Utah is often spoken of as a cultural monolith, even a theocracy, where church and state are inexorably intertwined. While recent legislation reminds us of the enormous sway the hierarchy of the LDS church does exert over state politics, it should not be forgotten that there has also existed a dynamic tension between church and state, ever since Johnston’s army set up cannons above Salt Lake City at Fort Douglas. Even in the beginning, miners have held sway alongside Mormons, so that both groups push and pull against and with each other, especially in cultural domains like the arts. The State of Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been the biggest collectors of art in the state, and the dynamic between the two has done a great deal to determine our cultural heritage. Pulling from recent acquisitions by both institutions, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s Church vs. State: Contemporary Collecting Praxis examines this dynamic in a structurally impressive and informative show.
The first thing that makes this group show function — almost on a scientific level — is its masterful curation. What Kristian Anderson has done reinforces the binary relationship that is Church vs. State in a way that is supportive to each side, galvanizing the early pioneer vs. miner reality that has not diminished over the past 168 years, but only become more complex. But Anderson has also brought together works that are pulled together by subtle relationships creating discursive dialogues that bring the binary opposites towards a certain gestural resolution.
As one might expect, several of the pieces are overt commentaries expressing the cultural divide implied by the title of the exhibition. Brad Slaugh’s “Latter Day Saints,” from the state’s collection, is an homage to a Sunday drive in the canyon, where the driver has become a contemporary St. Sebastian, with eyes rolled in ecstasy, his head in a halo of light; meanwhile his passenger, a modern St. Lucy, serves up her eyes on a platter. Slaugh’s conflation of the tagline of the state’s dominant religion with traditional Catholic saints, a classic American car and a recognizable Utah landscape, will certainly unsettle mainy in the majority. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mark Hedengren’s “A Church Member Cleans the Ward, Gunlock, Utah,” featuring an LDS chapel interior, is an uncomplicated and comforting cultural reflection that any church-going member can easily identify with and find comfort in.
But politics and religious play are not the primary mode of expression in this show and there is another kind of art that looms larger: a non-iconic, non-specific expression, that operates in a soft, even gossamer manner, weaving a fabric of meaning, a web of ideas, through the use of gesture. It is a fabric that is utilitarian, that can be constructive from every side, the kind of fabric of idea, and thought, from which to build and construct, not through difference and displacement, but through commonality, understanding and unity.
A first piece to consider is the massive, structurally-gestured “Hanging Family History (Maternal Line)” by Valerie Atkisson. On one hand, it functions as a representation of the double helix of DNA; on the other, more literal hand, the myriad paper triangles that shower from ceiling to floor are 72 generations of the artist’s ancestry, beginning with Atkisson herself. The sculpture may be awesome, but in its simple individual gestures, it expresses something intimately comprehensible. Mormons have many core reasons for a concentrated interest in family history, some sacred, many secular, but to gain a grounding of one’s heritage is an empowering thing for every human, in every walk of life. Instead of shouting this message in didactic methods, which would only perpetuate abrasion, the gestural approach of Atkisson is invigorating, inspiring, and intriguing on a level that is quiet and is allowed to speak without causing a noise.
A “secular” complement to “Hanging Family History (Maternal Line)” is Wendy Wischer’s quixotic “Wooded III.” For her “Wooded” series, Wischer photographs treetops, close up, and transfers the gestural, linear design to paper. She then turns the image 180 degrees, and uses a laser to cut the delicate, fibrous plane of the one solid sheet, to create a dense labyrinth of branches, vines, twigs and shoots, with an intricacy that again is hushed; but once the implications are considered, the voice of the artist truly resonates. First of all, the artist has used as her subject, trees, or an appropriation of them. This itself is a critical gesture, deconstructing the absolute nature of the treetop in an art-laden context. In this context, the expressive lines of the treetops can easily be read as roots, and given the deconstructed value, somewhere up there, the very uprooted roots of the tree, idiomatically speaking, are reaching high into the sky. This deconstruction reverences the same element of heritage in Atkisson’s piece, considering the roots of human characteristics, strengths, gifts, personality traits, physical characteristics, and a makeup of sensibilities that belongs to one unique individual and no other. Just what makes someone truly special is, in large measure, due to roots, and in this case they are aiming high. Treetops, that spend their waking hours brushing against clouds, take on a new reality in this deconstruction, and their ethereal nature becomes deeply grounded with the elemental beneath the surface.
Another gestural approach with a quiet voice of communion is Ben Howell’s “Transcription #1.” It is a scroll of parchment, several feet wide, reaching from floor to ceiling that finishes in scrolls. An incredibly minute text covers the entire surface from top to bottom, line by line, with exacting precision, and gesture that is fluid and absorbing. This gesture is so quiet it can reach the heavens and circumnavigate the universe. This is the power of gesture that, in its subtlety, can convey the very possibility of an immensity of truth, light, and understanding.
State-side, or secularly speaking, Howell’s pieces finds a complement in the gesture of Hyunmee Lee. Her “Chunji-Changjo,” is hardly subtle, yet in the mass of black that coalesces centrally, with gesture breathing downwards, to the bottom left, and filling the top center of the canvas on a ground of white, there is nothing intense. The relationship and construction of these two opposite tonalities engages the sensibilities in ways impossible if the slightest color were added. Ways like rest, resolve, repose, resplendence, recourse, resilience, and respite.
Jared Lindsay Clark has two contributions to the show, his “Palimpsests: Saturday,” and “Palimpsests: Sunday.” These two etchings are the overlapping of notes taken during an LDS General Conference in 2012. For Saturday, we have Lindsay Clark’s pictorial musings, while on Sunday we have his written documentation of the word, each a reflective commentary on the formal state of mind of the author as he absorbed the words of “prophets, seers and revelators.” In both of these palimpsests, these gestural overlapping of words transcribed from religious leaders, we have a visually graphic statement that is, in the words of the curator, both “hidden and present.”
In a massive abstract painting by the late Lee Deffebach, “Green Sides of Gold Sides,” 1999, the viewer is encouraged to ponder and meditate upon various sides of things. For sure, there is the green side to the gold side, but there is also the lighter side to the darker side; there is the linear side to the lateral side, and on the whole, there is the complementary side to the opposing side. Just as Clark reflected the layered sides to his cognitive approach to spiritual perception—the image and the word, and the many images within images and words within words—Deffebach is inviting the audience to compare relationships of form, be they those that occur within the painterly—her physical gesture—or be they the cognitive registry of such gesture, and how this gesture is made manifest and thus occupying place as space. Both artists, across many boundaries, parameters, polarities, and limits, are in sync.
If voices from church and state would speak in a manner synonymous to gesture rather than posture, the rhetoric and the sophistry that pollutes the everyday functioning of our state would be silenced; and instead, a resonant realization that there is much to be gained through difference, would be heard. This exhibition highlights some of the differences implied by the vs. of the title, but it also shows us that if voices are listened to, with sensitivity to truth, and sensitivity to meaningful productivity, on a level of humanity and humility, all can find mutuality through common, synergistic understanding.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.