Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Booksellers’ Art: Sam Weller’s Novel Pulp and Ken Sanders’ Greetings from Utah

Most antiquarian bookstores have a spot set aside to display old maps and prints. These might have once been bound into books, but in any case they resonate with the booksellers’ appreciation for fine printing on paper. In Salt Lake, however, two excellent independent bookstores (which are increasingly rare, as fewer Americans read or buy books and more do so from the aggressive, marketing-driven chains) have set aside space to display original works by artists invited in to show their work. In other words, they are not just bookstores, but galleries as well.

Ken Sanders Rare Books has a large corner of floorspace in the front permanently set aside to display what is often called “ephemera.” They try to mount some sort of event for Gallery Stroll every month, though exhibits often run for two or three months. For November, the event was the re-release party for The Mormon Kama Sutra, which drew reflexive criticism from the thin-skinned, but hearty, life-affirming laughter from those who believe, along with Oscar Wilde, that pleasure is nature’s mark of approval.

This Friday, December 4th, Ken Sanders will debut Greetings From Utah . . . Wish You Were Here|1| an exhibit that, in keeping with Yuletide nostalgia, will depict the Utah of old through 60 framed, vintage postcards. As someone who, passing through in the 80s, saw the ghostly Saltair II surrounded by the Lake in flood, seeming to float atop its inverted reflection, I know that postcards can be linked like websites to recollections that can trigger an entire archive of memories. This exhibit invites the public to “revisit the original Salt Palace with its salt encrusted dome; journey to Delta and behold the 1940s disco ball and miniature Temple inside Van’s Dance Hall; view Brigham Young and his wives;|2| Amelia’s Palace, home of Brigham Young’s favorite wife; giant racers setting world land speed records on the salt flats; portraits of Utah’s most famous actress, Maude Adams,|3| and many more . . . .” Running through December 26, three weeks of unpretentious and accessible art will begin with “Utah’s tiniest gallery stroll.”

At Sam Wellers Zions Bookstore, , the gallery is usually the mezzanine, though the art may spill over the railing and sometimes fills the densely cluttered main room. For those too young to remember the great mercantile palaces, a mezzanine is a partial second floor attached to the walls of a building, leaving an open space or atrium in the center. Ascending the stairs to Sam Weller’s mezzanine this month, one can see a row of works on paper extending along the only wall not completely covered by books. There are five artists in Novel Pulp: New Paper Works, which opened November 20 and runs through Friday, January 8. Three artist’s works hang on the wall; the others chose to work with the floor and ceiling.

Marshall McLuhan said that when a new medium takes over, the old medium can become subversive. David Wolske agrees, and his letterpress-printed broadsides question the ‘everyone can be an artist’ mindset that has grown up under the impact of universal ink-jet printing and post-your-own video websites: Looking is not making, he reminds the ‘creative’ consumer: “Saying is not doing.” At Sam Weller’s, in a sequence of pages, each printed with the single word CONSUME, each partially shredded, the text gradually emerges or disappears from view, recalling that while consumption has usually been seen by consumers as a positive addition to their lifestyles, a more objective view of consumption shows it to be destructive and unsustainable.|4|

Lauren Huber is a graphic designer with an international background in art studies. In the last part of the 20th century, many artists took to deriving art from an exploration of materials and their characteristics: wood, metal, glass, exotics. The word “craft” was used to distinguish such approaches from more cerebral strategies. Huber retains some of those material concerns, including the interactions of textures, patterns, and colors in two- and three-dimensional design. All this comes into play in “Participant,” which stretches along the wall next to the rare book room.|5| The title is ironic, referring to the inflation and trivialization of award-giving best symbolized by giving every participant an award regardless of actual achievement. Huber notes that as trophies age and gather dust, they often change meaning and become mnemonics of quite different values than those engraved on their surfaces. That said, Huber appears taken with their abstract forms, and here strips them of distracting particulars so they can be studied as physical phonemes belonging to a symbolic vocabulary. In turn they reward the viewer’s attention, as much for the exquisite craft with which she has translated them into cut and folded kraft paper replicas as for the way, despite being stripped to their blank forms, they nevertheless evoke recognition and some kind of sub-cutaneous, tactile response.

In contrast to Huber’s accessible, neat bas-reliefs, Edward McKenna’s drawings, clipped next to them on the wall,|6| require some explanation or guesswork to distinguish them from five sheets of paper that might have simply accumulated in the midst of some project. One possibility is that McKenna, who cites stand oil as the primary medium viewers should watch, stacked five sheets of paper and painted on the top one, using an oil paint with polymerized (previously heated) linseed oil instead of, say, the alkyd resin that replaces oil in most “oil-base” paints. Some of the oil then separated from the pigment and soaked down through the successive layers of paper, leaving a trail of its passage through each layer in the form of a pattern related to the painting above. However, since the one sheet in color is completely covered in horizontal rows of repeated marks, and the four following sheets—the ones marked almost entirely by oil stains—show a single row, like fenceposts in snow, of such marks, it’s quite possible I’m entirely missing the point.

Rather than hang on the wall, Jared Steffensen’s “Peaks and Valleys” rises from the floor.|7-8| The peaks are paper cones, each meticulously folded into a “geometric solid” with between four and twelve sides. The valley—there seems to be really only one—bisects the protruding angle of the floor and divides the peaks into two triangles while tying the geometry of the paper forms to the larger, simpler geometry of the building. One imagines there being larger links—say, to the Wasatch Mountains just outside, then to the sphere of the world, and so forth—the geometry growing simpler as the forms become larger. It’s a surprisingly present and provocative piece.

Amber Heaton chose to hang her “Shroud” from the ceiling instead of the wall.|9| Her curtain of book pages zig-zagging through space, interrupting the view of books shelved beyond,|10| and its title suggests she wants us to think about the predicted death of the bound paper book, whether caused by the loss of readers or its replacement by books made of electrical impulses, light, and shadow. Yet her accordion-pleated pages also recall that there have always been alternatives to the edge-bound book with pages that can only be turned in one way. It’s a small comfort, as we look forward to the real likelihood that the book we’ve preferred for millennia is dying, will be increasingly rare, and perhaps one day will exist only in museums, to realize that it, too, was once a new idea and may simply be evolving to another form.

Heaton’s curtain, as it interacts vividly with a background of book spines and shelves, could also be said to separate two audiences: one that is happy to see books used as raw materials for art works that borrow their significance as cultural icons while ignoring their contents, the other that thinks such destructive and derivative works are a kind of vandalism. It’s a question for our time: do we as a species give in to exhaustion and plunge like the Romans into oblivion, or do we keep our faith and focus on improving our lot? You can find the answers—both of them—on the shelves of your neighborhood bookstore.

Novel Pulp: New Paper Works, is at Sam Weller’s through January 8. Greetings From Utah . . . Wish You Were Here, opens at Ken SandersFriday, December 4th and continues through December

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