Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

A Mirror on Utah: CUAC’s Annual Utah Juried Art Exhibition

“Inferno in the Sky,” Joe Puente

In the past, the Central Utah Art Center’s annual survey has sometimes sent out mixed signals. It seemed that when a venue that regularly imports exciting new art from around the country throws open its doors and invites local artists to respond, they often reply with work that bears, at best, an ambivalent relation to the present day.

It is good to find, then, that CUAC’s Jared Latimer found a juror in L.A. who could see virtues in Utah’s art that, for whatever reason, have yet to light a fire under resident viewers. Micol Hebron, who lists Performance and Video among her mediums, looked over sixty entrants and found twenty artists — some well known and some not — who manage to acquit the Ephraim gallery of charges that its ambitious regular program is out of sync with the homegrown product of Utah’s professional (and yet, like the fictional Asher Lev, religiously orthodox) arts community. None is quite a household name yet, even in most artistic households. Still each deserves a look today, and watching for in the future.

The bad news is that those wanting to feel the pulse of Utah’s up-and-coming art must now travel further abroad than the Salt Lake Art Center, UMFA, or Park City. Fortunately, the trip itself can be part of the reward, especially on Highway 89, the focus of several recent Salt Lake exhibitions. And for once parking will not be a problem — even on opening night.

At the opening, juror Hebron addressed a standing room-only crowd and reiterated that the pendulum of the mode is coming back from fifty years of unadulterated formalism. As she wrote in her statement, “The works in this show have strong and intimate relationships to medium as well as concept.” She goes on to compare these works to dreams, adding that some “are ciphers, collaged with disparate images to comprise a narrative that, to the dreamer, makes neat and perfect sense” while others “can be shrewdly focused on one element, illuminating the quintessential characteristics of a thing otherwise unnoticed in daily life.”

“Tick Tock” by Julie Lucas

Julie Lucas shows how dreams plunder the waking world, and reminds us that artists in the West have been mining ore from these veins for decades. Her ribald assemblages differ from those of Ed and Nancy Reddin Kienholz primarily in her choice of shiny new materials rather over everyday items worn by use. “Tick Tock,” a clock with a fetal face, a doll’s head, and an hourglass that has run out in its chubby fist, declines unambiguous comment on the predicament of women whose biology may still be fate. “Cold” — the title could refer to his plumbing or how he leaves a woman feeling — may contemplate the ideal vs the real in a putative mate. Balancing her three-dimensional allegories perfectly on the razor’s edge, Lucas challenges viewers to consider whether sexuality is fact or myth.

Emily Fox, both here and in the Eccles Black and White show, looks more and more like Utah’s answer to Daumier. In “Education of the Children,” a child’s drawing of the school contrasts with the keenly observed faces of the students, whose adult selves are foreshadowed in their self-contained postures and expressions. “Mr. Big Stuff” intrigues everyone on the page, while leaving us as puzzled as vegetarians watching a hamburger ad on TV. Moroni filmmaker Joe Puente, like many of today’s artists (but also many who are not artists), documents his life in candid photographs he uploads to his website. A passionate man who grew up on his father’s stories of Spanish Civil War atrocities, Puente’s struggle for disabled veteran’s medical rights may have found an objective correlative in “Inferno In the Sky,” his dramatic photo of cloud formations captured in the blazing-but-brief spectacle of the desert sunset.

“Mr. Big Fox” by Emily King

Adam Ned Larsen’s meticulously crafted, artist’s book-influenced assemblages, while they demur from Julie Lucas’s satirical humor, recall one of his heroes, H.C. Westermann. “Spit Propulsion,” its title recalling the child’s ability to make things real through imitating their sounds, replaces one kind of irony with the belief that images recollected from childhood icons, including nursery rhymes and toys, offer pathways into adult truths. Tyler Hackett’s “According To the Map” and “Things That Have To Be Learned” also use symbolic information to augment older codes, arranging evocative images of natural and man-made objects to evoke processes of coming into being, whether intimate and personal, or culture-wide and common property.

Tyler Hackett’s “Things That Have to Be Learned”

Painters Sarah Lewis and Dale Peel show interest in the uses of light to establish mood. Her allegorical “Earth Three” makes a visual argument for hope and positive possibilities. His darker fantasy landscape, “Cyprus,” contrasts neatly with Brandon Burton’s “Heavy Cloud” to show how shapes can inflect meaning: in this case, inverting a form inverts feeling. Meanwhile, realism challenges the viewer, stylistically and otherwise, in “Susannah At the Table,” Chris Thornock’s skewed confrontation with a young woman who skewers with her piercing gaze.

Onetime still life painter Kelly Brooks, resisting the temptation for artists who take teaching jobs to turn timid, has reinvented herself through blind contour drawings — of her daughter Ash in action — that forego the medium’s comic verisimilitude in favor of capturing the intensely focused energy of an apprentice human.

Drawing by Kelly Brooks

Sandra Brunvand’s “Dog Hair Installation” reminds us that the Zeitgeist can sometimes be best approached through the artist’s private preoccupations. As Brunvand’s art and life have increasingly intertwined over the years, she notes, or anticipates, the directions our deeply rooted interest in memoir and self-expression are taking. With her emphasis on breaking through the walls between her studio and its surrounding ecosphere, and her equivocation between found and created visual matter, Brunvand comes close to capturing who we are and what lies closest to our fundamental experience of life in Utah: not in the wilderness, not in the past, but here — in our built environment, with its structures and companion animals — and now.

“Susannah At the Table” by Chris Thornock

Many of the themes in evidence among these twenty artists are collected in Holly Duong’s two elaborate, schematic drawings. Too large and extensive for textbooks, they suggest posters designed to explain and annotate the processes they depict. Thus “Louise Gardens” distills a style of collaborative gardening from a variety of collaborating visual styles. Connected logically like parts of a flow chart on one level, on another the parts are unified by evidence of organic processes. Instead of warring with each other, technology and nature are yoked together by the same mental and material means that make art possible. Fragments of something similar appear in “God’s Gift to Man,” where analogies between biological and mechanical devices rise to the level of bursting, flame-like, in ecstatic extremes of experience. Yes, we are machines, but nonetheless capable of joyously extending ourselves.

Adam Ned Larsen’s “Spit Propulsion”

CUAC Director Jared Latimer only recently finished the schedule of shows left behind by the previous administration, and so in a sense this is his first real chance to sum up the strengths of Utah’s current art scene. He and juror Micol Hebron have scoured Utah and found proof that today’s artists, steeped in traditional skills that were nurtured here while they atrophied elsewhere, have no problem using those skills to hold up a mirror in which we can see ourselves anew.

The Fourth Annual Utah Juried Show is at the Central Utah Art Center through April 23.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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