If I Were a Carpenter
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.
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.
Given the years Silberstein has spent working amid masterpieces, it's not surprising to learn that he has a connoisseur's palette. "Right now I'm grooving on these Chinese lacquer boxes. I can't figure out how they made them. It must have taken 30 years to manufacture one! That's sort of my fetish object at this point."
Partly in reaction to the MIA's catalogue of such classical works, "Top Mix" draws heavily on forms like tagging, '70s psychedelia, and California hot-rod design. In the same spirit, the very name of the show, "Top Mix," turns out to be a brand of Japanese snack crackers. It's an aggressively lousy product, Silberstein admits, but one with a cool-looking package. (In fact, he was once chased out of an Asian grocery store by an old lady for taking photos of Top Mix boxes.) Silberstein is also a connoisseur of such visual flotsam--and not in an ironic or arch way. It's maybe this--the commingling of the aesthetically rigorous and the amiably goofy--that makes his "Top Mix" prints so cool to look at.
"I like Bach and Beethoven and Mozart," Silberstein says, "but the stuff I listen to is mostly new electronic music, because that makes more sense to me with the way the world is today. It's the same way with art. There's all kinds of great stuff from the past, but I like things that make more sense in today's society. That's why I wanted to do a show that could compete with a high-energy world. I wanted to do this noisy, punchy thing, too.
"It's kind of a populist show," he says. "It's not high art, you know? I'm not Damien Hirst and I'm not going to cut a cow in half. I just wanted to do something that was going to be fun to look at. Sometimes artists overthink things too much and it ends up as cloying. So I guess what I'm doing is underthinking."
Silberstein originally went to MCAD to become a filmmaker. Frustrated with having to rely on other people to make his art, he eventually turned to painting, making bright, explosive abstractions that looked very much like his current, computer-generated work. In the '80s, the local art scene was a looser and, to hear Silberstein tell it, less sober place. "People were doing weird shit. Everybody was drinking and smoking in the galleries. There was all this performance art gone bad. I remember there was this house where like six or eight MCAD students lived, and Soul Asylum practiced in the basement. There was always this big pile of dirty clothes down there and it had this dripping shower. There was all this fungus. Mushrooms! Scary, sci-fi movie shit. And Soul Asylum was practicing a few feet away."
Silberstein has never had much patience for the buttoned-down gallery scene or art-world pieties. In the early '90s, he and his now-wife, fellow artist Nancy Waller, published a graphics 'zine called Losing Faith. Here's a note included in one issue: "Losing Faith is published quarterly by a pimply faced group of biggots [sic] and asshole artists. We make these little pathetic magazines, we have stupid shows together, and are friends, simpaticos, and satanic fistfuckers. If you would like to see more of this shit, send us some money...."
Silberstein didn't have any particular ambition to become a museum carpenter, of course. During college, he'd worked painting 1,500-foot radio antennas. "The thing you realize is: After the first 100 feet, all falls are fatal. You just make a bigger splat," he says. Figuring to avoid that, he took a part-time job at the museum and ended up staying for two decades. "They needed me, and I was a good carpenter. Plus, there are some awesome people here," he says. "You know, sometimes I'm really torn. Even if I became successful and started making money off my art, I don't know if I'd want to divorce myself from my situation here."
Despite the success of "Top Mix," Silberstein isn't exactly pining for art-scene validation. "My paranoid idea is that one reason I'm not included in art shows is that I do so much over-the-top stuff. Not that it's better than other people's stuff. It's just overpowering. I'm definitely not Mr. Safey Safe-Safe. But what the hell. Be dangerous, have fun, take chances."
Besides, he reasons, spending his days communing with Rembrandts and Ming pottery gives him more time to reflect on his own work than he would have if he were a full-time artist. "I think I'd get burned out pretty quickly if I was a graphic designer or something," he says. Plus, Silberstein recently discovered a hidden perk of tending his own exhibit. "Every day I go up there and take the cash out of that kiosk. So I get to judge how much people like my art. And I get lunch money."
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