Given the fundamental motivating role of religion in cultural and artistic expression all over the world, it’s not surprising that the first art work to employ the renaissance discovery of accurate visual perspective was such a work — Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity,” which depicts the three-persons-in-one-God enumerated by Christian dogma of that time. Not every church has followed that tenet, nor do many individuals, which could explain why there are no Trinities among the approximately 175 works of art in the 37th Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibition at the Springville Museum of Art. “Could explain,” but doesn’t necessarily do so. While there’s always the possibility that judging had something to do with it, and with fewer than a third of the 657 submitted works to go on, it’s impossible to be sure, yet to a practiced eye — someone who has attended these shows over two decades — it really does appear that a shift in emphasis is taking place among Utah’s artists.
For instance, instead of the Trinity, there is Kathleen Peterson’s “Trio,” depicting a mother and two children instead of three men. Her group portrait celebrates, as only a woman artist can do on the basis of experience, the labor of generating and harboring within her body a physical home for an entirely new and ultimately independent being. Supplementing the mother’s own body after the birth, that most practical of garments, the “Rebozo de Amor,” or Shawl of Love, is depicted by Tatiana Castro as not only a practical way to keep her child close as she goes about her day, but a physical symbol for the shelter and protection her love provides.
Nowhere in the exhibit is the difference between spirituality and religion specified, and in today’s fractured discourse, it’s hard to imagine doing so. Before the millennium, it was sometimes said that “religion is spirituality in a nutshell.” Such a distinction seems to be at work in the 37th Annual, but unless and until entrants are required to state which moves them to make art, it’s each person’s opinion which is which. Maybe it’s a spectrum: it’s not hard to argue that Anne Marie Oborn’s “Two Stones Fastened to a Breast Plate,” which depicts the physical act of transcribing the Book of Mormon, is part of the history of a religion, while Katie Garner’s “Touched by the Light,” in which sunrise illuminates poppies growing in the mountains near Alpine, expresses the overflow of emotion that may be brought on by contemplating creation. So is the one religious art and the other spiritual? It would be useful to have the language to talk about this, but we may have to make do with acknowledging there are contrasting categories, with some tension between them.
There is one artist here who has succeeded in having two works accepted, arguably one of each sort. Katelyn Field Garcia’s “Intrusive Thoughts Roll” adapts the LDS practice of placing prayer rolls in temples, which she urges could become a therapeutic technique for the obsessive thoughts from which so many persons suffer. This work has the practical, hands-on character of a particular system of beliefs and practices: in other words, a religion. Her other work, “Lake Covenant,” is a video exploring Utah Lake: “a sacred place that was called Paa-Kateten, or ‘Water Sitting,’ by the Timpanogos people,” as she explains. Her text closely resembles the First Thanksgiving story of indigenous peoples who welcome and assist settlers from the east, only to be displaced and their sacred lands despoiled. The images record Garcia’s efforts to encounter the lake anew, as it was seen before its despoliation, and to make amends. As a performance, it’s visual poetry, but it’s also an act of worship. Her art process draws on Contemporary media and techniques, but does so in search of the kind of encounter between the artist and the real world that long preceded them.
Two paintings hung side-by-side demonstrate two stages in the process Utah artists appear to be going through. The title of Jana Parkin’s “Cleaving” makes use of the celebrated contronym, or word with two opposite meanings: cleaving meaning to cut apart or to cling together. Her subject is marriage, which is both a civil and a religious institution, but she sees it illuminated by two trees in South Fork Canyon. She clearly countenances a spiritual value in the way these two trees survive and prosper together, rather than competing to their detriment, which she relates to a human marriage. In her insightful comment, she nowhere mentions religion, which remains in the background. But she follows up by citing four passages from LDS Scripture, which underscore and support her comments. This pattern occurs too often among the works here to require further examples: the presence of an excellent and approachable work in this show is justified by either a specifically religious or a movingly spiritual text. Wouldn’t these works achieve the same result if left to speak for themselves visually instead?
An answer of sorts may be found in Kelly Anne Ambrose’s “Girl on Her Toes.” Here a woman balances in a challenging pose, confidently presenting herself while surrounded by a background of brushstrokes that suggest her radiant energy and presence. The artist’s text speaks of introspection, spirituality, and self-connection, an existential journey, and grappling with life-altering choices, and recommends contemplation as a guide. It does not undermine the positive personal image it creates visually by quoting external authority. Both artists have moved beyond officially sanctioned images, such as were assigned to artists by patrons over centuries, and have found their own voices: they’re just in slightly different parts of the same journey.
It continues to stagger the imagination how much good art can be found in Utah. The absence of a formal distinction between amateurs and professionals may have much to do with it: fewer promising artists have to reconfigure their dreams after leaving school, but can find places to show their art, and large exhibitions like this one that foreground them keep everyone involved. On a personal note, readers may notice that all the artists mentioned above are women. This is not from a desire to punish men for past injustices; rather, it’s still all too common to see their participation as the justification for an activity, while women serve at best as guests, at worst as ornaments. Yet in this instance, no compromises were required in order to make all the desired points about one of Utah’s signature exhibitions in this way.
37th Annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through Jan. 10, 2024