Also known as prestidigitation or legerdemain, sleight of hand refers to the manual dexterity used by conjurors and magicians to manipulate commonplace physical objects so that they appear to materialize and dematerialize right before our eyes, making the impossible and remarkable appear normal and ordinary. The painter Jeff Juhlin does something analogous in his art, arranging materials drawn from nature, like oil paints, vegetable papers, metal foils, gold leaf and, most importantly, resins and waxes so that they accomplish something so analogous to sleight of hand — with the difference that instead of manual dexterity, we witness the action of mental dexterity — that it seems proper to call it sleight of mind. Instead of physical objects, he dematerializes and rematerializes physical materials and their qualities and dimensions, so that solids become vapors, gravity becomes distance, and weight becomes space.
Like with all good illusions, we can mentally dismantle Juhlin’s to see how they come about without fear that they will be destroyed in the process. We realize that the use of molten wax requires that he lay his panels flat on the table while he works on them, much as Jackson Pollock did while he dripped and flung paint on his. Unlike Pollock’s seemingly accidental, but really very careful application of paint, Juhlin’s building up of media appears as meticulous as it is. For both artists, though, the magic occurs when the work is taken off the ground and raised to hang on the wall, whereupon what was placed earliest and on the bottom becomes distant, while what was applied last and on the top becomes near. What were networks in Pollock become veils in Juhlin, so that the illusion of three-dimensional space emerges from the reality of horizontal layering. Simultaneously, and here he departs from Pollock, Juhlin has arranged his materials across the surface of his panel in zones and bands that now manifest as layers arranged from the bottom of the panel up to the top. These magic tricks, in which vertical layering and separation in space trade roles, take the place in Juhlin’s encaustic paintings traditionally taken by representational illusion. We look at paint and see something else: something more.
The key to Juhlin’s accomplishment is craft, the individual’s long-term commitment to the mastery of tools, techniques, and the exploration of materials in relation to how and what they can represent. Throughout history, craft was always the sine qua non of art, until it began to fall out of favor around 1950. One place it never disappeared is Utah, where skill is still considered essential to illustrating pioneer narratives, theological subjects and our favorite topic, our own landscape. This is where Juhlin, an inheritor of this tradition, goes beyond his antecedents and peers, in that his panels are not landscapes—that is to say not pictures of locales—but are instead to be experienced as locations in their own right. Each Juhlin encaustic is a place, made up of materials acting parts like they play in nature: parts that ask the essential human question, “Where?” and answer it, “Here.” Into these places he invites us to enter and dwell awhile, hoping we will take away some of the meaning and companionship that he has found therein.
“Shifting Ground” Jeff Juhlin solo exhibition, A Gallery (1321 South 2100 East, SLC), through June 3. Artist Reception Friday, May 18, 6-8 p.m.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.
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