The first thing to say about the 20th Biennial Juried Exhibition of the AAUW Utah Women Artists is that it should not be an exhibition. Instead, it would make a fine museum collection, something both permanent and available on a continuing basis. That way, when we tire of not really listening to famous men arguing about “the whiteness of the whale,” and so forth, we could pop into the museum and spend some time contemplating Carol Biddle’s felt diptych, “All Things Being Equal,” its two side-by-side panels, one made from white material and the other black, making clear that not only are the colors equivalently real and validly expressive, but each plays an essential part in validating and completing the other’s existence.
Such an encounter would only be the beginning of a visit to this museum. Next door, among the landscapes, Patricia Priebe’s Dorothy Oehmich Honor Award-winning watercolor, “Antelope Canyon IX,” captures the luminous way sunlight filters and spills down upon the convoluted and sediment-banded, red rock canyon walls. Anyone who’s always associated the Salt Lake skyline with Temple turrets, meanwhile, will gain perspective from Laurie Bray’s literally titled photograph, “City of Mountains,” with tiny Salt Lake lying dwarfed below a range of massive peaks. Lola Kartchner’s watercolor of “Rock Creek Bay,” which won the Ruth E. Turner Honor Award, was cited as “best watercolor depicting the beauty of nature,” but is only one of several works that make clear how sufficient water is important, not only to benefit nature in practical, life-enabling ways, but aesthetically and spiritually as well. Connie Borup’s “Water Patterns” (Juror’s Choice Award) takes its title from the way she reveals surface tension, making it visible through its optical effects.
People — not “figures” so much as actual individuals apprehended in all their specificity — are among the glories of this collection. Starting as well as anywhere with Lorna Anderson’s “Gerda,” dressed not only in images of flowers and butterflies, but in the real flowers that she blends into and emerges from, we see her clearly enjoying the attention she receives, but choosing to share it not with the painter or with us, but with an audience we don’t see. This balance of public and private will be encountered frequently in the museum, becoming a theme and even a subject. Gayle Allen’s “Seeing an Old Friend” places us outside, looking in, while in Irene Rampton’s “I Have Your Back,” we become participants as the speaker confronts us directly, while the subject of her comment turns away, whether from her or us being for us to fathom.
Every work of art opens a window into the artist’s mind, but here two of them foreground the process. Jamie Kyle’s digital collage, “In My Head,” features an alarmingly three-dimensional platter of accumulated mental detritus that virtually explodes just ahead of her efforts to catch it. Despite its title, “Overthunk,” Cara Jean Hall’s acrylic presents a calmer, in fact arguably serene image of the thinker resting, even as smoke from her presumably overheated brain curls out of her ear. The still life before her, a broken walnut and ruffled feather, may be symptomatic of the problem that challenges her, or a part of her escape.
For those who deal daily with socially-imposed limits, pushing back technical ones must be a relative liberation. Cynthia Clark’s mixed media reflection, “Memories Unraveled,” uses wax in a way that feels obvious, yet even this encaustic enthusiast hasn’t seen before. Mixing hyper-realistic elements, like a highchair wrapped as if by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, with a perspective-free diagram of a checkerboard floor, both collaged over a background of documentary history, she covers the whole with clear wax figures akin to sunbursts or wagon wheels. Their transparency makes them seem insubstantial, but their physical presence upon the surface of the work makes them more real than the mere image. It’s a powerful metaphor, not only for the power of memory, but for the many illusions that bedevil all of us daily.
Along with encaustic, which dates from the Greek incursion into Egypt, two other venerable media that profit from a lack of mainstream attention are fabric and clay. Karina A.U. Larsen contributes five ceramic examples, shown here as two ensembles, of both freeform sculpture and lidded jars, each of which she has meticulously engraved, either with repeating phrases — “you’re selfish; it’s better when you keep quiet; you don’t deserve kindness” — or sprawling bits of ancient text, overwritten perhaps with later graffiti. Susanne Storer’s bas reliefs recall certain decorative souvenirs hung as sentimental decor, but with the ethnic clichés — the turbaned pirate or the lady behind the fan — updated and refreshed. The aging man in ‘Passing Time’ wears a Nike t-shirt, while the battered trio of “Homeless and in Love” is warmed as much by their affinity as by their blanket and heavy clothes.
Some fabric works risk not being recognized due to their successful encroachment on territory reserved for classic media. Margaret Abramshe’s “Warrior” could easily be taken for an impasto if not viewed closely enough to see the stitching, which contributes to the monumental feel of the her head. Lucy Peterson Watkins’ “Hanging Around” — not the only punning title here — has a visual presence that opens it up to the sense one could walk right into it. There’s no danger of Sara Luna’s “The Grey” being taken for another medium: its fibers are unmistakeable. But due in part to its scientific accuracy and its huge size, which allows the viewer’s own eye space to wander over it, a viewer’s peripheral vision allows whatever is not being looked at directly to seemingly come alive.
It’s not fair to ignore excellent, but more traditional efforts in favor of experimental work, but then it’s not fair to review eighty or so art works, all juried in by professionals, when space only permits considering a few. Here are a few objects that demanded to be mentioned: Deni Morrison’s oil, “Moonrise,” draws the eye back from the exotic plant in the foreground to the luminous horizon, where the moon has yet to appear. Linda Dalton Walker’s “Ibis, Wings Up” achieves perfection in a photograph by refusing to settle for simply being one. Lisa Shine’s “Twist in Blue,” despite being weighed by the “AAUW Past Presidents’ Mature Amateur” award, easily proves why we need encaustic, which can quite simply do things no other medium can. Susan Klinker’s “Pando Watching Us” should encourage viewers to look up “Pando,” thereby learning something that should humble as all with the realization that one of the oldest living things on Earth, and probably the heaviest, has been quietly dwelling in Utah, unnoticed, for thousands of years.
One of the categories in use by the AAUW introduces the concept of an artist’s “maturity.” Among the things that come with maturity in art are the “ambi” twins: ambivalence and ambiguity. Megan Geilman’s elaborately staged and photographed tableaux, “Annunciation” and “Deposition,” are saturated with both. Because they are photos, instead of a sacred scene mocked or defiled, they could be just some contemporary people doing dress-up as best they can. At the same time, they may remind us that the events so often depicted, or ones just like them, would have been a good deal more contingent with a chaotic and often ill-composed, real world than either the familiar baroque or the even-more-familiar Hollywood versions lead us to expect. Satirical, or teasing? As suggested before, each of these eighty or so works of art invites its audience to a dialog with its maker, and through her with the world we share in common. If nothing else, they show us there is really nothing common about any part of it.
American Association of University Women’s Celebrating Utah Women Artists, Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley City, Sep. 6 – Oct. 18.