Growing up in Southern California, my summers were spent at the beach, where the menacing call of its flying inhabitants loomed over our play like the marine layer that blocked out the sun. Our trips were split between playing in the sand and deciding which one of us would guard our paper bag lunches from the seagulls. I personally witnessed my entire string cheese swallowed in one shot, packaging and all — an incident immediately called to mind when I stood in front of Jamie Wyeth’s “Gluttony” at the Salt Lake Art Center.
Personal experience is important in viewing the works in the Art Center’s exhibition of Wyeth’s Seven Deadly Sins. Anyone who has lived on either coast will bring similar experiences to the exhibition. Even in our landlocked state, seagulls are a potent symbol, though in a more virtuous way than the sinful gulls profiled in the exhibition. The birds’ nature as scavengers becomes something virtuous in Utah, where the seagull is the state bird and credited with saving the pioneers from famine when they appeared to control the exploding cricket population.The dichotomy of truth and perception in some pioneer accounts mirrors what Wyeth tries to bring to light in his paintings: the true nature of a sometimes misrepresented bird.
Seven Deadly Sins operates on an academic, art historical plane if you pay attention to the detailed text components of the exhibit. Linking the display to historical descriptions and representations of the seven transgressions shows the seagulls as more than random subjects, especially because of the artist’s deep connection with earlier work by Paul Cadmus. Both Cadmus and the east coast birds created strong memories in Wyeth, all manifested in this exhibition.
Wyeth noted he strayed from anthropomorphizing the birds, but the gulls’ eyes hold an important focus. Whether wide-eyed or closed, the gazes communicate the seemingly premeditated, yet instinctual actions of the scavengers. Intent stares in “Pride” and the helpless victim in “Lust” add to the emotional pull of the scenes, which is most evident in “Anger,” where visitors get stared down by a furious seagull.
“Greed” stood out to me because of my childhood memory of stolen food at the beaks of these beachcombers. This image asks viewers to think of what occurs right before or just after. The background gulls’ unfinished legs counter the prominent food at the greedy bird’s feet. The scream is audible, the melting ice cream flooding the sand, and the idea of greed completely conveyed. At times the exaggeration of these works seems out of place and almost comical, a situation that could be remedied by including Wyeth’s Carny Banners from the series, lending a sideshow aspect to the exhibition.
Included studies of the paintings bring a history of process to the final images, and even a glimpse into the future. “Carny Gull #3,” an image of a seagull in front of an explosion of fire can be seen as post sin, the bird punished for hoarding those lunches as he tries to escape the neon flames. According to the video component of the exhibition, the neon flames contain Wyeth’s saliva, which shows the artist’s unique approach to painting. Wyeth’s painting style is probably the most shocking element of the display, followed closely by the amount to read on some of the text panels.
The Wyeth show is in every sense built up. From artistic dynasty to the use of medium, these seagulls carry a lot of baggage. They are not being attacked, but simply profiled and given a more accurate portrait and ownership of their activities. Contrary to our own monuments, which worship the miracle for which seagulls were the vehicle, Wyeth reveals a driven species responsible for their own behavior, fascinatingly represented and amazingly painted. Though the heavy text panels can cause a few obstacles for the viewer, the strong images convey volumes. Functioning on multiple layers within the Salt Lake location, Seven Deadly Sins was expertly chosen to show at the Art Center venue.
Melissa Hempel works for museums. Especially interested in visitor experience, she completed degrees in Museum Studies and the History of Art and Visual Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. A California native, Melissa is ready to explore the artistic community in Utah, and learn how to live in the snow. She currently works at UVU’s Woodbury Art Museum.