In the literally titled “Facing South,” the Utah State Capitol appears not as we usually see it, as the climax of passing through the sprawl of Point of the Mountain, the Jordans, Murray, South Salt Lake, and so on, ascending the cove-like northern end of the Wasatch Front to be crowned by a view of the dome. Viewed through the elevated wilderness of City Creek, that familiar hemisphere becomes the beginning of a city, rather than its end, restoring some of what it must have felt like to discover, as Elise Zoller did, that this truly is the place. “25th Street” takes its cue from Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning,” confronting the bulk of a city block. In “Tires New and Used,” the architectural canopy of a rural service station is itself canopied by sheltering trees. And “Trapper’s Loop” contains not a single building and, except for a hint of the road it’s painted from, no sign of human activity.
Part of Zoller’s secret can be found in that hint of barbed wire-fringed road. Since graduating from Princeton University in architecture, she has traveled widely to continue her academic studies, but also to paint and eventually to exhibit her work around the world. She continues to travel, often by car, in search of the kind of closeup contact necessary to discern the potential value of a locale for an academically trained realist and convinced plein air painter, one willing to brave the challenges of elements and adversity to directly capture whatever she finds.
Bringing together a collection of Zoller’s cities, neighborhoods, and rural towns, as Phillips Gallery does from time to time, produces an effect reminiscent of a family reunion. Each of her scenes is a unique individual with its own intact identity and character, yet they share that family resemblance that comes from her ability to find and capture their common DNA. Among its genes are tastes held in common and shared values, including the early conviction that building the Promised Land was like an act of prayer, the durable memory of the many places that settlers abandoned or were driven from, and an awareness of the natural elements that surround her, like blue skies and plentiful sunlight.
That light is part of the magic that descends on whatever Zoller takes as her subject. It anoints not only the sturdy homes, but the garages and small businesses where their occupants work. Those enterprises may be stores, like the one in “Afternoon on F Street,” or a diner like “The Deluxe,” found sandwiched with its charm between two much larger and less captivating structures. Just as often as they are elevated by labor, they may be bowling alleys or theaters, palaces of pleasure and relaxation. At the opening of her current exhibition, one of her fellow artists, Darryl Erdman, recollected one in which she captured a marquee that sounded like the perfect description of all her work, if not all artists’ depictions. It read, “Now Showing.”
There’s a kind of magic that settles like sunlight, like the local weather and time of day, on any place that Zoller paints. It’s a feeling that retains the individual character of a specific Utah city, town, or even a neighborhood, yet at the same time makes it part of a family that remains distinctively her own. The fact that it’s a Zoller landscape is present no matter where she chooses to paint, so that while each painting remains loyal to the character of its locale, it displays a solid, universal presence, a feeling of reality that she imparts with a rare focus. It’s that genuine presence that may draw the viewer to look more closely, as it did me. Knowing she does this is not the same as knowing how she achieves it. Not that she doesn’t willingly share her process, waxing ecstatic as she describes how light reflects off one colorful surface onto another, creating an additional hue that might only exist in that one spot.
In other words, there is a patina to a location just as there is to time of day or weather. Zoller can distinguish late afternoon in Vernal, as she reveals in “Vernal Cinema,” from the serene night of “Christmas at Dunton Motors.” But beyond that, there is the grit, the patina, the evidence among other things of the nearby desert and the scarcity of rain that is so much a part of life in Utah that residents may cease to consciously notice. Something in the way she paints what we can see, like the facades of buildings, their shapes and surfaces, conveys the very air that surrounds them, and that they sometimes surround in turn. A very good painter can give us the look of a place, but a better one will capture what it feels like to be there. As much as anything, that feeling comes through our eyes. Here, it comes to them through another pair of eyes, that belong to Elise Zoller.
Elise Zoller, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 13