While not everything, context is something in a work of art and these three reviews of current shows in Salt Lake examine various ways in which what goes on once a work has left the studio can influence what we call “art.”
Erin Berrett and David Meikle at Williams Fine Art
The two-person exhibit is a tricky thing. It’s a marriage of sorts, and we all know that though marriages can sometimes be invigorating they can also be suffocating. What drove the matchmakers at Williams Fine Art to bring together Erin Berrett, painter of still lifes, and David Meikle, artist of the intermountain landscape, is not immediately apparent. In Utah there are plenty of other still life painters who might have been more Berrett’s type, and at Williams, Meikle could have had his pick of mates, living or dead, who enjoy the landscape.
Berrett comes from that school of University of Utah painters who embrace the still life as a chance to paint more than to compose. Her setup will be familiar to anyone who has been around for the past decade. A single object is placed in a nondescript setting where foreground takes up a predictable bottom third and background the top two-thirds of the canvas. The object is centrally located so that all attention can be focused on its unique and inviolable thingness. Like the Impressionists before them, the artists in Berrett’s circle set themselves apart from each other by their individual touch. Hers is a cool one, the result of a stylized approach that builds up blocks of color in thick paint. Shadows and contours are reduced to distinct planes. Everything is rendered in crisp hard light, saturated colors and with sharp brushstrokes.
Berrett’s controlled studio approach would seem a poor match for someone like Meikle, who depicts postcard-worthy images of the landscape: fertile valleys, soaring peaks, parched deserts. But we learn something about Meikle when he’s in Berrett’s company. His landscapes are as coolly constructed as Berrett’s still lifes. The trees, hills and clouds in Meikle’s works are as uniformly in-focus, saturated with color and crisply defined as the objects on Berrett’s studio table. This matching suggests that Meikle has more in common with a studio still-life painter like Berrett than with the plein air artists he might have been shown with, and the curatorial coupling starts to make sense.
In the end our appreciation of Meikle’s work suffers in this relationship. Whether cupcakes or power tools, Berrett’s subjects are consumer products and we can enjoy seeing them under a stylized gaze that raises them to the status of fetishes. When Meikle takes the same approach to landscape, the paintings feel inert, void of that magical quality that has driven artists to paint the landscape for centuries: air. It’s as if Meikle has taken the great outdoors and bottled it up inside his studio.
Cara Despain and Mary Toscano at Kayo Gallery
A reviewer does a disservice to artist and audience alike by claiming a level of success for an exhibit that it cannot live up to, masking what may be a genuine, modest achievement with the flash of desperate hyperbole. For example, a recent review of Cara Despain and Mary Toscano’s exhibit “Into the White” in the City Weekly called it “an ingenious idea,” linked it to the international art scene, and ended by comparing it favorably to “the best art.” That reviewer may have fallen under the spell of the show’s advance hype, generated in part by a string of cliff-hanger videos—posted on Toscano’s website—hinting at secrets to be revealed only at the Kayo Gallery, helped along by an interview with Toscano from 2009 posted here on 15 Bytes. How else to explain the disconnect between the review, which describes the show in glowing but purely metaphorical terms as “a meditation on the color white” – and what is actually on the walls at Kayo?
“Into the White” is clever, if not so original as “ingenious” suggests. Taking advantage of (which is as good as “responding to”) the long, narrow gallery, each artist fills one side with a string of thematically connected drawings. Both artists collaborated on a work in the front window that seems conceptually unconnected and another in the rear meant to bring their individual presentations to a common conclusion. Despain has done strong work before, but here she seems to withdraw before Toscano’s more accomplished technique, taking refuge in expanses of trompe l’oeil textures. Closer inspection, though, reveals otherwise. What appears at first to be vague modeling on her horses’ heads turns into a comment on how little concrete knowledge we have of these evolutionary stages in equine history. More satisfying—and more fun—is her use of various pieces and styles of furniture to represent the animals’ bodies, along with the way meticulously rendered wood grain fills the space and bridges the gap between miniature subjects and oversize settings, including illusionistic frames, surrounding them. How did Darwin fail to notice that human artifacts also evolve by survival of the fittest? It’s arguable whether anyone will get the unfamiliar story of the evolution and extinction of horses in North America from this, but the pleasure of imaginatively entering these scenes is real. On the other wall, Toscano doesn’t so much draw, in the sense of abstracting form from things she beholds, as she ‘draws’ on her imagination and store of visual impressions to create the illustrations for an adventure that remains untold. The results, with energetic lines that seem to reveal character as much through delineation of clothing and hair as hands and faces, evoke mythic scenes from stories intended to suggest more than they reveal.
In short, the hype notwithstanding, “Into the White” confirms that Cara Despain and Mary Toscano are locally important artists with the potential to do great things, but who are still worth attending in the meanwhile, while it proves nothing one way or the other concerning the prejudice against collaboration as compared to unique, individual effort. Frankly, the theme of “Into the White” is served mostly in what look like after-thoughts: crows flying along the walls are more interesting for the convincing way they flock than because they happen to change from black to white as they go. And what is that thing in the front window, anyway?
Joe Ostraff at Phillips Gallery
Joe Ostraff wants you to have a conversation. With his current exhibit of work at Phillips Gallery he has brought the visual stimuli for a serious tete-a-tete, but what form the dialogue will take is largely up to you.
What Ostraff has brought to the table is a series of related works featuring silhouetted heads in profile, executed with his characteristic grids, textures and palette variation. His theme of conversation (or “dialogue” in some titles) is broad enough to allow the viewer room for play, while the work is developed enough to provide structure for more intense activity.
In a grouping of smaller works Ostraff’s profiles are fairly nondescript, while in the larger ones the heads take on more distinct features. It may be enough to see that in works where two “Joes” face each other, some Joes are identical while others have distinct profiles; or to recognize that a third profile seen in many of the works is racially distinct from the caucasian Joes. There is enough play of the self and the other here for engaging conversation. And if you recognize in one of the Joes the artist himself, or in the other Joe the founder of the former’s faith, the conversation can become more engaged and nuanced.
This show is successful because in it Ostraff doesn’t attempt what so many contemporary artists do — to provide, through “investigation,” “examination” or “interrogation” the type of philosophical, theoretical or political statement better left to the professionals in those fields. Instead he evokes (an equally latinate verb, but one more apt to the description of what art does and one less abused by contemporary art writing) a common, humanistic theme and dresses it up in visual material (color, line, texture) intriguing enough to hold the viewer’s attention until they bring their own experience to the conversation.
They may find in the works an investigation of Paul Ricoeur’s dialectic concept of the self, positing its existence in the relationship between the same and the other, a “hermeneutics of the self” that stands in opposition to the “cogito” of Cartesian philosophy, suggesting an attestation of truth or certainty rather than its indubitable knowledge.
Or they may think of Sesame Street (and those vignettes where two people face one another, each vocalizing a phoneme to create a word).
The point being that Ostraff realizes that the experience of an artwork should be a directed though open-ended conversation and not a classroom lecture.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.