat with them.

On the wall closest to the room’s entrance, Hetman is reconstructing his painting “A Worker’s Warning,” which he cut up and pieced back together especially for the show. The painting features two workers, one stringing a shark corpse to the ceiling of the barn. The other paints “Mutiny” on the barn’s wall. For inspiration, he drew on “elements from Shambroom’s work,” such as the examination of space and the addition of nondescript workers. Portions of the workers and their surroundings are deleted to display what lies behind them – sky, floorboards, empty space.

The final member of Monster Island, Mendenhall, is home with a thick head cold. He has already called to check in a few times and the guys doubt he’ll get much rest at home. “And I told him he wouldn’t be able to stay away for the first day,” Hetman jokes.

The work has been developing “since December,” says Brinkman, and they have a “rough idea of the composition.” But for the most part, even after a day’s work, that composition is still up in the air.

Thurs, Feb 21st, 10:00 am
Soundtrack: David Axelrod “Seriously Deep”

After laboring until 9 p.m. last night, the guys are back for the museum’s opening at ten. Columbus has been successfully erected, and looms over the rest of the daunting white wall.

Powering through his illness, Mendenhall marches into the gallery armed with a thermos of hot water, a massive bag of tea leaves and a whole box of paper sword screen-printed cut-outs that he begins to tap. Mendenhall’s “patented” wooden sword is included as an element of his own work. He positions them so they rain from Columbus’ outstretched hand.

Brinkman, rendering the explorer’s sleeve taped separately to the wall, describes the angle of the project as “a hodge-podge of different sources.” He claims that the project has already inspired growth in their observational and creative abilities through the “exploration of the disconnect between the artist’s intention and (the audience’s) examination.”

Roberts’ mother visits for a few minutes to drop off theatrical costume coats for inspiration. With this gift, she offers an examination of her own.

“The planet is a physical portrayal of the human emotional consciousness,” she says. To her, it seems the project is transforming into a critique of the status of destructive American culture. With a few hugs, she wishes the artists good luck and departs.

Fri, Feb 22nd, 2:30 pm
Soundtrack: Bon Iver “Flume”

“Today is the big day,” Hetman declares. I’m huddled in the corner of the room with my hands wrapped around another Americano. Roberts has set into another laborious project – the creation of a large electrical grid using only some chalk, a large grey sheet of paper and a pair of scissors. This portion of the installation comments on America’s consumer “power”-trip.

Screen prints of Big Macs and Hummers begin mingling with the wooden swords. Another addition to the space is his jelly-bean-like warriors showcased as Mendenhall’s pink, “whimsical, miniature self-portraits.”

Gustafson continues to work on the strips of color. As they pour out of Columbus’s jacket, he leaves the barcodes facing outward.

Throughout the course of the day, the guys are joined by Wang Yu, a professor and photographer from China. Her hair is pulled into a tight bun, emphasizing the roundness of her face. She remains mostly a silent observer of the project’s creation, snapping pictures she says are for friends in China. When she departs after nearly seven hours, she leaves Monster Island a hundred perfectly clear photographs and a bag of biscuits from China.

Sat, Feb 23rd, 11:00 am
Soundtrack: Michael Jackson “Billie Jean,” Assorted Mr. T samples

The guys have made mountains of progress since Wednesday. Gustafson’s strips of color have evolved into a full-blown “sea” where large, black-and-white ships set sail. The vessels add visual and figurative depth through their implied American imperialism and domination of consumer culture.

The mural begins taking on a more definite shape on the far left with the monstrous Christopher Columbus, a clear embodiment of American exploration. Extending from his flailing coat is a sea of literal and figurative space, ridden with endless color, rendered baseball players, images of violent, wooden swords, ski masks, rats, Hummers and Big Macs.

The repetition of American products embodies what Brinkman calls “cultural violence.” The aggression stems from “aspects of life that we don’t consider violent, but have destructive results: political apathy, excessive consumption, amoral business practices. “These are all mediums for cultural destruction,” Brinkman tells me. Mass-produced culture is not only taking the place of imaginative creation, it’s also demeaning the value of existing art through its commoditization.

In the corner of the room, Mendenhall paints a large grey whale with thick, yellow teeth from which Brinkman erects three nondescript businessmen as an emphasis on the corporate world he discussed.

After the completion of the four rendered baseball figures, Hetman begins constructing a disintegrating Lady Liberty, both drawing power from and being destroyed by the chaotic sea around her.

When 8 p.m. rolls around, Monster Island (minus Miles, who’s gone home for some more rest) takes a break for a quick group interview. Then, it’s back to the grind to finish out another twelve-hour day.

Sun, Feb 24th, 2:00 pm
Soundtrack: Music samples from Hetman and Brinkman

Here we all are. With only an hour until the installation’s reception, the chorus of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop” blaring from Brinkman’s laptop seems all too fitting.

The mural has spilled over onto the adjacent left wall as a torrent of Big Macs, Hummers and America’s favorite pastime.

With each passing day, the rate of growth of the construction seemed to increase exponentially. As the guys gained momentum, it was easier to pick up speed.

Now, nearing the end, Roberts works to attach threads and power chords from the looming electrical grid to other pieces of the work; the other four work on the newly-added wall to complete the composition in time for its reception in two hours. Volunteers, girlfriends and family members begin to help clean the floor of the remnants of screen printed ski masks, hummers, sheets of plastic, and wrappers from sandwiches and Doritos. Soon, it becomes a group effort.

At the reception, Colleen Sheehy, the Weisman’s Director of Education, formally introduces the artists and the installation. Family members, friends, and many museum-goers coming back for more, munch on mini-cookies from Lund’s & Byerly’s.

Each member of the collective introduces himself and discusses a point or two regarding “Mutiny’s” cohesion. Brinkman discusses the project and its relation to Shambroom’s themes of “violence, politics, and power.” Behind them, a time-lapse film of the mural’s creation plays on a loop, allowing the guests to glimpse moments of the process that ended with the walls now surrounding them:

Christopher Columbus stands on the far edge of the mural, with his eyes turned skyward. A wooden sword droops in his left hand, mirrored in 3-D in an opposite corner. Smaller screen-printed swords shower from his right-hand, weaving with an ocean of color and space flowing from his wind-blown black cloak. Big Macs, Hummers, ski-masks, rendered baseball players and a whale consuming three businessmen mingle among the chaos. The sea gives rise to an electrical tower on the center wall and immediately consumes the Statue of Liberty to the left. The ocean and space converge into a thinning point, caught, appropriately, by a baseball catcher in full gear.

After putting in a total of around sixty hours of work in the last five days, Monster Island gives a collective sigh of relief and exhaustion. The guys disperse to mingle, grab some mini-cookies for themselves. After five days of toil, they can finally enjoy their work.