A street car leaves the station and moves steadily toward the picture plane, bathed in light and shadow on Salt Lake City’s busy Main Street. A richly-hued autumnal scene is set ablaze in greens, reds, burnt oranges and yellows, as the form of a tree is illuminated against the winter-encroaching sky. A parade of aspens becomes an abstract image that takes a place of its own in the reality of the natural world and invites the viewer to experience what color, light, shape and lucid gesture can achieve in an abstracted state in nature. At 15th Street Gallery this month artists Aaron Memmott, Janell James, and John Collins each present their own way of capturing the essence and spirit of living in nature.
Aaron Memmott’s cityscapes have the energy and urbanity one can only find in a vibrant city, the product of its people and its commerce, the physical color and structural aspects of the city, and the pulse that drives it. Memmot’s drawing is accurate, but his brushwork is loose and energetic, paying attention to the play of light and form. He paints Salt Lake City in all seasons and lights: In “Mountain Valley,” the frosted Wasatch Mountains are suspended in the frigid atmosphere and encompass the coldness and frostbitten bustle of buildings, automobiles and activity below; in “Rio Grande Evening,” the old train depot is soaked in the warm light of twilight, the western sky at its back bathed in orange and yellow.
In “Main Street Ride,” Memmott digs deep within the heart of the city, like taking a glimpse into a canyon and finding rushing rapids animated and flowing within the ravine of the canyon. Depicting an everyday scene like “Main Street Ride,” what brings the city to life is the radiant light that animates the city as it touches it, embraces it with color, encompassing all other aspects of the vitality, the pulse of the city, bringing it to and giving it life. Not stopping here, there is found with just as much vitality, light that infuses ubiquitously, in every tonality, gradation, and hue. It is the animation, the vibrancy, the radiance, that gives the light its substance, thus the color, the dimension, the character, the beauty of the city would be lost, without life.
In Janell James’ work we find nature in its glorious, symbiotic fullness. In a work like “Br’ers Passage,” the artist may paint but a single tree, but the painting is so much more, and the viewer finds a resplendent display, in a full palette of rich, golden, autumnal hues moving in intense gradations of lights and darks. But more than a tree, what James depicts is something born of nature to grow and create form in the purest sense, in the most natural sense, as trunk turns to branches and branches to twigs and leaves. And even more so, these trees, shapes that James uses without exception, are a study in form. The tree, dimensional with intensive color and contrast, and a sense of time that the tree in just this state of precise autumnal color will exist only in this moment, and the viewer knows that winter will soon come and the form of the tree, still a pure study of natural elements, will change.
As dominant as this form may be, James gives equal attention to the very present sky, without which the tree would have no form, no shape to respond to, and the color of the subject would be absent. However, as full as the colors of the tree are and as glorious as is the form itself, reminding us where in the year we are, the tree gives presence and being to the sky. If there were no trees, no mountains, no lakes and streams, the sky would be lifeless, just as the tree would be without the sky. Without the empyrean presence, there would be no immense color, there would be no sense of season, there would be no beauty of the tree; it would be lost, without life.
John Collins likes to lose himself and his viewers in his paintings, whether it be groves of aspens, a favorite subject, or the burned hues of the desert plateaus and skies. The artist has a lucidly lively palette, and Collins reaches far in his depictions of scenes of nature—meadows with sinewy trees and minute cows, sweeping alpines, tall and majestic, and reaching for the mountains behind and the clouds above, a magnificent mountainside with sagebrush and black shapes of cows at the base, and a monumental series of plateaus that are pure color. The aspens are among his more abstract scenes, taking advantage of nature for a more elevated state, allowing the natural light and shade to enliven the color with an explosion of life, with a play of color and intensities in the light and shadow.
The reality that is a grove of aspens for Collins, in excited variations of color and tonality, takes on another presence entirely. Without the color, the rhythm and the dance of the trees, without the flickering light and darkness and animated play of a panorama of tones, shades, and hues in a work like “Aspen Grove-Alpine Loop,” there would be no majesty to this canopy, and all would be white columnar shapes with little to give the work substance or animation. And without these colors, the pulsation, the dance and the flickering light, where would be the changes of seasons, the clouds overhead, the light radiating from above and through the forest, the shadows, the winds rushing through the trees, the blistering cold, the burning heat, and the falling into night; all would be dark, the color and light black, without the beauty of the trees, without life.
At 15th Street Gallery this month, a symbiosis is manifest within the city, majestic trees, or radiantly colorful groves of aspens. Whatever the conditions of each symbiosis, these artists show that for the fullness of energy and the reality of elements at their most impressive and natural wonder, all must come together in a dance of light and color, or else beauty is lost, nature without life.
The works of Aaron Memmott, Janell James and John Collins are featured at 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City through October 10.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.