As someone who studies and writes about Contemporary art, I have often pointed out its tendency to be overly specific. There’s a real difference between Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa” (1819), protesting a single event that scandalized Europe, and a porcelain figure of Michael Jackson by Jeff Koons, in that the former describes an event in such broadly applicable terms—the phrase used to be “universally relevant”—that it is often cited as the artwork that launched French Romantic painting, while the latter, though often justified by Koons as a celebration of the value of celebrity to modern life, fails to invoke even one other dubious immortal. Let’s be clear that most of the chastising ensembles and installations that are styled “Contemporary” have far better motives than Koons, and in fact from an ethical perspective belong alongside Gericault as social guardians, or even willful canaries in the coal mine. Ambiguity is essential to good art, and a single such work should be something that could sound completely different when described by two different viewers. That’s a far cry from the attitude of a curator who once told me he was afraid I might respond with “the wrong interpretation” of his show, as though there could only be one. And so the goals of Earl Gravy, whose Homebodies, Away Teams can be seen currently in the Street Gallery at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), sound a welcome note. Their goals, which include “the numinous, the revelatory, and the cryptic,” pretty much rule out narrow readings and one-size-fits-all responses.
Earl Gravy is the nom de guerre of Emma Kemp and Daniel Wroe, Los Angeles artists who drew this ensemble together around their interest in issues having to do with perception: specifically what they call “speculative vision,” by which they mean a variety of distorted or extended ways of seeing things ordinary sight does not or cannot grasp. The value of such modes of seeing depends, they suggest, on what the particular viewer seeks to see: whether, to take but two examples, she wishes to see a few hours or a century or more into the future. To make their point, the works in the gallery present a disparate collection of alternative visions that the audience can evaluate for themselves.
The way the artists and UMOCA, between them, chose to set up the show, the public will most likely arrive at the artwork with no idea of the sophisticated ideas Earl Gravy means to connect with it. Thus the delightful opening installation, Earl Gravy’s “Next Saturday,” will need to speak for itself. It consists of two large components, a kind of disoriented deck thrust out from the end wall, which contains a video screen and supports a ladder, the other a trio of blind windows on the back wall. Perhaps the resemblance of this antic stage set to something from an animated cartoon might explain its happy feeling, or rather the happy sense of anticipation it gave me when I entered its space. The intended lesson here, and it’s a good one, might be that entering the future in our technologically promising age is like entering a theater with no curtain, where the visible set and props add immediately to whatever sense of excitement and anticipation is already felt. If so, then the sense of artifice and even unreality it also exudes should suggest caution: what you see doesn’t always connect to what you get.
The production values, to use a Hollywood, and hence an LA term of art, are high here. They need to be to lift the art out of the garage or basement studio and take it to the fantasy level. On the wall opposite “Next Saturday,” the component parts of Michael Robinson and Phillip Andrew Lewis’s “Till We Have Faces” are arranged like merchandise in an upscale department store. The title presumably refers to three damaged Classical busts, each of which has had part or all of its face broken off. That such catastrophic deviation from their makers’ original intentions, so that even in their damaged state they are shown and enjoyed, can be accepted and even celebrated, is culturally authorized by the fact that each of the gaping heads, their resemblance being to so many victims of war, has had its wound lined with the same blue velvet as surrounds them. One of several videos playing among them repeatedly shows a hand knock over vases of flowers, seemingly accidentally, that spill only to reverse, gather up their flowers, and return to their upright positions. Here, in long and short forms, might be shown the decline, fall, and either the wished-for or the actual recovery or even rebirth, all parts of the cycle of history, whether of the individual or an entire culture.
“Next Saturday” and its echo, “Till We Have Faces,” divide the first room longitudinally between them: two similarly resonant works divide it latitudinally. Maya Gurantz’s “Tracing Board 1,” although the more elaborate production, is easier to describe. It’s like a computer game, mounted in a console, not unlike a foosball table with a large monitor forming the tabletop. The point of the arrangement is to allow the user to walk all the way around, as may become necessary or desirable while following the instructions, which are to trace various shapes with a fingertip as they appear and disappear, all while the video guides the drawing finger through successive patterns and designs.
Years ago, a friend told me that her boyfriend had come to her to share a profound discovery: all women’s bodies are not alike, as he had thought. Each was different, unique. My friend said she replied, “Yes, and it’s true of men’s bodies as well.” “NO,” he’d replied: “Men are all alike.” He came to mind while I was contemplating “Tracing Board 1.” How can we hope to get men and women to treat each other better if they can’t even see each other clearly? Although the Tracing Board’s subject includes elaborate geometry by itself and seen in nature, its real purpose seems to be to move players past shame and prejudice and get them to begin acknowledging some innocent, but basic anatomy.
Similarly standing away from its nearest wall, Joey Cannizzaro, Christopher Scott-Cole, and Nathaniel Cummings-Lambert’s “Pairing Altar of Eternal Subscendence” has, in its title, a word too new to appear in the dictionary, and still too close to its origins among philosophers to have acquired a commonsense definition. For anyone who’s unhappy with the state of the modern world, but has yet to come up with a single term large enough to collect all its foibles and frustrations under a single umbrella, this antonym to the venerable “transcendence” might possibly do the trick. What happens when a culture ceases to aspire to ideals, and in fact forgets them along with the rest of the past? They subscend. According to Thomas Bertonneau, the subject of subscendence is someone he calls “the Culminant Man”:
He is a being without historical awareness and is uninformed by anything resembling a tradition. He is dependent on external guidance in everything; he borrows his opinions, which he regards as his own, from the currently circulating small set of permitted slogans attached to the carefully vetted ‘issues’ of the moment. He lives vicariously through electronic media.
Altars have been placed on all sorts of bases, but for Heathens and Christians alike, the right place to start is with a grave, the revered doorway to the otherworld. The “Pairing Altar,” which doesn’t appear to do much (at least it didn’t on the day I was there) resembles a coffin, which may be assumed to contain everything transcendent about the cultures preceding ours.
The front and back rooms of the Street Gallery contrast like light and dark. Never mind “like”—the front room is brightly lit; the back room is dark. The reason turns out to be disappointingly practical, though the projected images in the second room do evoke fewer and more specific resonances than the self-illuminated ones up front. One, João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s continuously looped motion picture “Cowfish” may leave some viewers wishing they could unsee it, but despite its eerie subject, its uncanny beauty becomes utterly compelling.
It’s one of those principles sometimes more honored in the breach than the observance that, when an artist attaches a lengthy explanation—what used to be called an apology—to a work, the art is nevertheless supposed to be accessible to someone who hasn’t read the text. Some of the public, bless their hearts, insist on it still. That said, anyone whose curiosity was piqued by the mysterious reference in UMOCA’s publicity for this exhibition to “research into a premillennial spiritual commune established in southeast Utah in 1934,” anyone curious about the effects of physiology on perception, or anyone interested in the ongoing interaction of technology with politics may want to check out Emma Kemp’s essay on the background to Homebodies, Away Teams, a link for which can be found beneath the list of featured artists on the UMOCA webpage by clicking on Exhibitions, and then Earl Gravy: Homebodies, Away Teams. In it she does a remarkable job of steering between the credible and credulous sides of more than one controversial topic. Another artist who writes in a refreshingly well-informed and well-reasoned manner about art and related issues is Maya Gurantz. We’re at an interesting historical moment, when women, their patience exhausted by their exclusion for so long from the conversation, have become the most trenchant and holistic critics of the dominant group of elite men, whose power has allowed them to hold sway far too long. Once their critics gain acceptance to the temple this may no longer be the case, but for now they wield the scalpel with the sort of vigor and courage too long absent from the discourse.
Earl Gravy: Homebodies, Away Teams, multiple artists, UMOCA, Salt Lake City, through May 12.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.