15 Bytes | Exhibition Reviews

Borderline: Chuck Landvatter, Megan Mitchell, & Joe Strickland at The Rio Gallery


A few years ago, a Snow College graduate was nearly dropped from the BFA program at Weber State for submitting drawings that resembled photographic double exposures. In one, a woman had two heads; in another, an ear of one face burst through another’s cheek. Ironically, they would look right at home among Chuck Landvatter’s large portraits, which just goes to remind us that new art rarely comes wearing an academic imprimatur. Like that student, Landvatter sometimes overlays two poses, or he may double up a segment of a face (“Nelson & Nelson”), or he may slice and dice a face, then reassemble it so as to alter its proportions . That we still perceive recognizable faces speaks to our ability to learn new perceptual tricks as quickly as we can create them.

One untitled portrait flips back and forth between monstrous and motherly, alternating faster as the mind tries ever harder to stabilize her image. Yet in “Marshall & Marshall,” wherein the most extreme and geometric shattering overwhelms the senses, the mind’s perceptual response is to simply invent a coherent image where, in reality, there is none. Like walking past a fence, where the scanning slots between the boards enable our minds to see through solid wood as if it were transparent, these portraits are parables of how we actually perceive: not neuron per pixel per se, but by assembling an image from bits, often remarkably accurately.

Coming from another, related direction, Landvatter’s Crumpled Face Series revels in the novelty of making permanent the distortions that result when a meaningful set of symbolic marks is rudely translated from two dimensions into three, once again transforming them in ways that tease but fail to fool the astute, well-practiced brain. A fourth technique seems to alternate an image of the presence of the subject with one of his absence, thereby taking cubism from three dimensions to four: from being in space to being in space-time. Of course, where one viewer sees science in action, another may just as well find evocations of humor or horror. Aesthetics, after all, is by far our richest way of thinking.

Megan Mitchell’s ceramic objects are contained within compact, eloquent profiles that possess enough solid presence to complement a Zen garden. Yet their three-dimensional simplicity is belied by the sophistication and rich complexity of their ornamental surfaces. “Incomplete Road II”— ‘Press-molded stoneware, slip inlay, lithography transfer, screen print, glaze, cone 6 oxidation’—is as complex as it sounds, all this appearing on three pale, off-white rectangles that undulate like a ribbon across the wall, their skins as riven and marked by stress as the salt flats. In platters, tiles, and a box, the image is sometimes a decorative pattern, like a William Morris chintz; at others, a landscape drawing embeds itself in the soft glass surface.

Given that the pieces all resemble utilitarian ware, but carry landscape elements of one form or another, they all lie along the indoor/outdoor divide. Other borderlines Mitchell invokes include functional and decorative, positive and negative, new and antique, authentic and simulated, window and wall, superficial and incised, complete and incomplete, red and blue . . . and so on, limited only by the patience of the philosopher contemplating them. To see them is to imagine how it would feel to touch them; to turn away is to anticipate and desire seeing them again.

Architectural photography isn’t exactly a sexy genre, and Joe Strickland has compounded the challenge by choosing as his subject public restrooms. The gold-and-marble temples of ablution glimpsed in some modern palaces of wealth and commerce don’t necessarily lack glamour or the ability to inspire passion—or envy, at least. Photographic drama is another matter, as are public toilets (as they are labeled nearly everywhere but the United States). Built on a budget and designed for minimum maintenance, these anonymous spaces are routinely remodeled by vandals and rebuilt by the lowest bidder. This is not a formula for photogenic results. What makes them such excellent subjects, as Strickland finds them, is their universality. Were the results of his visit to Carmel in 2012 a portrait of a married couple, we might note on the left the superficial look of confidence on the face of the groom, comparing it to the complex backstory suggested by the bride’s elaborate self-presentation on the right. In the landscape he captured in Big Sur the same year, the rivulets of water on the floor might recall the sea wrack found and photographed on a nearby beach by the incomparable Edward Weston. We feel we can tell something, and not just something superficial, about the people of Park City and Madison River from the complacent way their restroom presents them. This isn’t sociology; it’s the ability of art to reveal life’s limits in an instantaneous glimpse. Compare Brigham City’s single, discrete toilet to the County Fair’s four exposed metal boxes, with their darkened floors. Bright colors and smooth surfaces here, subdued hues and textured materials there. Strickland’s photos are fashionably large, but for a purpose: standing in front of one is like being present, confronted by the physical facts of biological necessity. Behind the obvious division—the door between public identity and what goes on in private—there is a much more important borderline we cannot be reminded of enough: what we would choose to leave out of almost any catalog if we could are almost always the essential things that, if anything, should receive our attention first.

Unlike the UMFA, the UMOCA, or the Finch Lane Gallery, each of which can isolate disparate artists among separate rooms or even floors, the Rio Gallery’s calm and formal, single space forces the works it shows into the kind of dialogue urban landscapes press upon their buildings. While it’s uncommon, if not rare, for three artists with similar programs and equal impacts to turn up at the same time, it’s not necessarily the case therefore that one or two will make the third look weak by comparison. In the case of Borderline, works that might be overlooked or struggle to impress on their own draw strength from the sympathetic atmosphere surrounding them, and the viewer comes away conscious of how a single boundary can separate more than one pair of contrasting dimensions. Just as an opposing pair of watersheds draining into a common stream may have contrasting political systems, cultures, topographies, and habitats, so two mediums, two design envelopes, or two architectural functions can inform each other. At a certain point, only an observer can fully appreciate just what an artist is doing. Sometimes that’s a dealer, a gallery director, or a critic. Here, three artists have done that for each other, and found so much in common in the process that they chose to show together. The result is a cohesion that can be felt gathering strength as one walks from one work to the next, until the room seems to vibrate, to hum an inaudible chord or glow with an invisible color harmony.

Borderline: Chuck Landvatter, Megan Mitchell, & Joe Strickland is at Rio Gallery through January 10.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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