There’s a contrast between the exhibition’s title, unruly, and the cooperative, even collaborative feelings evident in the works within. It’s a dissonance that all too clearly arises not in the sentiments of the artist, Alise Anderson, but rather in her recognition of some egregious, inhospitable response from within her larger community. If anything about her is “unruly,” it’s only her omitting an apology for her presence, and for just being herself. There’s nothing unfamiliar about the double standard she implicates without naming it. After all, a man who disrupts prematurely settled customs may be called an innovator, or honored as a revolutionary. A woman who demonstrates a better way forward might be labeled worse things than unruly. “Very well, then,” this room full of fine art says: “I am unruly. We are unruly.”
Demonstrating just who “we” are is the work of each and every piece in this show. It starts at the architecturally innovative entrance. There are two main galleries at Finch Lane, each an open, rectangular space not unlike a box. Visitors may stand in one place and take in the entire room. Anderson modified — disrupted? improved? — her space by erecting a wall beyond the door to the West gallery, effectively making an entrance hall across the audience’s path and bringing them face-to-face with the first artwork: “a family portrait.” Here, in a space created with the help of her companion, Kim Raff, she presents a domestic fantasy that includes the couple and two dogs, assembled around a table graced by plates of food, a vintage cake stand, and a melon that resembles the symbolic foodstuffs of still-life genre painting. In classic portrait fashion, all four individuals assume poses that reveal their characters. The children ignore the camera and look to each other for reassurance they’re getting it right. Raff, her hand resting on the table beneath Anderson’s, lays her head on the artist’s shoulder and smiles, confident she belongs here. Anderson, the most deeply ensconced of the four, withholds her participation just enough to allow monitoring all that is taking place, in front of and behind the lens: inside and outside the photograph.
The key to fully understanding the rest of the work lies in an early 20th-century guide book for LDS girls that over the years has been made less literal, but no less urgent as it was internalized and symbolized in the culture at large. “The Hand-Book for the Bee-Hive Girls of the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association” influenced at least three generations of the artist’s family, including her. Quotations and images from the book form decorative borders to imaginatively reconstructed pages that reverse the conventions of art: the content is found in the normally blank margins, while the centers, like so many journal or sketchbook pages, invite viewers to imagine their own content.
At no point does Anderson repudiate the handbook or reject its guidance. In fact, a close look at the wall behind the family portrait will reveal an ornamental collage of essential LDS symbols: scissors and candles, snails and seagulls, bees and beehives, and perhaps most complex of all illustrative figures, ducks. Having constructed the wall specifically for the photograph, Anderson then accepted a suggestion that she include it here, where it serves to extend the generous spirit established in the portrait over the conventional separation of the frame, across the wall, and into the viewer’s space. It’s clear from this beginning that what she desires above all else is to to practice her spiritual craft in her heartfelt way, among her peers, in mutual acceptance.
Two large works confirm her fealty to her community, even as they foreground subtle shifts in emphasis. In keeping with the urging of the Hand-Book, she has kept bees, and her film, “Beehive Girls,” follows them closely, revealing how their industry depends on peaceful cooperation. Fundamental to her vision is that they are an entirely female community. The males, in fact, live separately and compete to select the best reproductive stock, interacting only with the receptive female or queen, a pattern seen in animals from bees to elephants, and which reveals something about human behavior as well.
The largest work here is “Gay Ducks 4 Sale:” 100 sculpted and freely interpreted clay ducks presented on four shelves and identified as a fundraiser on behalf of “Project Rainbow, which was created to support and amplify voices of LGBTQ+ individuals living in Utah.” Birds of any sort are among the oldest species on Earth, having evolved from dinosaurs before the rise of mammals, and among their recently discovered habits is the formation of same-sex pairs, female or male, that often raise their young. Ducks in particular are celebrated for what appear to be romantic, rather than biologically determined pairings, which can be witnessed at any local pond, and for the way water, symbolic of trouble, rolls off their backs.
Alise Anderson: unruly, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 17. Gallery Stroll reception, Friday, Oct 20, 6-9 pm.
Image credits: Geoff Wichert