When the news is unbearable, perhaps the best we can hope for is good art. As the centenary of the Dust Bowl devastation of Oklahoma approaches, and the once-great Salt Lake is on schedule to become our planet’s next dust bowl, images of pristine nature, now gone forever, may offer comfort, but they bear no forthcoming promise. In an exhibition of new works, John Sproul, among Utah’s foremost progressive contemporary painters, demonstrates the prescience to see that not only is “man” — humanity — the proper study of mankind, as Alexander Pope says, but is fast becoming the only study left outside museum walls. Sproul’s paintings, then, as he asserts are nothing less than an attempt to discover and depict all that we can know and share about ourselves and the threat we present to ourselves and our world.
Take, for instance, “Olympia,” one of three mid-size panels on view outside the gallery where Underbelly will be on view until April 21. Olympia was among the most sacred temples in Classical Greece, home to some of its finest art works, but here, beneath a roiling red sky, on a tilting red planet, a field of red boulders sets the stage for three men in khaki garb and blue–banded white hats who are doubled over, clearly searching the ground for something. Among them, yet unseen by them, a woman in a blue cocktail dress, the back of one hand held against her forehead, writhes in the arms of a completely black figure who supports her by waist and one leg. More perfectly black than a Ninja, the man is really only a silhouette, like a hole in space, but it’s hard not to think the search party’s all-consuming curiosity is causing them to miss the main event.
The fourth floor gallery at the City Library is a free-standing cubicle, which the staff exploits by putting part of each show, here including “Olympia,” on its outside walls. Inside, at the left end of seven large paintings, the centrifugal energy of “Jazzercise Me!” exploits its location, with a dozen men in sports uniforms jogging in step out of the corner towards the middle of the room. While they are vividly present, the possibly ruined fortress or cathedral they emerge from seems barely present, or else wreathed in haze or smoke, above which a cloudy sky is equally equivocal. The ground over which they run reveals a mottled path they do not take and a pale green area like a lawn they cross instead. An element of satire in Sproul’s titles is the first, early notice that these often jolly-seeming images should not be viewed lightly. Artworks that attempt this level of visual truth can only be undermined by titles that try to be linguistic equivalents of their contents, and while this counterintuitive mockery usefully identifies a given work, it goes on to establish a proper distance between the image and a too-hasty or overly-earnest viewer.
Specific responses such as are found here are written with misgiving and should be read with caution. These images aren’t simple fables that can be so easily decoded and dismissed. They must be viewed in the spirit in which Sproul creates them, as universal images of the human condition, with extensive application. The relative paucity of Nature seen here is not a value judgment, but might be read as expressing recognition that we cannot look to the natural world for rescue, or even for intervention. Humanity now dominates the globe, and while talk of an “Anthropocene Age” may sound positive or promising, the reality is that the clowns who occupy this cosmic circus, Sproul’s world, while they are literally responsible for this blighted environment, like so much of what Dante envisions in his Inferno, they are unable to take responsibility for it.
Few who hurry past these elaborate, anti-utopian vistas may notice it, but almost lost in the background of “If I were Home I would be Here by Now,” — a title that twists the clichéd real estate advertising slogan “If you lived here, you’d be home now” — one tiny, solitary member of the vanished animal kingdom can be found. Following the array of figures, which begins on the left, relatively close to the surface of the canvas, and moves away into the distance as the eye follows to the right, then doubles back, the eye comes finally to the very last creature at the end of the line, so far away that it can be easily overlooked. It’s a dog, the traditional symbol of faithfulness in paintings dating to before the renaissance. We can trust that as the natural world dies, the last living things to suffer along with us will be those we have cared for most.
The reference above, to Dante, serves another purpose; the medieval poet called his vision of the afterlife a “Divine Comedy” because in it, humanity is saved from bungling incompetence and delivered to a happy ending: in his case through a divinely-structured intervention. Sproul’s vision invokes no such specific possibility, though it might be argued that the human knack for invention and problem-solving is not just the source of so much laughable behavior, but offers a possible escape from the mutually-assured dangers to which we have delivered ourselves. But contemplate the hero-in-his-own-mind of “Ra! Ra! Ra!,” as he struts before his cheering fans while the sheer weight of the ominous background seems about to overwhelm him, if not swallow him whole. Likewise, in “Fly Fly Fly,” two men each model their behavior on the other’s clueless example, while a third remains mired in childhood and a woman observes while equivocally “sitting on the fence.” In these and most of his scenes, the artist as much as mocks the pretensions of humanity: the constant promises that something — if not something divine, then something technological — will save us, even as each new invention ends up making things worse instead of better.
A last thought, one that is good news for the critic and art lover if not for one seeking salvation in the real world: John Sproul is a wonderful painter and his works offer seemingly endless hours of pleasure in contemplating his technique and invention. Take, for example, “Gum Drip.” Here, in the open space created by a blue foreground, receding red and black terrain, and a green sky, a whirling, airborne sphere of figures — not a bad stand-in for a world’s population trapped on a ball flying in space — fits perfectly into a dynamic composition that includes the surrounding, sensuous textures. A couple of figures stand out, in particular the blue-clad man who lifts his head to the horizon as he holds his arms out to protect himself. This may be the final statement the artist has to offer on our shared fate. We need to do more than brace ourselves for a landing we cannot survive.
John Sproul: Underbelly, Gallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City Library (4th floor), Salt Lake City, through Apr. 21