Familiarity with the technical processes that bring art works into being is a mark of sophistication, and some artists consider their methods as equal to subject matter in importance. Others know better, preferring the viewer ignore the smocked figure behind the curtain in order to focus on the thing visual images do best, which is bypass cognition and seemingly enter the flesh directly, evoking physical and emotional responses akin to those experienced in the direct presence of the thing depicted: humor, pathos, terror, awe—the sublime and the beautiful. Our modern emphasis on technique begins with Jackson Pollock, who has the distinction of having dethroned an ideal of art that had stood forever in favor of a new model that, when the novelty finally wore off, his own paintings prove to have been without basis in fact. His emphasis on the action of the artist, the flinging of paint in intentional accidents, seemed to prove what a century of artists had come to argue: that visual illusions and the sense of the presence of remote things were not actually necessary. This notion was so exciting to the audience sixty years ago that they failed to notice how many of the missing elements they were projecting into the work: space, perspective, hidden connections between discreet parts of the the image, rhythm, meaning. A drip painting turned out to represent a new subject, yes, but it relied on the same built-in impulses in the viewer that had served Van Eyck.
Sandy Brunvand and Al Denyer are familiar figures in Salt Lake. Each works in an artistic niche, a specialized corner of an art spectrum that, since the Renaissance, has seen few overall masters. Brunvand, a founder of Saltgrass Printmakers, favors a graphic approach in which print is a raw material, rather than a final product. How marks are made is important to her, but she never forgets that in themselves marks are trivial; it is the many subtle ways they can signify that makes them interesting. Delicately drawn ink portraits, parts printed on rice paper, and common metal staples are punctuated by filigrees of sewn lines and dog hair. Although she works primarily in black and white, textures of marks and various kinds of paper combine to produce a subtle palette. She often draws on natural images, such as the living as well as dried plants she finds while walking in the hills. What begins with nature viewed up close becomes a cerebral landscape, composed not so much of vistas as symbolic echoes that play on the page like music in the mind.
In many ways, Al Denyer mints the flip side of Brunvand’s coin. Instead of lines slicing a void to separate objects from space, Denyer’s dense gestures build presence by accretion, forming areas where perceptible marks disappear in favor of textures. Small differences, such as those between black graphite and black charcoal, become the syntax of a language made up of thousands of iterations. But where Brunvand wants us to be aware of the muscular gesture made by pen or pencil, Denyer deliberately loses these in a slowly evolving maelstrom of patterned signs. Her landscapes commence somewhere far beyond what we can see with the naked eye, in a remote corner of earth further estranged by being seen as if from a satellite in space. Yet they are instantly recognizable, or—more accurately—immediately mistakable for something infinitely mundane and familiar, like the pattern of veins and aureolas on a leaf, the lines on a relief map, the crazing on a glazed porcelain plate or an old oil painting. Most unnerving of all, they reflect—art as mirror—the intricate cellular structure of the very neural network of the brain at that moment contemplating them.
Brunvand and Denyer have much in common: two women, close in age, who enrich their vocational experience by teaching at the U of U. But it is their differences, one guesses, that allowed them to overcome a competitive environment and become friends who eventually chose to exhibit together. Looking back at their recent exhibits, it’s clear that each has been cultivating her personal garden. Yet another way of putting it is that each of them has arrived at a personal method and style that together create a voice: a distinct and unmistakable visual character, in which guise she presents a body of works that have as much resonance with each other as they do with their sources in the natural world. In an era where artists are expected to break the mold each time out, what hangs on the walls at Kayo may not look like breakthroughs, but they are the latest, if not the last, cumulative additions to a process whereby an artist’s works gradually change their nature as they modify first how we see them, and then how we see everything else.
In her statement, Brunvand cites the influence of conceptual artist Mel Bochner. She wants the viewer to be aware of her state of mind, and she takes the trouble to describe the importance of mark-making to the works shown here. It’s not just that without the marks there would be no drawing: she wants us to envision her making a mark by a series of movements, then making another, and another, and to see how the momentum of these actions generates a force beyond her conscious control. Yet the result is anything but mechanical. The marks include lively, dancing smudges, and while the results are abstract cartoons, images arise from them. Like Jackson Pollock’s swirling nets of paint, her fields of marks critique, and ultimately undercut, Bochner’s theory. He asserted that the gallery wall is a proper subject matter for art, but apparently mistook the viewer’s attention for the artist’s; otherwise, his comment makes no sense. Meanwhile, just as my reference to Brunvand’s ‘field’ of marks lends them metaphorical weight, so our minds write visual metaphors over the two-dimensional grid before our eyes, turning them into ‘fields’ of vision, even if we’re not told what they signify precisely. Some of the dots appear in pairs, and depending on the distance from which they are viewed—their placement in the gallery permits a wide range—long, thin objects emerge into the foreground, their isolation suggested by the apparent shadows they cast behind. Viewed up close, these objects dematerialize and are replaced by a suggestion of individual particles moving in unique, yet similar patterns as though in response to larger forces, leaving trails like histories. Allusions to landscape supplied by the viewer’s imagination, but not prevented by the artist, spring to life. A path rises to meet a fence, a wave laps the rim of a vessel, a hill rises to meet a cloud. It’s not hard to imagine an artist committed to abstraction tearing her hair at such uninvited readings, but it’s also about time we admit that sophisticated viewers—and in this context every viewer is sophisticated—are acquainted with ironies like ambiguous marks that ‘say’ several things to us at once. Nor is it trivial that examining Brunvand’s visual playgrounds provokes muscular sensations that might also be caused by watching dancers. A surprisingly cheerful person who approaches her daily hikes as enthusiastically as her canine companion, her art works are upbeat souvenirs she eagerly shares.
Few artworks surpass Al Denyer’s at suggesting alternate readings. Skirting the line between drawing and painting, evenly balanced between scientific illustration and sensuous, textured fact, they stimulate curiosity even as their maker passively discourages speculation about her working method. She offers no statement, nor list of materials, nor accounting of techniques. Even their titles — names of geographic locales — are vague. ‘Yukon’ could as easily refer to a potato viewed under a microscope as a satellite image of permafrost. Even seen up close, it’s impossible to tell whether she works from light to dark or dark to light. Where these differ from previous works is the subtlety of tonality, achieving a palette so delicate as to be lost in photographs. Although they suggest—or permit the imagination to project into them—textures ranging from crushed fabrics to dried liquids, the artistic tradition that they seem most close to are Persian carpets, which are often displayed on walls. One sees the large pattern first, with its symmetry and rupture, with balance playing against animation. Closer, one begins to make out individual devices, which depending on the source may be specific objects or hieratic symbols. Stems and borders connecting the parts sprout their own ornaments. Finally, the individual tufts of wool or silk come into focus, like the texture of whatever underlies Denyer’s paint. No matter what it suggests, the pattern is stamped immediately and clearly on eye and mind.
Conventional landscapes create an illusion of perspective, which means placing the viewer in a particular orientation with a dictated point-of-view. Denyer’s mandala-like images of the earth dis-orient the viewer, inviting contemplation without designation a center of attention or subordinating visual elements. Even a topographic feel for gravity and flow can’t privilege the eye’s movement uphill or down. Although common enough experiences in the real world, among their few precedents in art are . . . those drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. But where his squiggles expand confidently across the canvas, hers pucker, concentrating and conserving their energy. Artworks don’t require morals, and despite their aesthetic power, these works speak a subtle rhetoric befitting the reticent woman who made them. Nothing is as new, unique, special, or unprecedented as we’d like to think. And beauty doesn’t arise in a departure from averages. It’s all in how the norms are fulfilled.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.