Utah is home to a wide variety of art venues, from those that deal in highly polished decor to others showing art so conceptual the gallery may look empty at first. Museums play a role here, varied by location—one downtown, another in the shopping mall—and their mix of public and private sponsorship. Dependably locating a particular type of art is more than a little like finding a preferred cuisine: you have to be familiar enough with the options to know where yours is likely to be served. No single gallery shows a more diverse selection than Art Access, a publicly funded facility devoted to making sure that what it takes to make art will be accessible to all. It’s a loose mission statement, but that hasn’t stopped the Art Access staff from stretching it to accommodate ever-wider creative expressions. Perhaps the closest thing to a “typical” exhibition here would be the ongoing collaboration of Brian Kershisnik and Joe Adams: one of Utah’s most sophisticated, popular, and widely known artists and a man with Down syndrome working side-by-side to make art that combines purity and sophistication in a manner no one artist could achieve working alone.
There are times when Art Access comes closer than any other Utah venue to exhibiting what is variously called “Art Brut” in French or “Outsider Art” in English. These categories encompass art from several unusual sources. Sometimes mental patients are included, at other times work by incarcerated criminals. Lack of years of formal training is often a given. Sometimes it just means an artist who worked in solitude, with no feedback, and left a body of unique and unprecedented artworks. There is no requirement for art made as a form of therapy, but there’s nothing against it, either. So it comes as a boon to the Salt Lake arts community that Turn City Center for the Arts and Art Access have cooperated, under the auspices of curator Natasha Hoffman, to present two related exhibits, each foregrounding a recognized artistic material. In The Color of Being, approximately 27 paintings explore generously employed color as content, while the 19 additional works in To Express: To Set Forth in Words add language as an expressive means, whether used literally, often derived from memoir-like sources, or compositionally.
Proof, if desired, of the legitimacy of the work is quickly found. None of these variously mixed- media works is “pretty” or vacuous. Each artist each time out has an experience to recall and convey, a point to make, often through sophisticated means. In Nicholas Pawlicki’s “Raphael Facing Backwards,” an oval comprised of hexagons commands attention from across the room, while green and red forms trailing from it create an upward tension, like a balloon straining to rise or a boat moving through water. Only up close can the peripheral elements be recognized as the arms, legs, and head of the artist’s hero, one of the immensely popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—the subjects of graphic narratives with a delightful and imaginative name that, with teen tongue firmly in cheek, neatly combines four of today’s more popular topics. Pawlicki has chosen to show his hero’s back instead of his masked face in order to focus on the intricate pattern of the shell. Next to it, another fantasy universe makes a visual appearance in Jonathan Evans’ “A Rainbow, a Lombre, and a Pokemon [The Water Type].” Evans exploits—or perhaps invents for himself—one of the cutting edge ideas of today’s most progressive artists by foregrounding the process of his work, on which the incomplete rainbow lifts out of an inchoate mass on the left and curves across the sky to the right like a geyser or a tropical bird’s tail, leaving a balanced but asymmetrical background to which a fish-like form on a pedestal is unmistakably attached, creating a three-dimensionally active composition.
Innovation has always been an important part of art. Rubens, no less than Andy Warhol, sought new ways of making marks that were either more efficient, more convincing, or both. Here Earl Horne Jr. comes up with an original way to depict his subject in “The White Wavy Water,” a composition of acrylic paint and plastic wrap on paper. Taking advantage of the antagonistic way water-borne acrylic paint sits on plastic wrap, Horne laminates white-streaked plastic loosely over a handpainted blue background, producing a view that ripples to life as the viewer moves before it.
It wouldn’t be right to convey the idea that technical innovation or storytelling are the only things on offer here. Many of the images are simply beautiful in ways closer to, say, Abstract Expressionism sized for domestic use than to Hallmark greeting cards. Katie Gardner and Darin Erickson each offers a predominantly green form, Gardner’s contrasted with gold and Erickson’s with blue, that demonstrate the infinite range of even a single color. In “Weed,” a work the equal of any evocative abstract, Nikki Gardner evokes magic enclosures ranging from Stonehenge to the Disney Concert Hall with an economy of means that guarantees the image will never seem old.
It’s unlikely that every artwork here will please a given viewer, but it seems possible that every one will delight and, as the saying goes, speak to someone. Edward Johnson’s “The City of New York” may not initially thrill fans of the redrock and wilderness, but his panorama of three street views laid one above the other, like Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” might well seduce them with its six-pointed starry sky and comments like: “I’m walking down the street and I feel the buildings are gonna fall on top of me.” If not, we can all agree with his big-city angst, as he enters a dance hall and admits, “I want to be happy in this picture.”
Turn City for the Arts’ “The Color of Being” and “To Express: To Set Forth in Words” is at Art Access Gallery in Salt Lake City through February 12.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.