by Vera Bachman
As we crowd around the shady side of a patio table at Cocoa Caffé to discuss the upcoming group show at Kayo Gallery, Sri Whipple calls for revolution. It is Saturday morning, and soon it is apparent that I am dealing with a bunch of cavaliers. I notice Garrett Adkinson has already finished his espresso, so I decide to start by asking him about themes and influences in his work.
He says something about feeling uncomfortable in his own skin, and that he doesn’t want to get overly theoretical about it. Sri interrupts to say that he hates art, especially talking about it at nine in the morning, and then throws me a sideways glance. There is a brief respite and then Garrett launches straight into Rauschenberg’s work in the fifties.
He took canvases out from the wall, breaking two-dimensional space, destroying the traditional idea of a painting as a window—this intrigued me. I found Rauschenberg’s idea of “painting as object” visually powerful.” Garrett graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. During school his work was more figurative and academic, influenced by Richard Diebenkorn. He explained how his work changed when the shapes in the portraits he was painting took on greater importance than the subject matter. After departing from what he refers to as the “transcendental psychology of the image,” he was left with basic shapes and the tactile quality of the materials. He says, “That felt more pure to me.”
Adkinson’s work is singular, not typical of sculpture or painting. His “wall structures” are about the details of the form and the materiality of the wood, muslin, oil paint, stain, and cold wax that gives a skin to the “painting as object and the object as painting.” The undulating details of the form are contrasted by splashes of color. Garrett says this particular series explores how objects evoke memory of an object and how memory changes and the object changes. At this point Garrett reaches down and pulls out one of his pieces. He holds it up for us to see and then places it on the table. I reach over and touch it. It makes me think of an old man’s wallet and then the delicate spine of a sun-baked reptile.
Garrett says, “Memory itself is like a collection of art pieces in your head, your mind is a museum of personal experience.” He tells us he’s making around thirty pocket size pieces for the show. I ask him if he views his work as unusual. He replies, “Not too many people are challenging the status quo here. The work that comes out of the U art department all looks the same…technical proficiency is important, but it’s all academic—the figure on a pedestal draped in fabric.” He points out that abstract painting has been around for a hundred years, yet here it’s still perceived as modern and edgy. Brady Gunnell interjects to say the same goes for experimental film, “It’s a relatively old medium. It’s been around since the fifties in galleries, and video since the seventies…it doesn’t get the exposure [here].”
Brady Gunnell and Garrett know each other from Pacific Northwest College. Cocoa Caffé is their usual meeting spot. They are collaborating on a video installation piece for the Kayo show—intended to bridge their work. According to Brady, “The video piece will be an overarching document of themes manifested in images.” I’m not familiar with Brady’s work, so I ask him what he’s into. Without hesitation he lists experimental film, nontraditional narrative, esoteric subjects, and themes of time, history, and memory. He cites the influence of experimental filmmaker Ed Emshwiller, whose work in the fifties grew out of abstract expressionism and science fiction illustrations. He also mentions filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
After Pacific Northwest College, Gunnell came back to Salt Lake and graduated from the U of U film department in 2004. I ask him for his take on the department, and he says, “It could really be great. They need new faculty. You get out of it what you put into it…I thought, ‘I want more; what can I do?’ I approached professors and tried to get an independent study to work with 16mm, but they wouldn’t take the time, so I just got the f*** out of there as fast as I could.”
Sri interrupts to declare that he is the best example of everything that went wrong with art school. I slip inside for a refill. Allison is behind the counter looking brainy and beautiful. I love their euro coffee cups, saucers, and little spoons. From the counter, I look out the window to the patio and wonder what I’m missing.
As I settle back down at the table, Brady Gunnell begins to tell us about the sculptural piece he is planning to show. It is a modular pyramid made of plaster, formed of small pyramids. It is a work in progress. He says he made it a while ago and has been documenting the pyramid’s set-up, presence, and then disassembly in different environmental contexts, and its physical transformation since its inception. Brady says he is interested in the historical pre-eminence of the pyramid as the oldest monumental structure reaching back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the pyramidal shape’s relationship to time, memory, decay, and disintegration.
Brady moves on to something he’s been thinking about recently—the writings of Czeslaw Milosz on the importance of human experience and common sensation. “People get caught up in intellectualism and accomplishment, and the stack of books they read and can refer to. But the essence of life is experience.” Garrett concurs and then adds, “Outside, pop culture bombards us with images that are disconnected. Art happening now is more personal. The work demands attention; it demands time.” Sri nods his head. According to Sri, the medium is secondary; the point is, “the true expression of one’s own experience.” There is a pause and Sri tells me my sunglasses are wicked. I sense he’s forgiven me for getting him up so early. “I’m a painter,” he says, “even though there are other areas I want to get into, painting is my focus now.” He continues, “I’m very intent on being an active participant—not a consumer. I know there is a hidden art market here, a niche that’s not dumbed down for consumerism. There’s a rising community…a fertile scene…the most exciting stuff I’ve seen is coming from young people on the outside of the gallery system making what they want to make even if they have to work a job.” Sri continues, “But there’s no use in being an elitist. I can’t judge artists making to sell…it’s just not my bag.”
Sri Whipple earned a BFA from the U of U. Now he paints at the Guthrie building. It’s an understatement to say that his work is respected among his peers. Sri and I were in foundations together in the 90’s. The department was very academic in those days and completely male dominated. I remember a foundations student bemoaning the fact that it was the most non-creative place she’d ever been. Sri’s drawings were criticized for looking “cartoony.” “The ‘old boys club’ professors I had there, Tony Smith and Paul Davis,” Sri says, “were the best teachers I had…it was a lot of intensive figure study, with an emphasis on drawing and technical ability… I took a twist on it…we didn’t get exposure to the whole contemporary side of things.”
For example, Paul McCarthy, known for his raw visceral work, was born in Salt Lake City in 1945. He went to the U with Sri’s parents, who were famous for organizing “happenings.” At one point, McCarthy jumped out the second story window of the art building, unharmed. Sri says, “Now here’s someone [Paul McCarthy] making something as crazy as anything I would ever make, and he went to the U.” But when we were there, McCarthy was never mentioned. Brady interjects, “The modern art collection at the museum [UMFA] is substandard. If they had one Paul McCarthy piece it would enrich the whole collection.” We nod in agreement.
As a child, Sri says he responded to symbolism in Renaissance art and cultivated an appreciation for painters like Rembrandt and Caravaggio. He also soaked up cartoons, music, and comics like Big Daddy Roth’s Rat Fink, and gross art like Garbage Pail Kids. “Pop surrealism is a new term I just read yesterday,” he says. “I like adult themes, sexual but nongender specific, hermaphroditic, polymorphic forms, esoteric symbols…subtle historical themes.”
Sri says he’s been exploring the Pieta. He says he’s been using “feminine” colors to interpret form in chiaroscuro. His painting technique is very traditional—direct color applications of halftones, highlights, and glazes. “I’m a victim of art school, I use paint in an anal and obsessive way. The paintings are over-worked. I touch every single place on the painting at least three times.”
Some of the feminine shapes are beautiful, others grotesque. He tells us his recent work is directly related to his relationships with women, in addition to his own feminine creative energy. “Everything is a self-portrait,” Sri says. “My own creativity manifests itself with a genital twist.” He starts his drawings (square in format) with no preconception. “I make a line and then I react and react on a subconscious level. As it develops it takes on meaning.”
My phone rings. It’s Kenny Riches, owner of Kayo Gallery, calling to see if the guys want to come and check out the space. I leave them in front of the gallery—it’s nearly midday.
Garrett Adkinson, Sri Whipple and Brady Gunnell are showing together this month at the Kayo Gallery. Object of Memory will continue thru October 15th.
This article originally appeared in the October 2005 edition of 15 Bytes
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