Ansel Adams, the first photographer to insist that photographs are artworks, blurred another boundary when he compared the making of a photograph to the composition of music. The negative, he said, was like a score, and the print was like a performance. Marcel Duchamp, the pioneering gender-bender who assumed the alternate identity of Rrose Selavy, played Adams’ metaphor from the other end by composing a musical score with no notes. Instead, his score loosely sketched a random process for selecting all the attributes of music—the sequence of tones, their duration, and so forth—using an art mechanism to be fashioned by the performer. British musician Brian Eno, after a brief career onstage as a member of Roxy Music, retired as rock star in order to collaborate in the studio with visionary musicians. In fact, after Eno realized that he preferred inventing ways of creating music to carrying out those ideas, he became the most sought–after collaborator among musicians pushing the boundaries of music. These and other 20th-century artists went a long way in dethroning the isolated genius as the source of art, a movement that may have culminated in Eno’s plan to turn a democratic vision of art into a program for making it.
Collective Experience, the group exhibition showing at Rio Gallery through April, draws its inspiration from Eno’s term for something he called an ”ecology of talent.“ He envisioned bringing together creative individuals who together would form a scene, or locus of creativity. Instead of a lonely genius, he proposed a ”Scenius” would emerge from the synergistic interaction of this group. The particular group out of which Collective Experience emerged were participants in the performance, five years ago, of Awaiting, a meditative, walking activity conceived by artist Ernesto Pujol, which took place on the grounds of the Utah State Capitol, involving some 80 local artists, U of U educators, students, and Salt Lake community leaders. The 14 principals participating in Collective Experience all took part and were affected by that performance five years ago, and the works present in the gallery were each in some way inspired or inflected by that day spent together, contemplating regional and personal themes that are said to have included “walking, gender roles, embodiment, the gestural, site-specificity, and the notion of waiting.”
Stefanie Dykes, who curated as well as participated in Collective Experience, is best known to Salt Lake City as a printmaker, but she may also be Utah’s most restless artist: one who constantly reinvents herself, whether with new formats for old media or altogether new ways of working. Thus while there is a bias here toward graphic qualities in various materials, most of the artists work in more than one medium, and an individual may take one trope through a range of techniques. Joey Behrens, a one-time member of the Poor Yorick collective before moving to Pittsburgh, demonstrates the geographical range of Eno’s premise by bringing Shifting Sites—a performance that began in Athens, Ohio, only to disperse to as many as a dozen other places—here to Salt Lake City. Performance in art, as distinguished from traditional theater, music, or poetry, implies the production of artifacts: costumes or props created for or during the actual performance that remain after as a kind of evidence. Behrens, whose prints and paintings foreground the urban landscapes most people regard as background, built model houses that could be carried by various walking performers. In addition to showing photographs of some of the houses being carried, “Nan’s House” came here to be carried through downtown Salt Lake City and into the Rio during the opening event. Similar in size to a human torso, “Nan’s House” was made like a box kite, of thin wood strips covered with tissue paper. The intricate engravings that comprise its skin evoke the domestic environment that has all but disappeared from our cities, while the delicacy of its intricate, house-shaped structure underscores the fragility of modern urban lives.
Another artist whose range exceeds what can fit on a wall or pedestal is Sandy Brunvand. Known for inspired media mixing in her prints and drawings, Brunvand is also a sought-after musician, though to the extent it affects her graphic art, music is evident primarily in the rhythmic marks that pulse across her pages. Many of her familiar motifs can be seen here, including references to her daily walks, for many a primary form of meditation but for her also time spent directly observing nature. While time passing and the rhythms of life are deeply implicit in her work, here she foregrounds them, along with direct reference to musical performance, by painting and drawing directly on salvaged player piano rolls. Suggesting the scrolls traditionally used in Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and calligraphy, they measure 11 1/4” wide, but run longer than a gallery wall, lending them a sculptural presence, especially where six of them hang from their rollers, unspooling down the wall, weighted at the floor with stones. The linear holes punched through the paper, suggestive of footprints, makes walking, one of the themes of Awaiting, an unmistakable presence. They also refer directly to duration, one of the themes of Collective Experience, and add an accidental-looking element in the lyrics that run bottom-to-top along their edges: I / NEV- / ER / DREAMED / THERE’S / SUCH / A / PLACE / AS / I / HAVE / SEEN / TO- / DAY.
Footprints also figure largely in two short videos by Beth Krensky. Video usually fits poorly in the gallery setting, but the two artists using it here avoid the primary pitfalls, which include uncertain dimensions, lack of visual unity, and the viewer’s unknown location at any moment within the overall work. Krensky’s “Tashlich” and “Where is the Road to the Road?” are short and clear enough to present no more challenge to a viewer than would a painting or sculpture, even as they preserve a sense of mystery. Tashlich, a cleansing ritual, must be performed by a body of water; the presence here of a dry lakebed compounds the weight of approaching environmental crisis. Meanwhile, the idea of a road leading to the road raises a host of philosophical questions. Can the way to something also be a destination in itself? Is every object, every value subject to such abstraction, and if so, what concrete things remain to which one can cling? Satu Hummasti, a professor at the University of Utah’s dance department, finds another use for video, which brings to life the half-dozen stills of her dances that acquaint viewers with their more static characteristics, such as costume, blocking, and gesture.
Another strategy for compressing a time-based medium like video or dance to fit a gallery is employed by Amie Tullius, who combines her audio recordings with pochoir paintings that offer something to contemplate while listening to her voice over headphones, as a mandala may focus attention during meditation. ‘Pochoir’ refers to the use of stencils in fine art, suggesting that Tullius, whose texts here refer to the events that theoretically took place at the very beginning of the universe, may mean to invoke thereby some advanced cosmological notions. If, as many astronomers now suspect, the universe is truly an irrational physical object, such as a holographic projection, a stencil might actually be an accurate representation.
It may be that we need another term, besides ‘mixed media,’ to describe works like so many of these, wherein the art can operate independently or simultaneously. Jenevieve Hubbard has brought such a project to several recent venues: one that combines handicraft, performance, installation, forensics, and statistics. In it, she appears dressed in white, poised spider-like at the center of a spread parachute, on which she embroiders fingerprints contributed by members of the audience. Proof of an unexpected, naturally-occurring synergy between needlepoint and fingerprints can be seen in three larger examples, conventionally framed and hanging nearby. Thematically titled Touch, these fingerprints recall James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks; and Malcolm Little, who became notorious as Malcolm X. This might easily be taken as a statement on race, though Hubbard notes that ‘post-modern’ art has an intrusive tendency to insist on specific and didactic readings. Then, as if to show she’s not opposed to artworks taking part in a conversation, she observes that in America we collect fingerprints almost exclusively from blacks and criminals.
Some art attempts familiar work in new ways. When Gertrude Stein wanted to say nothing was left of her hometown but her memories, her formulation, “There is no there there,” was widely misunderstood to demean the city of Oakland. Lucia Volker, who makes intriguing use of networks and fragmentary grids in a variety of graphic media, fares better in a photograph called “Thoughts of Home,” wherein a ghostly, possibly boarded-up building and some trees appear beneath a sky suggesting a street map. Michael Handley’s photo of a moth alight on a hand takes its title, “The Parting Glass,” not from the subject but from the way it is mounted: stuck to the wall by a layer of packing tape recalling the increasingly isolated, sealed-off way so many live in relation to nature.
Other artworks use familiar visual language to say something new. Suzanne Simpson and Jim Frazer, known for large, visually compelling installations that make sophisticated social observations, contribute two here. The reflective surface of “Anthropocene’s Error,” lets us watch ourselves watching the night sky while assessing some human responses to nature, while “Intercept” seems to open up the gallery’s floor and reveal an inverted world beneath. Heidi Moller Somsen’s oil stick on photos tries to empower both, while her Sinews employs imaginary organs to convey qualities rather than things.
Some old arts have been renewed: the textile renaissance predates the digital realm’s interest in networks and weaving the world. Colin Roe Ledbetter’s sophisticated techniques give “StarryI Starry Night”and “Sphere ” a new graphic expression. Dawn Oughton similarly reinvents egg tempera, the foremost medieval paint medium, in visual journals of what purport to be her life. These are the only paintings in the show, and Oughton paints as if it’s never been done before.
Finally, a curator’s own contribution may reveal what she was looking for in her selections. Stefanie Dykes went back to Awaiting for her performance, “Inscribed,” in which five women, four collaborators and the artist herself, carry ceramic bowls of blue ink through the gallery. She gave Corey Day, Colour Maisch, Barb Schaecher, and Janie Laird almost complete autonomy to create their own ceremonies. And in her installation, “Placing and Replacing,” she demonstrates that clothes really do make the man, even if he starts out a woman. Donning her father’s clothes, she makes the intensely personal regionally political, while demonstrating that the self-knowledge Ernesto Pujol considers essential may be most readily found in making art.
This review appeared in the April 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.