Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Jesse Meredith: From a Certain Vantage Point

We now use the less meaningful term “mixed media” in preference to more precise words that range from “oil on canvas” to “Expandable foam, epoxy clay, epoxy gel, resin, wood, steel, acrylic paint, quartz, glass rhinestones, and pencil”—a description that was posted next to a recent work in Park City. While “mixed media” might actually be a better choice for the latter, it also signals the decline of designating material usage, a process that may have begun when Julio González and Pablo Picasso welded together a preexisting bicycle seat and handle bars to make a brilliant image of a bull’s head. With the arrival of assemblage, the usefulness of labeling materials began to break down. It’s one thing to expand the vocabulary by adding new words, but it’s another to shrink it by labeling everything with the same name.

“Mixed media,” then, might be reserved for occasions when an artist does something where the mixture is part of what the work is about. A good example, on view in the AIR Gallery at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, would be Jesse Meredith’s “Overton Windows.” If the exhibit’s name sounds familiar, it’s most likely because it’s become a term of art in academic discourse, where it’s used to describe the range of acceptable public policy ideas circulating at any given time. In his art, however, Meredith, uses it to refer to a durable — even a stubborn — attitude concerning the question of public vs private space. He traces this holdover back to the American Dream and belief in Manifest Destiny, but what particularly concerns him is the connection between so-called “rugged individualism” and the peculiarly American ideal of private property.

Indeed, the works in “Overton Windows,” all of them untitled, simulate windows, as paintings have more-or-less done since the Renaissance. Meredith’s windows are neither paintings nor sculptures, but bas-reliefs, most of which contain both 2- and 3-dimensional parts. That is, most combine an image, such as a poster or photograph, with some kind of construction material that covers, shades, or outright obscures it. It’s vinyl siding taking the place of lace curtains. As viewers walk around the gallery, they are led on a merry chase, a metaphor for the trip the artist took, from Texas to Utah and on to California, where he alternately saw art works retailing the open spaces of the West and, contrasting with them, spaces closed off by the use of industrial materials created for that purpose, even as those same materials often seek to create a nostalgic image of the traditional, handmade home.

Metaphors have ways of expanding, and Meredith soon found eloquent ways of growing his. After all, the plentiful vistas of the Wild West weren’t just hidden behind fences, billboards, and the like. They were literally sliced up by yet more industrial tools, into identical segments called lots or plots, and sold off for individual replicas, however inadequate, of the terrain that inspired them. And so he took similar tools to his images, slicing them like the land into repeating parcels. These are among the most intriguing, because frustrating, pieces in “Overton Windows.” Even though they are fully exposed, cutting and manipulating has made them challenging to decipher.

In the simplest, but also the most advanced image, a mobile home-style window has been cut through a photo of a tree standing before a section of vinyl siding. Through it, we see … another vinyl wall. It’s a reminder of Oscar Levant’s famous quip about yet another source of artistic delusion: “Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath.” When media are combined this way, layered like so many conflicting thoughts, “mixed media” become as meaningful as John Keats’ “negative capability,” and art takes a step further into understanding the murky vantage point where we stand today.

Jesse Meredith: Overton Windows, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 7


All images Jesse Meredith from the “Overtown Windows” (photos by Geoff Wichert)

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