Artist Profiles | Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Encoding the World and Getting the Joke: Stefanie Dykes at C.U.A.C. in Ephraim

Printmaker Stefanie Dykes, whose mostly black-and-white relief prints dating from 2002 till 2005 are on exhibit at the Central Utah Art Center until October 3, apparently finds the present (pun intended) easier to swallow when it’s dressed up to look deceptively like the past. One of the more generous artists on the scene today—she can afford to sprinkle visual gems across her outsize images since she has so many literally at her fingertips—Dykes encodes ideas about the meaning of things she sees every day into her antic and energetic depictions as densely as a symbolist; but since she doesn’t expect everyone to guess her visual puns and rapid-fire connections, doesn’t want to leave anyone outside and unable to enjoy her entertainments, and isn’t sure in any event that there really is any meaning behind it all, she makes certain that her constellations of marks look familiar enough to be enjoyed by any reasonably visually literate consumer, whether that viewer penetrates them fully, only a little, or not at all. Hence everyone should be able to enjoy an hour or two spent in her topsy-turvy cityscapes and elaborately decorated interiors. Signs that lead nowhere at least do no harm, and as we learn to decipher them, a process that should be viewed as play rather than work, we will soon find our way via humor and delight to a private corner of the world that has the virtues of a snug cottage: it may not be ours, it may even be utterly strange, but we feel more comfortable there, and perhaps a little less alienated, than we did before we found it.

In the journalistically popular “interest of full disclosure,” I should begin by pointing out that it was the medium of printmaking that originally drew me into the visual arts. Long ago I returned from a year in New York studying writing to discover that while I was away, my brother, who was always drawing, had taken to expanding the range of his marks on paper by carving them into blocks of wood. His conversation was suddenly full of Japanese names: names of artists, but also of tools and techniques. I followed him into his garage studio, and soon discovered that something like the alchemy that took place in the darkroom, where one watched one’s intentions take shape magically on blank sheets of wet paper, took place invisibly in the vertiginous encounter between a piece of paper and a matrix covered in ink. My brother went on to become a master printer, while I eventually returned to my words. But that sense of wonder never left me; to this day I still feel the presence of the artist more directly and more vividly through the mechanics of prints than I do through paintings or other mediums of art.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is precisely that we encounter so much more art through reproduction than we do in person. Even we professional art viewers turn to copies to refresh our recollections of direct encounters. Prints, being eponyms of the mechanical processes that produce everything from cereal boxes to Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, suffer less from this abridging. But I don’t think that explains the sense of immediacy I feel like a jolt of electricity when confronted by a print. Rather, my sense is that prints fulfill my desire for a certain kind of modern experience more immediately and more fully than do other kinds of images.

We don’t look at art the way our ancestors did, and enjoying older works requires learning to see in outmoded ways. That’s part of what I teach in my art history classes. The elaborate verisimilitude of painting gives us enormous pleasure, but it fails in one crucial way: a fault it shares with our own, biological vision. Among the dazzling visual array available to us sophisticated moderns, it remains on the raw end of the data stream. The things the painter “shows” us are scarcely discernable against the background illusion. A print, by contrast, is a far more modern way of encoding visual information. The painter shows us two things at once, or maybe three: what was there, what it means, and how he feels about it. A printmaker shows us all these things, but may also diagram relationships between the parts, or contrast two- and three-dimensional ways of showing, and all the while make us aware of her intervention without having to degrade the information to do so. Compared to painting, then, which is a medium of the eye, prints are a medium of the mind. It was Marcel Duchamp, who also said the camera was just a mechanical means of making art and neither good or bad in itself, who called for a more cerebral, less “retinal” art for the future. We—and our prints—are that future.

In a sense, then, Stephanie Dykes’ prints may be viewed not only as evidence of things she has seen and contemplated, but as sometimes-explicit, aesthetically-driven diagrams of those things. Technically speaking, Dykes is plugged into the present; her academic credentials are up to date and she is fully engaged with the contemporary print movement through SaltGrass Printmakers, the cooperative, nonprofit facility she co-founded with Sandy Brunvand. A desire to create the visual future is ambitious, and her ambition is evident at once in both the large scale of the individual prints and the limited palette she uses, which places sense data on a more equal, less-privileged footing alongside what she knows about its sources. “Discharging Her Duties,” a tour de force of printing almost 7 feet long, presents a meticulously rendered panoramic industrial setting on the edge of nature, a familiar synecdoche for life on the dry bed of the Great Salt Sea (and a perfect place to find salt grass). Against this background she arrays a compendium of likely impossibilities: a farmer in a welding mask, a cow with a cell phone, a brace of Carnival clowns hanging from a crane, a man in wading boots gently cradling a miniature freighter whose deckhouse seems to be a sprawling collection of buildings that belong on land. In the center, intently studying something we don’t see, her back to us, sits an enigmatic female figure, her pocket full of drawing tools. If this is a portrait of the artist at work, she is not the only recognizably familiar figure in view. In the sky, in the corner where our eyes end up if we scan the image while walking from left to right, a heraldic troop of flying angels wrestles a banner we can’t quite read into the picture. If we could read it, we may rest assured it would say, In Hoc Signo Vinces: In This Sign You Shall Conquer.

Such familiar visual tropes, recognizable to some viewers and ironic to others, abound throughout Dykes’ world, but they are only part of the homely connections she offers. A veritable encyclopedia of representational styles marches along as well. What might be shrubs lining the road to the factory office building turns out, on closer inspection, to be a pair of high-contrast lines of workmen, like those on the dole seen waiting in depersonalizing queues in images of the Great Depression. Elsewhere, Renaissance and Victorian decorative patterns, familiar from decorative textiles and luxury goods, form ambiguous fields — pale background or transparent foreground? — to scrawled or carved figure studies. The vocabulary of printmaking is explored and exploited everywhere. In “Cyclical Time Too,” a pair of crones stands on either side of a central, framed image of an architectural vase. One’s skin is marked by the texture of chiseled wood; the other’s is shaded by a continuous, looping scribble of line. Elsewhere, similar textures render draperies on classic figure pairs: two angels, two saints–one with a shopping bag looped over an arm, or the great medieval duo: the crowned figure of the Church triumphant juxtaposed against the blindfolded symbol of the Synagogue.

One insight into Dykes’ terrestrial cosmology comes from the frequent use of animals one might see in a city or near a lake. Squirrels pursue acorns that seem to fall not from oak trees but from Renaissance ornaments. Long-legged birds—storks, egrets, feathered cranes—groom women’s hair or wait patiently for us to look away so they can move. Another may lie in her use of the term Shiviti to identify several prints. In Jewish tradition, a shiviti is a printed plaque placed on a wall in the home, reminding the occupants that, “I have set the Lord always before me.” It is not just a framed piece of paper, though: spiritual power binds it to the spot and exacting ritual is necessary to move it. It may be the closest thing a printmaker can have to a tutelary spirit or guardian angel. It is also, in Dykes’ case, a sobering reminder that all this play aspires to serious ends.

One instance of sobriety interwoven with celebration is “4 by 4orty by 4.”  At first glance a most grave image, it could come straight from the pages of an alchemical text. Four elaborately decorated, stately goblets stand arrayed as on a shelf above a field of knot work decorations each made of four long-stemmed seedpods. As an example of the encyclopedic universalism of Enlightenment taste, it merits not just examination, but long and careful contemplation. One scarcely needs to know that it recalls a night when four women, in common celebration of their 40th birthdays, shared the intoxicating contents of their individual experiences with love; but knowing that, the generic similarity of the vessels’ utilitarian design and the fanciful, unique way each is turned out take on a ripe significance.

Like any true artist, Dykes is most interested in the work she is doing now. One piece at CUAC that suggests where she may be going is elaborately entitled “Fibonacci Task With Ernst and Duchamp, to be continued . . .” Made up of several set-pieces that increase in size as they spiral around the sheet on which they are printed, it raises the question of whether the artist means to continue its exploration of the frottage technique of Ernst and the optical experiments of Duchamp—two seminal contributions to our visual lexicon—or whether it would be enough if the viewer imagined its path out into space for her. Another current project, only hinted at here, involves constructing a Gothic cathedral of the mind in a series of large prints. Wrapping around the room to surround and incorporate the viewer, the work will combine extensive research into the aesthetics, the engineering, the social, economic, and historical aspects of one of humanity’s greatest moments with the observations and, most likely, the biography of the owner of one of the most inquisitive and playful—may one say curious?—minds on the contemporary scene.

Stefanie Dykes’ work will be on display at CUAC through October 3rd. Work from her continuing Cathedral series can be seen in Salt Lake at Patrick Moore Gallery through September 9th. The artist is also participating in the PARTNERS exhibit opening September 15th. 

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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