If I Were a Carpenter

Alyn Silberstein has built the walls of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Now he's hanging his work on them.

For the past 20 years,the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has kept Alyn Silberstein locked away in the basement. Well, not locked: Silberstein is free to come and go as he pleases, and anyway, he has all the keys to the place. Truth is, the Institute is just happy to have him down there, since he helps to hold the museum together. According to Silberstein, there are even those who worry that his recent success as an artist will give him ideas, as though he were the Phantom of the Opera, and had suddenly decided to climb onstage and sing Tosca at the Met.

Silberstein's office is a narrow, windowless room down in the museum's guts. To enter, you have to duck under some low-hanging pipes and through a Munchkin-scale door. That, combined with the cheerful clutter of the place, makes it feel less like an office than a burrow. About Silberstein himself--a short fellow with a mop of dark hair and a roguish grin--there is also something ever so slightly Hobbit-like. Silberstein's friends call him "The Little Chomper," and the nickname fits him beautifully: He brings to mind a small, fearless bulldog.

"I like my job. And I like having money, you know? I've got an expensive motrocycle habit": Alyn Silberstein
Michael Dvorak
"I like my job. And I like having money, you know? I've got an expensive motrocycle habit": Alyn Silberstein

The office is decorated with pictures of fast and expensive motorcycles. These, Silberstein collects and rides. He points out a photo of one of his five bikes, a sleek Suzuki Bandit 1200. The office also has a rack hung with hundreds of keys; one of Silberstein's current projects involves changing all of the museum's locks. Although he is officially designated as the Institute's lead carpenter, Silberstein operates in practice as an indispensable jack-of-all-trades. "I'm very versatile," the 43-year-old explains. "If there's something that's broken or a remodeling project that needs to get done, they come to me and say, 'Al, save us.'" Silberstein says this without arrogance; his improvisational genius as a handyman is established fact.

Once, Silberstein had to figure out how to preserve a Tibetan sand mandala so that it wouldn't slough off the gallery wall when hung. He spent a month applying resin to the sand using an eyedropper. Another time, the museum's curators enlisted him to construct a yak-hide tent. A born raconteur, Silberstein doesn't so much tell a story as spill it: "What the hell?! I'd never even seen a yak tent before. How am I supposed to build one? The museum didn't even want it inside! It hadn't been fumigated or anything. But they got these Tibetan carpenters from New Brighton or some damn place. They were wild, man. They'd never even seen power tools. Never cut their fingernails. They didn't speak any English, but we're all carpenters, you know? So we get the thing up and we're sitting inside this yak tent sort of nodding at each other, like 'Pretty cool, huh?' I like doing something different every day. Keeps the brain juices flowing."

Recently, Silberstein has taken on a new role at the museum: star artist. "Top Mix," an exhibit of his big, colorful ink-jet prints in the Institute's Minnesota Artists Gallery is proving so popular that, Silberstein says, some people at the museum are beginning to express concern that he might forsake his day job altogether. (A panel of outside artists selects the work for the Minnesota Gallery after an open application process.) "Everyone's a little freaked because the show's so successful," he admits. "But I like my job. And I like having money, you know? I've got an expensive motorcycle habit."

A sudden shift from behind-the-scenes to the spotlight might throw some people. Not Silberstein. In point of fact, he prides himself on his showmanship, a quality he finds in short supply in today's art world. "A lot of artists forget it's about wowing your audience," he says. "It's always a little P.T. Barnum."

Right after "Top Mix" opened, Silberstein worried that he was getting sick of talking to people about his work; now he says he's caught his second wind. One recent afternoon, for instance, Silberstein approached a young visitor to the gallery and offered to explain his aesthetic. "I saw this space as being like a cartoon," he told her. "I wanted it to be a parody of the rest of the museum, you know, playing off those museum conventions like white walls." Then, worrying that he was sounding a bit pedantic, Silberstein grinned and snorted. "Snore, right?!"

If nothing else, "Top Mix" is the only thing in the MIA's hallowed halls that could reasonably be called groovy. Silberstein's prints are loopy Op-Art farragoes created by manipulating photographs with Photoshop. Some end up as symmetrical as a Byzantine mosaic or a Mandelbrot fractal. Others have evolved into biomorphic abstraction, like a microscope slide of mutating cells rendered in Technicolor. Silberstein's prints have the same effect on viewers as do lava lamps and screen savers. "Top Mix" even includes a kiosk, where, for a dollar, visitors can buy a small sample of this hypnotic wallpaper.

According to Silberstein, his designs are meant simply as eye candy. "What I was interested in doing was creating these patterns, then blowing them apart," he explains. "I wanted to create a whole different context from the rest of the museum." To that end, Silberstein also painted a computer-generated abstract motif in black directly onto the gallery walls--sort of a pantsing of the Institute's stuffy persona.

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