Artist profile: Gary Horinek

         “Gary will hold nothing back when it comes to obstacles
                 of great difficulty and will resolve problems of logistics
                 most of us would blanche at.”
                                                                        Rudy Autio
 By Craig Sterry, for Montana Living

     Gary Horinek’s art projects are like construction sites, taking months, sometimes years of groundwork and labor. 

They might involve pallets of sheet rock and units of lumber, concrete tables and chairs or cement pillars extruding seashells---homage to his love for paleontology.  Piles of rubble and gravel might share the gallery space with pungent prairie grasses, sheaths of wheat, dried tumbleweeds, live lawn-sod and flowers.  White picket fences have appeared in his pieces, seeming to emerge from the earth as though from some strange archaeological dig. 

Water, now a major theme in his work, has a sensuous presence, trickling from porous cement walls or dripping into earthen basins.  Concrete slabs weighing hundreds of pounds and rough shards of pottery might lie between walls of broken or burned studs, rising up in a kind of eerie suspension between glory and ruin.
   He belongs to the radicals of the art world, beyond the fringe where there are no boundaries, practicing an art form that is not confined to canvas or to small, manageable pieces of ceramics or bronze.  He works in a genre that is said to break down the barriers between art and life.  Art for the mind as some have called it.
   The small Hi-Line town of Hingham, in the north central part of the state, is an unlikely place to have produced a person regarded by many as Montana’s premier installation artist.  It is a no-nonsense farming community given to the hard-knock realities of making a living.  That’s not to say that the residents don’t appreciate art---but at the end of a hard day, when a citizen might take a barstool for a cold one, the conversation is not likely to swing in that direction.  Much less toward installation art.
   Gary Horinek is something of a local character.  A big man with an unruly beard and wild hair, he lives alone, save for his constant companion Duchess, an Australian Shepard.  He has a playful, inquisitive nature and a quirky sense of humor.  His house, with attached studio, sits in a vast checkerboard of wheat fields a few miles north of town. From his deck there are spectacular views to the Bear Paws in the southeast and the Sweet Grass Hills to the west.
   In l975, when Gary was 17, his father died suddenly, leaving 4,000 acres of farm work to him and his younger brother.  Their mother guided the day-to-day operations, sending her sons into the field at dawn where they took on the work of adults.  They grew up fast.
   But in spite of the endless toil, Gary had an artistic spark that would not go away.
   “I was always doodling and drawing.  I remember painting a picture of the Virgin Mary and my pet rabbit,” he recalls, laughing.
   Luckily, when Gary entered high school, the town had hired a firebrand science teacher named Larry French.  A paleontologist, French took the precocious young Horinek on fossil hunts along the badlands of the Milk River north of Hingham, instilling in him a life-long love for his natural surroundings.  With the same grit and passion that would later characterize his art, Gary plunged headlong into digging and casting fossils.
   After high school, Horinek signed up for vo-tech classes in Helena, ready to assume his place as a third-generation wheat farmer.  He spent one winter there, miserable and restless.  His mentor, Mr. French, suggested some science classes at the University of Montana in Missoula.  Horinek enrolled in some introductory classes there in the early 80s and on a whim he signed up for a beginning drawing class, taught by another firebrand, the artist Dennis Voss.  Gary left the sciences and never looked back.
   Next came a ceramics course where Horinek struggled to shape his artistic vision in clay.  During this time he sat in on lectures by the renowned potter Peter Volkas and was befriended and mentored by the great ceramicist Rudy Autio.  Representative of Horinek’s work during this period are rough, masculine pieces of pottery with startling glazes.  But it wasn’t what he was looking for. 
  “Ceramics was frustrating.  It was too fragile.  I wanted a tougher-minded material,” Gary recalls.
   Then he took a sculpture class from art professor Steve Connell and it all fell into place.
   “Voss was a wild, break-the-mold type of artist and Connell was strict and tight---he made you justify your art and your materials,” Gary says.
   Horinek found his artistic identity coming more into focus when he befriended former teacher and artist Taag Peterson, whose art installation still stands near the old railroad station at the end of Higgins Street in Missoula.
   “At that point I really knew nothing about art, art history and so forth,” Horinek says.
   Accompanying Peterson on trips to the east and west coasts, Gary saw the cutting-edge sculpture of the day.  Back home in Montana, under the guidance of Connell and Peterson, Horinek’s artistic persona began to jell.  His mentors offered critiques of his work, introducing him to art history and to artists who were working with similar materials.
   Though always, in the spring, Horinek returned to the farm and for the next several years he jockeyed between Hingham during the work season and Missoula in the winter months.  He was living two lives; his art, he realized, was hopelessly entwined with his farming.
   It was during this time that Horinek came upon some old railroad ties that lay scattered along the Great Northern tracks just south of his farm.  There he discovered the kind of toughness and durability he’d been seeking.
   “They were dirty and they stunk and they were heavy.  And you got slivers when you handled them,” he recalls.
   One of his first installations---five railroad ties standing in a field of  wheat---was simple yet powerful.  Then, in an explosion of artistic energy, Horinek carried the ties to various locations on the prairie, staging installations and photographing as he went.  Local reaction was muted.
   “Anytime you start dragging railroad ties into a wheat field, people are going to think you’re strange,” Gary muses.
   Horinek’s art started to take off in l983 when he was selected for an artist’s photo exchange program with China.  That same year he staged an installation at the Brunswick Gallery and a one-man exhibition at the University of Montana, both in Missoula.
   In l985, Horinek assembled another one-man show called “Wooden House” in an abandoned ICBM Command Center twenty miles east of Brady.  The eight-foot thick walls, unearthly silence and shifting light in the massive complex were integrated into Gary’s piece, but the installation was vandalized and he abandoned the project---though he returned regularly to the vast, solitary structure for inspiration.
   Chosen to stage an art show in Washington D.C. in l986 under the sponsorship of the Washington Project for the Arts, Gary constructed a stout, bunker-like concrete shelter that was exhibited for several months and then dismantled.  His piece won a notice in the Washington Post.
   Horinek’s installations have earned him something of a cult following---even his once skeptical neighbors will travel hundreds of miles to attend his  openings.  With the exception of the D.C. installation and one exhibition at Marylhurst College in Portland, Oregon in l990, all of Horinek’s major shows have taken place in Montana.  His work has appeared at the Missoula Museum of Art and five other galleries in that city as well as the University of Montana in Great Falls, the Liberty Village Arts Center in Chester and the Custer Art Center in Miles City.
   His exhibitions appear every two or three years.  After an idea has germinated, he will build intricate models and spend hundreds of hours wrestling with his artistic vision.  Horinek’s attention to detail and his pursuit of excellence are legendary.  During work on his current project, he formed, poured and destroyed two sets of large concrete slabs before achieving his aim.  Eventually, the basic structure of all Horinek’s installations are built in the studio and later transported to the gallery for final assembly.  There he will restlessly fiddle and tweak his presentation right up to the last few hours before his openings.  He once drove non-stop to Portland to replenish some fading lawn-grass from one of his pieces.
   Walking into a Horinek installation doesn’t translate well in any medium employed to record it.  It’s a kind of head-on collision between the ethereal and the rock-solid, the miraculous and the mundane, resolving, finally, to a convergence of oddly delicate forces.  Usually, an entrance or pathway leads gallery visitors into the art piece; once surrounded by the installation, the observer is encouraged to sit on benches, to absorb its panoply of smells and sounds, angles and shadows.  It is an experience that induces a kind of multi-sensual trance in which the observer becomes a participant, merging with the art.
   Gary is reticent when asked about his artistic philosophy.  He will tell you that he is not a western artist; instead, he says, he is an artist who lives in the west and works with materials from his rural environment.  He thinks of an installation as a collection of fragments, a search for information---in much the same way one might search for bones in a fossil field.  And though he’s a stickler for detail, he is respectful of the process.
   “All of it is an unfolding mystery from piece to piece,” he says.  “I’m not always sure where it’s going.  I can control it to a large extent but the pieces can take on a life of their own.”
   Gary thinks for a moment and continues cautiously.
   “I’m trying to make sense of the environment, how we fit into it. My work has a lot to do with space, our connection to it, how we fill it.  Important personal space is separate from everyday places, everyday life.  I can go to the west coast and see all the trees and mountains and I think it’s gorgeous, it’s wonderful, but I don’t get the connection like I do on the prairie,” he says, “or if I go into the Missouri Breaks or down some coulee.”    
  Although he is uneasy with the risk of over-explaining his work, Gary issues an “artist’s statement” with each piece.  In the end, however, he believes that people should find their own meaning in his installations.
   “Once you put it in a gallery the art is not yours anymore.   I want the audience to plug their own feelings and backgrounds into an interpretation.”
    Although the Holter Museum of Art in Helena has provided a generous grant for Gary’s next piece, he has received scant financial support in the nearly quarter of a century that he’s been staging his art---and then only in the form of token stipends.  His finished installations can easily run to five thousand dollars, most of it coming out of his own pocket.
   “Farming used to support my work financially,” he says, “but farming isn’t what it used to be. I need to start thinking of my retirement.”
     Horinek, in his late forties, is also being worn down by the brutality of his materials.  He has worsening arthritis and frequently visits a chiropractor. 
   “I used to be able to pick up those 90# bags of Portland cement with no problem.  Now it’s an act I really have to think about,” he says.  “In the beginning there was a romance with the materials, touching the materials, the physical contact.  Now it just hurts.”
   Several years ago, after finishing one of his more grueling pieces, he thought about giving it up, going to something more civilized.  He decided to take a painting class.
   “I wanted to paint.  Just paint.  Have a glass of red wine and paint beautiful pictures---to hell with all the physical labor.  But it drove me completely nuts.  And at that point I realized two things---that I was a piss poor painter and that I needed the physical contact with the materials.”
   Gary falls silent for a bit.
   “I’m just not sure how much time I’ve got left doing this stuff.  But after every piece is completed and the show is up and running---even though I’m burned out and drained---ideas start creeping in again and I wonder where the next piece would evolve to.  Then the ideas really start to flow and I realize they need to be expressed.  And a few months later I’m grubbing around and finding materials.”

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published