In commercial advertisements, everything is “new.” The artists who staff Phillips Gallery know only too well that the components of art are rarely all that new, and so they change one letter of that adjective, transposing an e for an o and saying “now.” Or more formally, they label what they exhibit “current work.” Even Darryl Erdmann is careful to state, “I’m doing something different,” which is true, but examples prove that the current work fits quite comfortably alongside the older works that preceded and accompany it.
The changes can be seen most readily in “Territories—Diptych,” which the artist says took him a long time — he may have said “years” — to complete, during which he had the photograph that forms the focus of the overall composition and was determined to find a way to build around it. He might well add that this isn’t a truly new work, in the sense of being a break with the past, but rather an extension of what he’s always done. That is, as he explains in his statement, “improvising innate conversations between inanimate objects.” That these are daubs of paint and found swatches of visually suggestive material is due in no small part to an art-historical decision that could stand some attention.
One of the relatively few genuinely “new” moments in art occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, when impressionism, cubism, and abstraction, and a number of other –isms together broke down the doors of the academy. Among the items they brought with them was collage, in which pre-existing bits of imagery were unceremoniously glued onto the painted canvas. In time, this led to mixed-media, but with a distinction depending on the number of dimensions. To put it too simply, mixed-media can refer to two- or three-dimensional art, but collage usually means two, while assemblage is used with three. Both techniques are widely used to great effect by Utah artists.
Erdmann remembers beginning to make art in the ’60s, a socially loose era, but one that art critics were trying desperately to rein in. Clement Greenberg, their loudest voice, said that all painting should be flat, like Jackson Pollock’s. This may help explain why a painting like Erdmann’s “Fallen on Deaf Ears” undermines efforts by the viewer’s eye and mind to find its third dimension, a drama that was evident when 15 Bytes looked at it in 2021. On the other hand, Pollock’s paintings don’t look all that flat to us today, and neither do Erdmann’s. A good example of his evolution can be seen in “Now It Begins,” where breaks and gaps in the paint make it quite clear that a layer of paint is a real object, one that exists in space, ready for an encounter. Or there’s “Veering Off,” where a smooth shape near the top crumples below, just as happens when gravity presses the top down on what supports it.
Artists make choices, and it’s pretty clear that one of Darryl Erdmann’s has to do with the nature of the objects that interact in his paintings. He knows intuitively that the more specific they are, the narrower the audience they speak to will be. He has chosen not to rely on “recognizable imagery,” but it might be said that he has admitted more “suggestive imagery” over the years. His justification for this is his own, but it speaks to the desires of his colleagues and audience: “This allows the viewer to participate and interact with the work on a personal level.” Another former goal of art was to be “universal.” Like flatness, universality hasn’t stood the test of time, nearly so well as Darryl Erdmann has.
Darryl Erdmann, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 11