What Lies Beneath 7

MAM’S SENIOR CURATOR OFFERS A GLIMPSE INTO WHAT’S BEHIND 
CURATING AND ARTIST MAGGY ROZYCKI HILTNER’S EXHIBIT

Missoula Art Museum’s senior curator Brandon Reintjes begins with a blank canvas. His, however, is an empty room. That gallery space, once empty, is now the temporary home of the quilted pieces of artist Maggy Rozycki Hiltner. Brandon and his staff invited us to photograph the installation of Maggy’s exhibition, What Lies Beneath.

What lies beneath are stories told through cloth.

Maggy scours thrift and antique shops in pursuit of the materials—carefully and lovingly hand-stitched (and forgotten) quilts that once provided comfort and warmth to their owners—that she will deconstruct into something new, highly embellished textile works that explore sociopolitical themes. The contrast, an element that Brandon and MAM staff were drawn too, allows Maggy to explore “charged messages into and against the comfortable and innocuous medium of fabric and stitching.”

“I’d seen her work in small galleries around the state, and she and I would run into each other at art openings, so I was familiar with her work,” Brandon explained. “Mostly, I’d seen her work on a smaller scale. During that time, I was trying to accrue enough visual knowledge about her work before making a decision about what I saw and how to bring it to MAM.”

Within three days, the space, which had once been occupied, was transformed from empty canvas, then to what appeared to be a storage closet, filled with containers of Maggy’s work and the bodies of those transforming the space, and finally to Maggy’s curated exhibition. It was at this time, after having the opportunity to witness the transformation, that Brandon and I sat on a bench in the museum’s Art Park—the sun shining over Missoula, unobstructed by late spring clouds which usually gather for an afternoon shower—and discussed the business (or art, if you’ll permit a pun) of being a curator.

First, tell us a bit about what it means to be a museum curator.

I’ve got to revise an earlier statement I made when I described a curator as a person “working his butt off to keep a gallery open” [Laughter] That is a good quote, but I always think of a curator as a mediator, and we mediate between the institution, the artist, and the audience, each with a particular agenda, and then we find equal ground that is fruitful for all parties.

The medium—Fabric/Quilts—struck me as both odd and interesting. It seems rather flat, even more so than a painting for some reason. Did this present any limitations or unusual challenges to how you would have curated this exhibition?

[Chuckles] They can be. Sometimes, quilts can seem particularly flat because they are being reduced to their design elements, reading it in terms of design instead of object. With Maggy’s work, the surface and the tactility are so important that they end up having a three-dimensional quality. She embellishes her pieces and adds so much to the surface that they really become activated, not flat at all. As to the challenges or limitations, with contemporary art, it comes in so many different mediums, shapes, and sizes. Her pieces allowed us to explore potentialities that she’d uncovered with this work like, for example, working in a space outside the frame of the rectangular canvas of a quilt.

Are visitors encouraged to physically engage with Maggy’s pieces?

Not in this case. We have recently had exhibitions that have encouraged that. It’s kind of a double-edge sword here because Maggy’s pieces have come through history and already have an accumulated footprint, or history of use. She did supply some samples that people can look at, handle, and touch, which will give people a sense of tactility. She also has left us with her notebook which contains all of her thinking [regarding her pieces]. Maggy is so steeped in art historical and cultural knowledge; she incorporates a vast amount of information from that knowledge into each piece, and it’s really interesting to trace those visual elements.

How does one go about installing artwork like Maggy’s in their own homes? Do you have any suggestions on how that can be done?

One of the exciting things about contemporary art is that you’re in conversation with a living artist, and you can invite them into your home. You can ask them for their considerations on a space or a piece. I think it’s a really good opportunity to get to know the people who live in our communities who are doing amazing things like Maggy. I encourage people who have a question about installation or one of those difficult spaces in your home to contact an artist and ask what their ideas are about this. I love to engage in a dialogue and see what you come up with. It can be rewarding and also push an artist in a way or direction that they wouldn’t have gone previously.

“This project with Maggy is a perfect example of what MAM stands for: artist-driven projects that help artists fulfill a vision and complete work that they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Brandon said.

Telling Maggy’s visual story has proved fruitful—for the museum, for Maggy, and for Missoula.