Museum of Un-Natural History charms, challenges

caitlinhardee

Photo Credit : Cornelius

At the dwindling of East to West Main Street, stashed away above Tallman’s Camera Shop, there hides an art gallery. You will probably not find it, unless you already know it’s there.

As I ascended the steps to the Museum of Un-Natural History, I was greeted by a leering cow skull atop a segmented mannequin, holding a parasol. Edging past this frightening doorman, I entered the museum’s Black Door Gallery, home to the quirky and brash works of Gerald Matthews, artist and owner. His art seduces, provokes, repulses and sometimes angers the viewer.

“When I was in New York, I worked in nightclubs mostly, and we did social and political satire: we stood up on the stage and made snide remarks about society,” said Matthews. “So when we moved here, in this very straight, right-wing community, I had to express myself. Most of the people who come up here enjoy it. Some turn right around and leave. I’ve been almost attacked physically by a woman who insisted she knew that Jesus had come here to save us, and that I’d better get with it, or I was in trouble. I said eventually, ‘Well if you’re going to heaven, I don’t want to go there,'” Matthews said with a laugh.

Indeed, an indictment of mass religion appears in numerous of his works. By the entrance stands a vast glass case housing battling armies and the caption, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“It depicts the holy family in the middle of this enormous war, and every possible kind of ethnic or political type is in there fighting and killing, all around this supposedly tranquil little group that’s going to save us from ourselves,” explained Matthews.

The museum also features many works dealing with sexuality or of a visually explicit nature. Matthews discussed his views on sexual freedom and open-mindedness.

“I’ve been married five times, divorced four, and in show business one is accustomed to having quite a variety of sexual experience,” he said. “I’ve always been very free about that, and an awful lot of people are not. I’m sorry for them, but I guess it’s better that they not reproduce any more than they need.”

While Matthews refers to his art as ‘Dada in Walla Walla,’ his style has certain differences from the historic German art movement.

“I suppose, like the Dadaism that started in Zurich and moved to Germany, [his art] challenges standard ideas of art and meaning,” wrote junior Nicole James in an e-mail. “It was certainly anti-war, as in German art of the Dada era. However, the art, to me, looked incredibly messy and amateur. Whether this was the point or not, I don’t know. I also think it was more sexualized than German art of the Dada era, though I’m not a specialist on German Dada art.”

James continued.

“I was very uncomfortable in the museum the whole time, and, at least to me, the museum had a very . . . confrontational and opinionated atmosphere,” she said.

However, to others the gallery is a place of refuge and escape from everyday life.

“I have quite a few high school people in here, wearing studs and tattoos and things,” said Matthews. “They like this atmosphere, and they like the fact that I don’t agree with their parents. They think it’s rebellious and naughty, and they don’t get that at home.”

Senior and art history major Stephanie Silver also finds herself attracted to the gallery’s eccentric charm.

“I just think it’s one of those little niche places in Walla Walla that gives Walla Walla a lot of character,” she said. “I love going there. I always find something new; it’s just a really curious place.”

Senior Lindsey Witcosky, who described herself as “obsessed” with the museum, shared Silver’s enthusiasm.

“It’s just so random,” Witcosky said. “I love that it’s just this guy, and it’s free, and he just has this collection that’s open for everyone to come check out, and they’re just really weird things that you wouldn’t see, anywhere. I like it a lot.”

As admission to the museum is free, the gallery is a slow but constant drain on Matthews’ personal resources, costing him an estimated $3,000 to $4,000 annually. However, he is retired with a pension, and does not begrudge the expense.

“What I’d really like is to win the lottery so I can buy this building and kick everybody else out,” Matthews laughed.

In the meantime, visitors are welcome to leave donations.

“It’s just such a fun surprise, such a random hole-in-the-wall, right when you think Main Street is running out of interesting things. I think everyone would be pleasantly surprised by it, because you have no idea it’s there,” Witcosky said.

For more information and visiting hours, check out the museum’s website at wallawalladada.com.