In 2016, gallerist Brad Kramer decided to display a painting by J. Kirk Richards depicting the biblical Eve as African. The ensuing controversy came from an unexpected source. Not from the prudish, objecting to the depiction of her naked breasts (Kramer’s gallery is in Provo and his audience is largely LDS), nor from the traditionalists, wishing to keep Eve Caucasian; but from the progressives, objecting that a white man had depicted a black Eve and had stumbled, however unwittingly, into thorny issues of cultural and sexual exploitation. When you open a contemporary art gallery in Provo, you have to be ready for almost anything.
That controversy, which was hashed out in local newspapers and on the internet, didn’t dissuade Kramer from staging a full exhibition by Richards this month in which Adam and Eve, as well as a heavenly mother and father, are depicted with dark skin. “Kirk’s work is subversive and also hyper literal. Subversive for the depictions of gendered gods, race, and the African setting, but hyper literal because you can see the rib literally being taken from Adam’s side to create Eve,” Kramer says of the current exhibition.
Brad Kramer is approachable, friendly. In his late 30’s, with buzzed salt-and-pepper hair, glasses and a few days stubble, he sits comfortably in the upstairs section of his gallery making small vertical gestures with his hands while he talks, organizing his thoughts. He is extremely well educated, with two bachelor’s degrees, one in Russian and the other in history, a master’s in American history, and a Ph.D. in sociocultural anthropology. His dissertation focused on taboos and how highly spiritual and highly sinful subjects are treated with a similar taboo in Mormon culture — one can imagine Richards’ paintings providing the illustrations.
From his educational background, it is hard to image how Kramer became a gallerist. His interest in the art market started out as something casual but grew into a career when his former partner in the bookstore now known as Writ & Vision moved to Manti. Kramer had already experimented with art in the gallery, hanging a few pieces, including works by Richards, in the back space. “After my friend, Ryan Roos, moved down to Manti, [Kirk and I] talked about the possibility of making an actual art gallery out of the back room and [Kirk] was so excited and enthusiastic. It really seemed like it could happen.”
After taking over the business from Roos and deciding to pursue the idea of gallery and bookstore, Kramer visited Glen Nelson, founder of the Mormon Artists Group in New York City. “Glen took me around to different art galleries in New York and helped me to set the foundation of what I would need to make Writ & Vision a success. In a way, it is almost as much his gallery as it is mine, but for him it has been completely a labor of love,” Kramer says. Writ & Vision opened in April of 2015 and has been building momentum ever since. “It fills a need in the Provo art community,” Kramer says.
Since beginning Writ & Vision, Kramer has been involved in a balancing act. Though he admits that over 90 percent of his revenue comes from fine art sales, he still believes the bookstore part of Writ & Vision is essential for the atmosphere he is trying to create. “Galleries can be intimidating for some people,” Kramer says. “Bookstores, however, are very inviting spaces. People like to come into bookstores and browse. When you walk through the front door it doesn’t look like an art gallery. It’s a warm, inviting space. You have to walk through that space before you get to the actual gallery.”
Another balancing act Kramer is involved in comes from what sort of art he represents. “There’s a balance I’m looking for between representing art that I know there is a market for and including art that challenges and stretches viewers,” he says.
“In part you could say that we’re very consciously trying to appeal to Mormons who want to buy fine art and are not satisfied with what they can buy at Deseret Book,” Kramer says. “Many of my patrons are LDS and supporting good LDS fine art is an important part of their patronage. I want this to be a non-combative space where all Mormons – rank-and-file Mormons, Progressive Mormons, ex-Mormons, Feminist Mormons, etc. – can feel at home.”
Writ & Vision has exhibited a wide variety of contemporary art from oil on canvas to conceptual sculpture. Recently, Kramer has curated the work of CUAC director Adam Bateman, Utah painter Laura Erekson Atkinson, and David and Sara Lindsay, who reside in Lubbock, Texas. On the bookstore side, Kramer has hosted a number of book readings and lectures, focusing on Mormon history, literature and cultural issues.
For the most part, Kramer’s efforts in bringing in art that is both accessible and challenging have been well met by the public, with only the recent J. Kirk Richards’ show bringing up major controversy. I am inclined to believe that Richards’ paintings of the creation are sympathetic and beautiful. He illustrates a purity of the Garden of Eden focused on the act of creation, rather than an all-powerful white god. Through his paintings, Richards depicts the absolute and powerful innocence that was a driving force behind the experiences of Adam and Eve in the garden. Others could object that Richards’ work is an example of cultural and sexual appropriation by a white, Christian male converting black figures to the Christian narrative and using the black female body for financial gain. But without a place like Writ & Vision, we wouldn’t even be having the conversation.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.