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Peter Koch: Nature/Morte

March 12 ­ June 13, 2004

(above: Peter Koch; Installation Photo (Raodkill, Backfire, Still Life, Crowbait) digital iris print; 2004, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Museum Purchase)


This exhibition comes in the midst of the Bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's epic voyage through Montana. It is part of a larger multi-organization arts initiative titled "Echoes of Discovery", whose goal is to celebrate contemporary voices along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Helena, in proximity to the Missouri River and the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness Area, is an important stopping point along the trail. Nature/Morte consists of eleven large-scale, panoramic digital pigment prints that excerpts and phrases from the journals of Lewis and Clark to contrast images taken from trade cards, historical photographs, postcards and tourism promotional materials. The result is work that has an historic foundation, but is more concerned with questions about the nature of interpretation, exploration, national history, and the implications of nationalism. (right: Peter Koch, Peter Koch; Deadfall; digital iris print; 2004, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Museum Purchase)

Peter Koch's family roots are in Bozeman, Montana, but he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he is noteworthy in the distinguished tradition of fine printmaking and typesetting. Stepping outside the world of books and letterpress printing, Koch once again joins fellow Montanan Griff Williams of Urban Digital Design, San Francisco, to focus on newer technology and the process of digital iris printing for this exhibition. Peter is active in Bay Area literary circles, producing a distinctive library of limited editions with his small press. (left: Peter Koch; Zeitgeist; digital iris print; 2004, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Museum Purchase)


Dead Nature

by Rick Newby


" . . . the fear of death from civilization": A profound melancholy pervades the images in Nature Morte, master letterpress printer Peter Koch's second foray into the realm of the digital Iris print-and a profoundly bitter irony arises from the juxtaposition of these images with the blocky words with which Koch chooses to caption them (and even more so, with the forward-looking, grandiloquently expansionist entries from the journals of Lewis and Clark that float across the picture plane).

With these somber works, Peter Koch gives us an irreverent antidote to the boosterism-and even sheer silliness-that has surrounded much of the celebratory afflatus that has thus far surfaced on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the grand expedition to open the American West.

As scion of a prominent Montana pioneering family, Koch brings an insider's perspective to his critique of Westward Expansion, and as a literary outlaw, he offers a decidedly postmodern take on issues of colonialism, environmental degradation, and racism. Quoting Kafka, Koch asks, "If the [text] we are reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?"

Nature Morte partakes of a tradition in Montana arts that critic Ken Egan, Jr., characterizes as producing "visions of cataclysm," narratives that recount "promising beginnings and disastrous endings." Many of these works, Egan argues in his study, Hope and Dread in Montana Literature, leave us feeling helpless in the face of historical forces beyond our control. This strain of nostalgic catastrophism has long been a powerful theme for Montana's visual artists, from George Catlin's early lament that the region's native peoples were "fast travelling to the shades of their fathers," to Charlie Russell's fury over "trails plowed under," to photographer L. A. Huffman's urgent effort to capture "This Last West" before it vanished irrevocably. (right: Peter Koch; Installation Photo (Deadfall); digital iris print; 2004, Collection of the Holter Museum of Art, Museum Purchase)

In Peter Koch's "visions of cataclysm," we are offered something quite different, not hopelessness, but a provisional hope based on a clear-eyed critical stance toward the accepted wisdoms. Koch insists-and I think rightly-on the purgative effects of works like the somberly witty prints in Nature Morte. Like an "axe for the frozen sea inside us" (again quoting Kafka), these heartrending (and angry) images ask us to ponder the nature of our beautiful but threatened place in this world. Like Koch's uncle, Elers, we are driven to ask the most difficult questions: "Is it possible that it was all a ghastly mistake, like plowing up the good buffalo sod of the dry prairies?"

Rick Newby
Helena, Montana
February 2004


About the author

Rick Newby is an independent scholar and cultural journalist who has written extensively about the arts and culture of the American West, as well as having edited several works, including most recently The New Montana Story (Riverbend Publishing and Bedrock Editions, 2003). His articles have appeared in American Craft; American Ceramics; Sculpture; Ceramics: Art and Perception; and High Ground, as well as in publications by the Holter Museum of Art and the Archie Bray Foundation. He is the co-author of A Ceramic Continuum: Fifty Years of the Archie Bray Influence (University of Washington Press, 2001) and of The Most Difficult Journey: The Poindexter Collections of American Modernist Paintings (Yellowstone Art Museum, 2002).

He was trained as a poet under Richard Hugo and John Haines, and is the author of three collections of poetry, A Radiant Map of the World, winner of the Montana Arts Council's First Book Award for 1981, and Old Friends Walking in the Mountains (Bedrock Editions, 1994) and, The Suburb of Long Suffering, (Bedrock Editions, 2002).

Currently, Rick manages his own communications firm, Zadig, LLC (www.zadig-llc.com). He resides in Helena, Montana.


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