I'd Stay Away from That There Shotgun Shack

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. And you may ask yourself: How did Grant Hart get here?
Sarah Askari

I snorted guitar dust. It was unavoidable. It filled the air like smoke does, at first creating a light-diffusing haze, then drifting down and settling in a fine woody film on my hair while I inhaled it through my nose. The crumpled skeleton of the recently smashed guitar—the source of the dust—lay a few feet away. The singing cowboy who had destroyed it turned away from the wreckage and started playing a piano.

Sharing the space with the cowboy, but ignoring him altogether, a freckle-faced blond woman gazed off at some invisible point as she took a scissors to her own hair, chopping off long hunks of it and affixing the shorn tresses to the end of a drumstick. Former Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, at a nearby table, dipped the drumstick-paintbrushes into black paint and drummed violent slashes onto canvas. Things may seem confusing right now, I reminded myself, but that does not mean you got high off that guitar dust.

Minnesota-based artist Chris Larson is the ringleader of the performance piece, titled Shotgun Shack. (He also played the singing cowboy.) Larson has a sad, sweet sort of countenance, with a heart-shaped face and choppy yellow bangs falling over his earnest, droopy eyes. Forty-year-old Larson is a musician, but he's also a carpenter, constructing rugged large-scale pieces out of rough lumber. Some Very Important West Coast Collectors recently bought his room-filling wooden sculpture of the General Lee (Bo and Luke Duke's car, remember?) crashing into a shack (Ted Kaczynski's, to be specific). He's even made headway overseas, with exhibits and sales in Berlin. Like art-world phenom Matthew Barney, Larson deals with the unwieldy scale of his work by filming his performances and selling off numbered editions of the recordings, as well as some of the starring-role props. (You can own a lock of Grant Hart's hair taped to a drumstick—suitable for watercolors and clown art for your John Wayne Gacy collection.)

The new installation of Shotgun Shack has taken over half of Nordeast Minneapolis art gallery Creative Electric Studios. Larson and his team built a long, primitive cabin inside the art gallery, life-sized like an exhibit in a natural history museum. Last Saturday night, the shack served as venue for an absurdist and surprising spectacle featuring Larson, performance artist Britta Hallin, and Hart.

Due to the substantial portion of floor space eaten up by the installation, and the drawing power of Larson, who has an exhibition opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts later this week, the gallery was hot and crowded with spectators as the final preparations were made for the performance. The Shotgun Shack smelled like junior high woodshop and looked a bit dangerous, with splintery boards, clotheslines, prickly ropes, and both a small hatchet and a large ax lodged in the boards of the wall. The high-pitched whine of an electric saw announced the beginning of the piece, as Hart cut an entrance through a sidewall. Dressed in black, unkempt, with bushy black hair, Hart walked into the set and took his place in a back corner, a worktable in front of him, a turntable at his side. After cutting off a hunk of his bangs with electric shears, he lit a cigarette and started playing records.

He was followed by Hallin, dressed in a gauzy, long white dress, looking holy and ready for immersion baptism in a clean-running country creek. As Hart took drumsticks into his hands, dipped their hair-covered tips in black paint, and started beating down on canvas, Hallin cut pieces of dress fabric off her body. Taking her place in the shotgun workshop, she slowly and methodically pressed vinyl 45s dipped in paint onto the squares of white guaze liberated from her dress. Then she paused, grabbed the hatchet, and brought the business end down on a nearby rope. The act of violence lowered a long red curtain, which had been hiding Larson from the audience.

Larson appeared to be 12 feet tall, a long-legged cowboy in a white hat that brushed the ceiling and a white suit decorated with red roses and apples. Perched on the frame that supported his fake legs, like a stretched-out, cartoon version of Gram Parsons, he played guitar and sang cowboy songs high above the heads of the crowd.

Underneath him, the world's most absurd printmaking shed continued business as usual. Over the din of Hart's records ("What is a knife for/But to cut the meat?" trilled a friendly, Eisenhower-era voice), Hallin pinned up her gown-gauze works, and Hart strung his completed canvas on a clothesline. (By then, Hart had also drawn a paintbrush over his own face and over the white top of a nearby spectator). Then Larson jumped down from behind his crazy legs and smashed the guitar. No worries, though—the Shotgun Shack happened to be equipped with a piano as well. Hallin had painted the words "Peace in the Valley" on it, and Larson played a few songs on the cream-colored upright—before lunging forward and pushing it over. It landed on its back with the room-trembling power of a heavyweight going down. "Your laundry's ready," joked Hart, rolling canvases out on the clothesline.

Larson unfolded a screen around a spot in the shack where the tatter-dressed maiden had been dipping her hem in a moat of red paint at opportune moments throughout the night. When Larson was completely shielded from the eyes of the audience, Grant Hart picked up the ax and started hacking through a rope with an oddly tentative swing. But there was nothing tentative about the consequences of cutting the rope: When it broke, a bag of cement mix crashed down on the area where Larson had been hiding. The screens busted and collapsed under the cement bag—but Larson was gone, disappeared.

There was, oddly, no dust this time. Shotgun Shack had come to an end.

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