Since at least 1970, when Robert Smithson starting pushing rocks and mud into the Great Salt Lake, the open and often unused spaces of our state have been used as canvases by contemporary artists. In 1976 Nancy Holt, who will be the subject of an exhbit at the UMFA this fall, went to the ghost town of Lucin, Utah to install her Sun Tunnels. If you drive west on I-80 to see it, you’ll pass Metaphor: The Tree of Utah, the controversial sculpture near the salt flats installed by Swedish artist Karl Momen in the 1980s. More recently, Australian artist Andrew Rogers’ Ratio was installed in open spaces near Green River by retired school teacher Herbert Steiner.
It would be reasonable to think that Steiner’s decision, a personal shot at a little immortality (his own admission), was simply a one-off example of contemporary art for Green River. But you’d be wrong. For the past two years the lonely pit-stop town along I-70 has hosted an art-music-film festival, The Green River Project. And since 2009 it has been home to Epicenter, a community design center, with a crew of graduates in architecture, design and sociology, that serves the town with affordable rental housing, a Boys & Girls Club, a soup kitchen, and a thrift store. They also facilitate art projects through their Frontier Fellow program.
Currently Epicenter is hosting Richard Saxton’s The Majestics, a multi-media, multi-location installation that grew out of Saxton’s exploration of the architectural styles that emerged in and around National Parks in the Rocky Mountains (Wyoming, Colorado and Utah). A series of 26 photographs examining the built landscape of rural communities in these areas is on exhibit at Green River’s Robber’s Roost hotel. The hotel itself, whose name invokes myths of the Wild West to attract passing tourists, is emblematic of the type of cultural resonances that swell around Saxton’s art. National Parks have been created as enclaves of “wilderness,” places our largely urban population can visit to experience some sort of unspoilt or less-spoiled landscape. The irony, of course, is that to get to and appreciate these locations (or for that matter locations like Spiral Jetty or Sun Tunnels) one must travel in a car, stopping in gas stations and motels. On these drives we engage with a type of vernacular architecture that has catered to the myth of specific locales. The architecture usually began within the parks themselves, designed as promotional elements, and reverberated (Saxton calls this “reverb design”) throughout surrounding communities.
Saxton’s artistic presence in Green River radiates out from Robbers Roost: from a an installation of found photographs installed in the Trailside Museum, a vintage travel trailer, to examples of his drawings in the Epicenter building on Broadway, and even farther afield, where on old billboards and even an old jailhouse he has created site-specific installations. These are 2- and 3-D realizations of his drawings and photographs, which frequently feature geometric designs superimposed on photographs of wildlife and wildlands.
The exhibit ends July 27th, so you only have a couple of days to jump in your car, race past some rocky mountains and visit the sites (here’s a hand drawn map of the exhibits and installations). If you miss it, there’s a catalogue exhibition available. Epicenter’s Frontier Fellows program hosts artists on a regular basis. In October look for sculptor Shawn Creeden. You can learn more about their programming here.