C.C.A. Christensen painted his most important work, the “Mormon Panorama,” in the mid-1870s. Even though as an immigrant he hadn’t witnessed the persecution and violence central to the stories he gave visual form, it was his dramatic images, in which nature herself seemed to recoil in horror, that came to represent the experience of the Latter-day Saints. After Christensen’s death in 1912, both his gigantic project and his one-room cabin outside Ephraim, with its small window, were treated as irreplaceable relics. In time, the cabin was moved to the historic block in Ephraim, and set down behind the restored roller mill building that had become the Central Utah Art Center, where it has since served as an auxiliary gallery. Recently, Stephanie Leitch chose this structure, with all its associations, as the site for her latest installation.
The term “archival” permeates the art world; artworks have traditionally been investments, and artists like Christensen were trained to make them as durable as possible. Yet beginning in the late 20th century, many artists began to embrace impermanence as a principle: one that set them at odds with the commonplace notion that art endowed with universal relevance should be made to last forever as well. Some of the most popular and exciting recent artworks have had a life span of months, weeks, or even days, while installation art has become a catchall category for works that may have few common characteristics other than their frequently temporary nature. For an artist who subscribed to Duchamp’s notion that artists primarily select objects to elevate to the status of art, installation was the logical next step; find some potentially meaningful things, arrange them together in the gallery, and voila! However, for an artist like Leitch, who crafts large scale, physical versions of sophisticated mental constructs—installations that require careful planning followed by countless hours of painstaking labor—the idea that they may be on view for less time than it took to create them feels paradoxical at best.
“Interstices,” the installation Leitch constructed in response to her encounter with Christensen’s cabin at what is now the Granary Art Center in Ephraim, occupies a space only a few steps from another, more conventional installation to which it may be useful to compare it. Trent Alvey and Andrew Rice divide the main space between them with “Tourists of the New Sublime,” a meditation on living with the gritty fallout of nuclear technology that was conceived and curated by Scotti Hill. Between them, the two shows and three artists independently display past (Rice), present (Alvey), and possible future (Leitch) approaches to making art. Rice’s deep, evocative layers of color on paper excavate illusory spaces that arise and dissolve in the mind’s eye. This is traditional painting in the service of unendurable modern experience. Alvey’s mixed-media work tells two stories in parallel, one personal and the other historical. As she grows up in the West, the “new, atomic sublime” takes shape around her in the form of governmental exploitation of sparsely populated land for use in uranium mining, nuclear research, and atomic bomb making. Placing her memories and history side by side welds them into a convincing, if not particularly dramatic narrative. It is accessible to an audience, even as it fulfills the prediction of Donald Kuspit, an early exponent of installation, that over time art would grow less distinct from life, becoming instead just another part of everyday experience. As we contemplate the invasion of art practice by storytelling, once implied in the image rather than spelled out in the accompanying documentation, and the many recent art tropes borrowed from entertainment, Kuspit begins to seem prophetic.
If today’s typical installation has that mundane character, Leitch’s constructions may point to a future in which art will once again set itself apart, even as it encourages interaction. For one thing, her projects really do originate as installations were supposed to do, in response to their chosen sites. Then there is the high level of craft she invests in them, so that they feel unified in a way few things do today. And finally, they rarely fail to connect the sensual experiences they reassemble from everyday materials with more advanced cerebral and philosophical discoveries. She may ground these in a parochial vocabulary that will be most familiar to an LDS audience, but they lend themselves to broader “Ah-Ha!” experiences that reshape awareness. Knowing that these paths to contemplation will be disassembled at the end of their designated runs, and might never be seen again, gives them a poignancy that traditionally art objects display, but few other human-made products possess.
If there’s a signature characteristic of a Leitch installation, it’s her confessed obsession with large numbers of parallel lines in three-dimensional space: space that they fill, subdivide, and energize in various ways. In an early work, “Untitled Congregation” (2013), sound and motion were included in the form of water that dripped down 125 vertical monofilament strands, overfilling dozens of LDS sacrament cups threaded at regular intervals along each descent, eventually falling like noisy rain onto platters below (see our review here). The structure, which mirrored the space, was subdivided in a geometric grid, down and through which static pattern the water moved. Possible analogues include the way transient matter—living things or ideas, for instance—are both hindered and helped by the structures through which they pass. “Untitled Apogee” (2013-14) was lent form by a surrounding map of Utah, with red threads that completed the implied connection between church spires and heaven (see our review here). That the spires were located according to their actual layout in the very familiar panoramic vista of Utah Valley turned the work into a reminder of the ubiquitous presence of these landmarks, so common as to be taken for granted, though seen everywhere, at every distance and perspective throughout the constructed world. In the City Library later that year, the simple horizontal structure of “The Mote and the Beam” (2014), recalling the acres of bookshelves that fill the building, produced such a dazzling pattern in three-dimensional space that viewers spent time and effort just sorting the physical lines from their compound shadows in order to see it accurately (see our review here). Here Leitch employed academic perspective to draw (her pun, methinks) the viewer into contemplating a visible, if inaccessible interior: an analogy for the life of the mind encouraged by reading or prayer. Looking into an illusory interior that cannot be entered seems oddly familiar in a gallery; it’s the basic experience of viewing a large, representational painting, like a landscape or a historic scene.
For “Interstices,” Leitch has filled the center of the former cabin with hundreds of fibrous, vertical strings that hang equidistant, together making up a rectangle around which a narrow, open space permits viewers to pass. Into this occluded, but mostly empty space the artist projects a video downward, from an overhead location. Unlike in her previous installations, Leitch makes no quotations from church architecture or paraphernalia. Instead, her physical lines do what opaque or translucent objects would: like mist, they render penetrating and otherwise invisible light visible, much as atmospheric haze does in panoramic vistas—like the wagon wheel of solar rays radiating up from the horizon in Christensen’s “Chimney Rock”—that can evoke emotional or spiritual responses in a willing audience. In fact, an almost exact mirror of her illuminated lines can be found in another of Christensen’s paintings: “Exterior of the Carthage Jail,” in which an all-but-identical beam of parallel lines descend from the sky to protect the fallen body of Joseph Smith from his murderers. Since each string, like each particle suspended in air, reflects only a fraction of the light, the resulting pattern fills the entire space with three-dimensional streams of light through which patterns appear to move in sequences that are actually spatial, though they appear temporal. Here the literal metaphors begin with the artist’s stated reference to the sun’s rays, divided by clouds or mountains into divine calligraphy, but extend to anything that diffuses into space over time, such as ideas and understanding penetrating society, or news changing meaning as it spreads.
Even before such ideas come to mind, shifting geometric patterns of colored light seem to move up at times, and down at others, and viewers may also feel at times as though it is they, not the light, rising and falling, so that only the cabin’s original window, discernible through the dense cloud of string, orients the floating observer. In spite of the gravity–determined tension on the lines that results in their remaining perfectly straight, the projection makes them shimmer, an impalpable tremor that passes over them, as if they were moving, yet leaving them undisturbed.
When we say someone we love is beautiful, we’re not so much talking about the regularity of his or her features as we are commenting on the dependability of our response. Good art has this quality as well; we may return to it again and again and rely on it without fear of disappointment. “Interstices” has that kind of cerebral and emotional beauty as well as the more familiar kind that pleases the eye. Both are equally vital to the aesthetic response, and it’s possible to argue that purging the work of sectarian distractions would make many Utah artists’ art not only more universal, but more accessible in the long term, rather than shortening its effective life with instantaneous and transient gratification. To be sure, in contemplating “Interstices” there is a temptation to step back and reconsider as well the many young LDS artists who make the local scene so vital and compelling. Realizing that some of these “young” artists are now in their 40s, we might wish for a Clement Greenberg or Art Danto to hurry along and sort out what it all means before it may be too late.
Then again, it’s probably too soon to ascribe common motives to so many disparate individuals, or even to be certain of their often-complex motives. We can, perhaps, say that few artists today wish to make exclusively religious art, or to allow others to foreground the spiritual content of their art at the expense of more comprehensive and inclusive interests. Suffice it to say, then, that in “Interstices,” Stephanie Leitch has made something that can stand on its own as a completely sensuous, physical experience, but one that grows richer with the additional dimensions added by recognition of its influences and, ultimately, deeper meaning.
Stephanie Leitch’s Insterstices is at Granary Art Center in Ephraim through January 27, 2017.