by Geoff Wichert
“With no news from abroad, a culture ends up repeating the same things to itself. It needs the foreign not to imitate, but to transform.” —Eliot Weinberger
We take for granted that Utah has one of the more vibrant and lively arts cultures in the nation. That said, it also has its own particular qualities. Unlike, say, New York or Los Angeles, where the leading figures may be imported from Kansas, England, or China, and even less like Florida, where price has replaced quality as the measure of all things, in Utah, artists are likely to be locally-grown, well-known proponents of shared values, and the audience prefers that their work display estimable skill while exploring familiar themes and subjects. Portraits and figures are popular, preferably in narrative, if not outright illustrative works. Still life and abstraction command respect, even when generating little passion. The great glory, of course, is the landscape, and by comparing examples of this one genre, we may highlight what makes our art so strong, and how it may become even stronger.
First of all, some of the greatest models on the planet are here: dramatic, varied, unspoiled, and conveniently close at hand both for inspiration and comparison. Second, thanks to the timely coincidence of Utah’s exploration and discovery with the spread of photography, printing, and motion pictures, these spectacular vistas have already entered the visual lexicon as universally recognized icons of eloquent Nature. And unlike the lesser, local features familiar to explorers from Europe, the landscape of the Americas is incomprehensibly vast and endlessly variable. Even before the popularity of winter recreation and the excellence of the local snow made Park City a mecca (get on a plane to fly here from anywhere and you’re likely to find yourself sitting next to a quiveringly-eager downhill skier), the preferred list of nearby natural wonders could run the alphabet, from Arches, Bryce, and Canyonlands all the way down to Zion.
Studying, say, one of printmaker Koichi Yamamoto’s lithographic studies of red rock geology, the earth striped by sedimentary layers laid down over millennia and then sculpted by the erosion or water and wind, the viewer could be forgiven for concluding that this avid ski-boarder’s inspiration to draw the land came from early and frequent travel in Utah. In fact, though, the trajectory of his life—born in Japan, where nature is literally worshipped, growing up under Wyoming’s big sky, followed by art school in Oregon and further study in history-stained Central Europe, to becoming a professor at the University of Tennessee who travels a worldwide trail of printmaking workshops—this path, recorded in his prolific art, is marked throughout by a search for naturally-occurring, essential forms, of which landscape is only source. Yes, in the American West he drew and sculpted dramatic landforms, but in Poland, where the land is as flat as Kansas, he found something like geologic features in the ruined architecture of seemingly endless wars. Some of his most visually opulent works are abstract engravings inspired by fish: dense webs of lines, like cyclones from which monstrous faces emerge, found in a symmetrical, visual origami of seafloor landscapes.
Yamamoto taught at Utah State University for six years, becoming well-known to the state’s artists who studied in Logan at the beginning of the millennium. He continues to influence local artists as a visiting artist, bringing his mastery of the gamut of printmaking techniques to workshops like the one he taught at Saltgrass Printmakers this month. He may demonstrate the arcane gouges used to engrave those spiderwebs of lines into a sheet of metal, a technique used by Rembrandt centuries ago and still in use by mints to make paper money. Or, he may use a roller to draw with ink on a still-flawless plate, disrupt the linear patterns that emerge by walking on them in rubber shoes, and then transfer the result to paper to produce a monotype: a ‘print’ as unique as a painting. For students, seeing such techniques demonstrated—and having the means to make them placed in their hands—is like having their batteries charged: renewing not only their ability to make art, but their desire. In this way, Koichi gives back some of what he imbibes during his travels through Utah. Visiting artist programs like Saltgrass’s, and similar projects at various art schools and galleries around the State, don’t compete with the local talent; rather, they open up what would otherwise be a closed conversation where everyone would eventually have heard what’s on everyone else’s mind. Just as the buildings along the Wasatch Front engage in visual conversation with their spectacular backdrop, so artists formed by other traditions enrich the vocabulary of artistic response available here. The trove of techniques and approaches stockpiled here are analogues to the buttes and rivers, knolls and gorges they memorialize. Koichi Yamamoto has moved on for now, though he is certain to return. But he leaves behind the artists whose art he has enriched, like those seen here. Others will follow (check the schedule at Saltgrass and elsewhere). Art may have a particular time and a specific place, but its boundaries have yet to be found.
Geoff Wichert is a Utah-based writer and art critic who writes frequently for 15 Bytes. He has landscapes on the mind, as he is reviewing an upcoming exhibit of landscapes by Mark Knudsen and Leslie Thomas in the upcoming edition of 15 Bytes, which will be published Monday, January 7.
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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