Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Fun in Public Spaces: Lewis J. Crawford and Phoebe Berrey at the Gallery at Library Square

The Gallery at Library Square boasts a unique perspective, allowing its audience to peer from its tidy enclosure over the fourth floor railing and into the towering abyss of the library’s atrium. Yet so quick are we to become inured to experience that this once acrophobia-inducing encounter has, for most of us, long since ceased to disturb our equilibrium as we loop through space while climbing the stairs, or ascend toward the glass ceiling in a transparent elevator. There’s a reminder here of why we have art—to renew feelings we’ve become insensitive to—and why the endless search for novel, previously unknown sensations so often misses the point. For the next month, then, the Library’s gallery, inside and out, offers a refresher course in the importance of noticing not only the architecture that universally encloses urban dwellers, but the common secrets of those who dwell therein, as encountered by the alert or curious observer.

Lewis J. Crawford’s Geometry from Public Space includes 11 large images of imaginary architectural spaces printed from photographs he has taken and manipulated to amplify their cubist possibilities. He seems to have chosen modern-style buildings, relatively un-ornamented and endowed with plentiful flat, cylindrical, and grid-like elements that respond well to being digitally folded and reflected along various axes. Scale—in this case, the relative size of the prints in relation to the viewer’s own size—is critical here; where smaller versions might suggest nothing more than the view through a kaleidoscope, the larger aspect encourages those standing before them to imagine entering them. The elaborate Roman ruins depicted by Piranesi come to mind—especially the fantasy spaces of his fabulous prisons, with their adaptations and transformations of familiar elements into oddly-sized structures. Crawford succeeds to a point in defamiliarizing the clichés of modern interior design, replacing them with the kind of visual teasing and optical exercise that earlier architects once liberally provided their buildings’ occupants and neighbors. Given the heinous crimes that many public buildings now routinely commit, from the widely denigrated ”Borg ship” of the Federal Courthouse to the 1984 stage set of the Conference Center (never mind the proliferation of soul-smothering shopping centers and corporate ego-tropes), spending some time wandering in these cerebral playgrounds might be a good start on clearing the mind of the cumulatively numbing effect of life in the modern city.

Crawford teaches at the University of Utah, while dividing his time and professional activities between here and Arizona. His research and teaching prioritize ”mark making,“ a preoccupation of many of today’s 2-D artists, and he might prefer his audience to consider his prints as flat transmogrifications of the surface marks visible on architectural surfaces. He’s not wrong, but he faces the same problem as Clement Greenberg did in explaining Pollock: the eye has a strong preference for decoding spatial clues as evidence of . . . space. In Numbers “1–6,” “8–3B,” or “6–8” the foreground pattern does, indeed, overwhelm the spatial cues in the background, but in “9-1” and “11–4” classic perspective has the upper hand. The giant whirling steps of “9–11” generate a powerful pattern that turns into space so palpable no mere pattern can prevail. At their best, then, the interplay of contrasting dimensions provides compound pleasures for eye and mind to explore.

For too many artists today, making art is just another job. They start out by acquiring the requisites—the MFA, a resumé full of significant commissions and collections, a pretentious ”artist’s statement” that defies common sense—and having checked all the boxes, set to work, laboring, as one notorious local striver puts it, ”to make the art that will be in the history books.“ Too often there’s little magic in the works they crank out like so many nearly identical sausages, making sure that there are just enough variations that everyone can find one to hang in that special spot and no one goes home disappointed. Meanwhile, what’s too often missing is any authentic feeling of joy or playfulness. And then along comes Phoebe Berrey, whose spontaneous, exuberant heads and figures, each meticulously assembled from the product of decades spent happily sorting through the castoff wreckage of our materialist, consumer society, simultaneously foreground the miraculous finds that comprise them, even as they lovingly depict the creatures who conceive, create, utilize, and finally discard so much clever, superfluous, and often utterly, painfully beautiful junk.

Berrey started early, perhaps stimulated by what must have been a peripatetic childhood, with those often-disrespected children’s art programs: first at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., then at the California College of Arts and Crafts. She found herself in Utah in time to get special permission—she was only 10—to study life drawing and painting the nude with Alvin Gittins at the U of U, and stayed long enough to graduate from Utah State University with a BFA while being honored as Best Artist of her class. Meanwhile, being prevented from putting down roots may have left her with a need to collect, in order to hang on to something: the samples of life’s passing panoply that eventually became her art supplies. She honed her skills further working as an illustrator for Marvel and DC Comics in New York, under the pressure of ruthless deadlines that can break a fragile spirit, or toughen one while bringing out a talent for accurately capturing a character in a few deft strokes. That must have been where she learned to combine the outsize head, from a flattened tin can, and salvaged stick figure body that together form the accurately, if punningly titled “Shallow Bob–He Can and He Would.”

Aside from their grand sense of play and the extraordinary range of objects they incorporate, Berrey’s freewheeling portraits and figures display a wide variety of approaches to how she utilizes her found objects. Some, like “Always the Last to Know” and “Pianosaurus Guys,” seem to incorporate a complete machine or, in the latter case, an entire toy piano into a composition. Others, like “Grandma,” “Grandpa,” and “Inside Lulu Kitty” are composed of too many disparate bits and pieces to count, while recalling the warning printed on many a box: ”Some assembly required”—in this case, with the work to be done in the viewer’s imagination. And then there’s “The Domestic Goddess from Planet Janet,” which is so slickly done it seems to have been manufactured in its entirety just to be what it is. Still, the reigning spirit must be Giuseppi Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter who created portraits entirely from carefully selected and arranged vegetables, birds, fish, roots, and even books. In “Little Lady in the Boat” the base of an old iron becomes a dory as completely as other bits of found metal become its rigging, while the contrast between the lady’s rusty body and her shiny, spherical head is all it takes to bring her to life. One of the keys to art is the visual equivalent of puns; Arcimboldo and Berrey both foreground this link, and if the word “charm,” with its connotation of magical seduction, isn’t used often enough in art these days, here it seems not only appropriate to use, but possible to do so without embarrassment.

It’s really no mystery why Phoebe Berrey isn’t better known in the art world. Her remarkable creativity, which can be measured in the more than 30 objects here, each exactingly crafted to look as much as possible like an accident or like the result of an organic process—that creativity is centrifugal, rather than centripetal; where most artists dig ever deeper into an ongoing set of personal themes and favored techniques, she follows her interests back out into the world that feeds them. Four years ago, she devoted her design skills to promoting the harebrained aspirations of a would-be third party presidential candidate she happened to believe in. Since 2000, she’s periodically disappeared into an unlikely alter-ego that allows her to explore what life feels like to an altogether different person than she could ever be. It’s hard to imagine a typically ambitious professional taking the time off from resumé-building to pursue such whims. Yet in a parallel universe an artist follows her bliss and, in a century or two, someone else decides what remnants of the hoary old 21-first century still matter. Was it ‘must-see TV,’ or was it the exploration of the solar system? Was it the Id of Trump, or was it the perseverance of Obama? Was it class hatred, or was it humane love? Everything conventional of Arcimboldo has been forgotten, but his idiosyncratic portraits continue to fascinate the public and inspire artists almost 500 years later. I wouldn’t want to bet on the art someone thinks will be in the history books; rather give me the art you or I, just like the Medici, want to have in our homes.

This review appeared in the December 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.

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

1 reply »

  1. After seeing Phoebe Berrey’s show at the SLC library I came away with a smile and a need to know more about the person behind the extraordinary pieces. Surely this is a woman who can see things we all miss. Your article was a brilliant insight into her life and method. It has made me want to go back to the exhibit and see it with new eyes. Thank you.
    Joan Rands

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