Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Face of Utah Sculpture

“Those Pretty Arches,” a wall-mounted sculpture by Nadra Haffar on view as part of The Face of Utah Sculpture VI, is made of enamel pit-fired onto several long, battered, torn, and twisted strips of galvanized roofing. The use of ‘arches’ in the title tells us that it rises—rather than drapes—from either side before reaching across the space between and joining in the center. The trashed condition of the sheet-metal is quintessential modernism, suggesting the wreckage of human aspirations in the face of inevitable, natural decay. Or it could invoke the human need to destroy what others aspire to build. But wait! It’s really no more blasted, eroded, or weathered than the stone arches that are so iconic of Utah as to serve as its emblem. Seen in that light, it’s comforting to compare—to allegorize—human existence and our works alongside nature’s.

“Those Pretty Arches” is a serious piece of modern sculpture made even more relevant by its use of unconventional-but-familiar materials. Not cute nor sentimental, it cannot be dismissed as art. But it can be diminished by poor display, and that’s exactly what’s happened here. Among works packed so densely that the visual noise makes it hard for any single piece to make itself heard, even a large, relatively powerful voice like Haffar’s is in danger of being drowned out. Instead of allowing the arch to stand for itself, the vital empty space in its center is, one presumes necessarily, preempted to show off three works by Brian Christensen: “Kitchen Dial,” “Ute Fire Brick,” and “Compass” (see images page 3). While the well-known and much-respected BYU sculpture professor’s works always deserve and reward attention, Christensen, who works in an intimate scale, would probably be the last person to want them placed where they diminish another artist’s work. Haffar’s more pointed “Both Sides of the Story,” a fragment of steel wall shot through by bullets that came from both sides, fares even worse: hanging mostly on a wall, but partly in front of a curtained window.

Of course public art shows, like public art works in general, rarely come about under ideal circumstances. The Cultural Celebration Center is an exemplar of modern civic building: in the room set aside for the sculpture several of the walls are almost entirely glass. Sight lines are open and cluttered in a way few of the artist’s included could have anticipated. Then, for no doubt practical reasons, most of the works are small: suitable for desktop or bookshelf display. While this improves an artist’s slim chances for making a living, it makes preventing the results from becoming so many tchotchkes or knick-knacks challenging. So while one can appreciate the Center’s impulse to include as many artists and works as possible, the large number of pieces included in the show makes for a show that feels at times more like a warehouse. Sculpture is the art of objects occupying space; no less than paintings, and probably more so, they need open space surrounding them if they are to be appreciated as they must be, sensually and with the viewer’s entire body.

Given the challenges, it’s all the more impressive how determined Utah’s sculptors are to make their work and get it out where it can be seen. Some of the artists on view here, including Virgil Taylor Oertle and Heidi Moller Somson, were also in Moving Space, an exhibition held at the Bountiful / Davis Art Center in May and June (see our June edition). Others will be familiar to anyone who has ever backed into a painting to get a better view of a sculpture struggling to get along in the arid gallery atmosphere.

The largest pieces here have, for the most part, been spared that fate by their sheer size, placed instead in a fortuitously close, wide-open space in front of the gallery space. While they have to contend with a different kind of visual clutter—flags of various nations hanging from horizontal cables running across the overhead space—they at least have a chance to prove themselves. Jared Ellis’s “On Site At The Studio #2,”|2| a stainless steel monolith with its surfaces filigreed by the optical effect of grinding, rises from a tree trunk chamfered so the steel seems to extend organically from it. Comparing this dazzling pillar to his much smaller “On Site At The Studio #1,” it’s possible to see how an artist can take a single impulse in several directions. Where #2 is a tower, #1 feels more like a vase, perhaps as conceived by a Modernist designer.

If abstractions like Ellis’s express simple messages, a warning for those who prefer content that can easily be translated into verbal form—a ‘message’—is found in two nearby works by Jim Rennert. Both bronzes feature figures drawn from today: men in business suits. In “Entrepreneur,” he leaps into the void from atop a free-standing ladder.|3| In “Leap of Faith,” the ladder is replaced by a steel wall across which he flies. The purpose of both is rhetorical—making a political statement—rather than primarily aesthetic. One viewer may feel admiration and identify with the man. Another may respond by quoting numbers showing that most entrepreneurs are neither loners nor risk takers, popular opinion notwithstanding. Like the life-sized figures we come across in parks and public places depicting idealized children and families, they seem destined to be dismissed as kitsch once the audience they flatter moves on.

There will, of course, be viewers who feel that Rennert’s realism is the only proper way to make art. One of them approached me a while back, after a lecture I’d given at a progressive gallery, to tell me where I went wrong. For an artist to make a work that looks exactly like its subject, she patiently explained, is harder than to achieve a mere resemblance. Since verisimilitude is art’s purpose, and the harder art is the better art, Voila!—a precise resemblance was the pinnacle of art. Her enduring prejudice lives on at the Face of Utah Sculpture by the judges’ categories: “Traditional / Realist” on the one hand, “Contemporary / Abstract” on the other. Few of these assumptions survive very long amidst the complexity of art forms that characterize an age where no one knows the rules and few are willing to follow them.

The most satisfying of the works set up outside the gallery is Gary Anderson’s “Fits All Sizes.”|4| It’s a cliché that vertical formats read as figures, but this one is even human sized. On one face it’s a gestalt puzzle: either projecting rectangles or incised grooves that create a pleasing pattern that suggest some unknown but apparent purpose. On the other side, an incomplete sign is also mysterious until one reads the title. There is plenty here to enjoy with the senses without requiring thought or analysis, but also plenty to stimulate the imagination without any sense of being lectured or provoked. Perhaps more importantly, it helps bridge the gap between readily recognizable imagery and pure abstraction, giving the viewer some sense that it belongs in the real world, even as it asks to be appreciated as much for its pure form. Of course realism, whatever its effectiveness, remains popular with a broad public. Fans of Western imagery may appreciate Jeannine Young’s “Dusty,” a dramatically androgynous figure bordering on Cubism, while J. Tracy Jeffs’ “Gone Swimmin’” has the precise detail and wry humor of cowboy poetry. Michael Dente’s “Pieta” argues that some things still require the kind of unequivocal sincerity that only realism can provide.

Far more than with paint, materials are crucial to sculpture. They can do much of the artist’s work, as ‘exotic’ woods do for Rod Heiss in “Finally” and imported marble does for Dahrl Thompson’s “Spiraling.” Glass seemingly can make any idea look good, an attribute fully exploited by Kristian Merwin’s playful narrative, “Scuba Steve Meets a Big Fish.” |5|On the other hand, Suzanne Larson inverts viewers’ expectations of what glass can do in her “Basket Bowl,” in which reeds of glass are magically woven together into an improbable vessel that dazzles the eye with a texture the hand longs to touch.|6| Clay can apparently become anything it’s needed to be, whether the stuff it mimics exists in nature or not. Karen J. Templeton’s “Portrait: Senator Bob Bennett” |7| projects a firmness that real flesh rarely matches, while Blake Clark’s bionic figures, part human, part spaceship, suggest materials ranging from porous bone to futuristic plastic. At its best, say in Anne Gregerson’s “Bird in Hand” and “Homage,”|8| clay has the ability to capture the subtlest suggestions of flesh: the feeling of makeup around the eyes, or the resemblance of human hair to the straw of a bird’s nest.

Gregerson’s women are deeply felt. Jack Morford’s bronze, “Ankle Deep in Blue Bayou,”|9| so engaged the Center’s staff that they singled it out for distinction. Here again, the simplistic dividing line between ‘realistic’ and ‘abstract’ simply falls apart. A slender black woman wearing a simple shift sits in a tall chair, her legs crossed, her arms wrapped around an outboard motor that is incongruously attached to the back of her chair as to a transom. While one leg is dry, the other is immersed in a narrow stream of water, only its surface rendered, that swirls past her, around the shaft of the motor, and ends where one of her hands trails behind her. It might be a revery, except for the focus that her face reveals. And just in case we might be tempted to condescend, at their bottoms each of the four long legs has a wheel. Dreams and schemes can move us for real.

Some of the most satisfying works either are, or appear to be, models for larger works. Deon Duncan’s “Pony Express Maquette” continues the Western theme, while David Holz’s “Spyglass” |10| recalls David Smith. Spyglass works exquisitely in this small version, and Holz’s evident knack for scale augurs well for the final version. “Tracks,” Dahrl Thomson’s eloquent marble semi-circle with recycled steel details, suggests an architectural element that might have been found on one of the Cyclades Islands. Joshua Toone, who seems to have perfected the art of implying monumentality in a tiny space, cries out for the opportunity to work larger.

And that’s the message we took away. If The Face of Utah Sculpture were what it aspires to be—a comprehensive overview of the state of the art in the State—one inescapable conclusion would be that for a place known for its vast, open spaces, Utah produces a lot of timid sculpture. Not that the artists are lacking in imagination, formal skills, adequate craft, or courage. Like Utah painters, they display vitality and remarkable initiative in what is, after all, arguably the most challenging medium in the arts. Sculptural objects can range so small as to be held in the hand, but measured by imagination and impact they are more expensive to fabricate, harder to move and display, and overall more burdensome than comparable paintings. Where a sculpture may require an enclosure, a pedestal, or even a specially reinforced architectural setting, most paintings are adequately provided for by a nail in a wall.

In the middle of the 20th century, when paintings grew to wall-sized proportions, painters denigrated sculpture with the popular comment that a statue was what you bumped into when you backed up to take a better look at a painting. At the Cultural Celebration Center, the statues are bumping into each other: Holz’s “Warriors” are not the only ones forced to share a single plinth, making them impossible to sort out. But instead of seeing that as symptomatic of a bad attitude on the Center’s part, it should probably be viewed as an effort to single-handedly redress an ongoing grievance. Given that three accommodating dimensions are one thing Utah seems to have in adequate supply, the lack of support provided by Utah’s government, corporate, and socially responsible patrons for the fully round equivalent of our extensive wealth of painted images adds up to a shocking failure. It’s not just that there is nothing new that bears comparison to the “This Is It monument,” or Brigham Young, ‘with his back to the Temple and his hand out to the bank.’ There is sculptural art of a certain kind in Utah, and even lining the streets of its cities and towns. But there is a huge gap between sentiment and sentimentality, between the historically documentary and the personally expressive, between the playfully crafty and the seriously artistic, and most of all, between the decorator dust collector and the monumental public statement. It’s as it we believe we have already said everything we can agree on, and have decided to say no more.

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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