Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Finding Fertile Ground in the Desert: The Harrison Museum stakes a claim for the transcendent role of Western art


“Untitled” by Robert Irwin

On a partition amid the downstairs gallery of the Harrison Museum in Logan hang three hand-woven Hopi plaques, or flat dishes. The backwards-F motif of the central disc repeats six times, as if rotating rapidly around its center. To the left, a woven black-and-white pattern suggests a hoop, also spinning at high speed, but this flat circle refuses to stay flat for the eye, instead appearing to rise along a curved fold. The plaque on the right delivers on this promise of three- dimensional form, with a raised bridge crossing over a central field that uses ornamental geometry to nearly square the circle. These three endemic Hopi vessels, each full of symbolic meaning, are surrounded by close to 60 paintings, prints, photos, sculptures, and ceramics intent on showing that the American West, and in particular the Southwest, far from failing to rise to the challenge of European history transposed through New York to the world, has chosen to follow its own path in pursuing a vital art all its own.

Robert Irwin’s “Untitled,” mounted high on another wall a short distance from the Hopi baskets, also begins with a circle that, like the baskets, casts a shadow behind it. But where their shadows are incidental, the shadows Irwin produced mark the division between painting as it used to be and his watershed invention, which has been called “non-material painting.” At the time he created these works, non-material referred to art made without conventional art materials, like canvas, oil and acrylic paints, stretcher bars, and frames. But it also staked a claim that substances not generally thought of as materials, like light, shade, and space, were the essential components with which he painted. As the 1960s drew to a close, Irwin and his fellow artists at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles sought alternatives not only to the standard representational genres—landscape, figure, portrait—but to the abstract genres that had seemed such a break from them, an attempt at pure paint without external references. When public acceptance made clear that they only represented a different subject matter, one in which the viewer’s emotional response pointed to the content, the Ferus Group determined to try again. Irwin’s breakthrough came when he began to mount works like “Untitled,” a translucent disc of Plexiglas about 4 feet in diameter, away from the wall, then illuminated them with multiple lights casting shadows that, together with the original disc, form a complex pattern in space.

Robert Irwin’s floating paintings and the shadows they generated didn’t just contribute to the liberation of paint from the illusionary window; they permanently changed the relationship between artists and museums, which had previously been seen essentially as repositories of objects. When he began making them and museums first agreed to show them, Irwin had to travel to the museum in person to install his paintings. Nowadays, of course, artists are comfortable sending instruction, diagrams, even paint chips, while museums employ teams of experts who translate these directions, thereby realizing works in the gallery the artist may never even see. These two sets of circles, then, the woven plaques and the nest of shadows, mark two boundaries: one where art emerges from craft, another where it begins to separate from material objects and the physical presence of the artist.

Transcendence: Abstraction and Symbolism in the American West does call on one traditional attribute of the museum. The Harrison Museum’s vaults are a veritable treasure house that supplies its galleries with shows like this. Suitable works also are stored in drawers accessible by the public. When displayed, many are accompanied by small folders that recount the artist’s motives and offer insights into the works without cluttering their environments with too much distracting signage. Thus a viewer captivated by Henrietta Shore’s “Two Worlds,” and by its unmistakable kinship with the groundbreaking early watercolors of her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, can take advantage of the museum’s continuing relationship with a work it owns, and take home a mnemonic to help remember it. Robert McChesney’s “Mexico B14” is another work presented in this way. Like Henrietta Shore, McChesney thought visible experiences with an artwork could convey perceptions formed by other senses, and his experiments, such as using thin washes that could be absorbed by unprimed canvas, then drawn on to contrast a solid line with soft color forms, are still being assimilated by other artists.

Given its regional theme, it’s logical (and tempting) to search a show like Transcendence for anything resembling popular influences, which are not hard to find. Don Martin’s incendiary lacquer painting “Flying Spirit South–Fire on the Mountain” evokes at least three possible such connections: the penetrating influence on the West of Japanese culture, where the labor-intensive production of optically opulent lacquer ware is ubiquitous; hot rod culture, where lacquer sets the standard for exotic painted finishes; and psychedelic, or consciousness-expanding, practices relating such diverse sources as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, organic nature, meditation, and recreational drug use.

Laboriously burnished surfaces also are featured in the pottery of Maria Montoya Martinez, whose metallic-looking blackware has found a worldwide audience and come to exemplify Pueblo pottery. The eloquent shapes of Maria’s pots are echoed in Timothy Moore’s stoneware “Bowl,” with its evocation of geological sediments, and Mark Kuzio’s untitled bowl, with its overlay of map-like markings and technological references. Not surprisingly, such traditional and native influences aren’t just subliminal, but rise to become deliberate. A photograph by the late Utah artist Gaell Lindstrom, “In Taos,” that presents the venerable adobe church as an array of cubical and stair-step forms, constitutes just one treatment of a subject every visiting and resident artist felt challenged to make something of. Likewise, Judy Natal’s “Totems” places a humanoid figure made of sign-makers letters—a ‘C’ for a head, two ‘A’s for a torso, and ‘E’ and an ‘I’ for arms—into a grove of cactus plants, an “intervention” she intends to call attention to many far more substantial and devastating ways humans intervene in nature.

The curators’ statement credits the West as “a symbol for endless possibility, for lawlessness, and for challenging European artistic tradition.” Their accomplishment in this exhibition is to find so many works of art in which all three directions intersect. With so many examples, neither the writer nor the visitor can fully appreciate them all. Adeline Kent’s “Gambler” derives its name from the blade-like crescents that terminate its two arms. Yet it also gambles aesthetically, its black-and-brown bands that recall the serene stone churches of Italy and angular shape making a play for attention. Even its material, oxychloride cement, constitutes a one-of-a-kind risk that, in this case, pays off. So does a trip to Logan, where both shows currently on offer (including the excellent “Abstraction and the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia’s Western Desert,” reviewed in October’s 15 Bytes) foreground the vital role in art, and the rewards, of abstraction and symbolism. It remains only to add that the city and the natural setting of the Harrison Museum make their own Western contribution to the context of art exhibitions worthy of repeat visits and serious contemplation.

“Transcendence: Abstraction & Symbolism in the American West” is at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Logan, through May 7, 2016.

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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