What decides our fates? Greek Sophists thought it was character: who I am would determine what I am. Astrologers argue that when we are determines who we are. Once upon a time, where we lived made many choices for us, but is that still true? With the coming of modern communication technology we are able to pretty much be anywhere at any time and even several places at once, so geography has seemed less and less important in shaping our lives. Consider Laurel Hunter, from Salt Lake City, who came to Ephraim last November as a writer to introduce art by her Los Angeles friend Elizabeth Tremante to readers on the World Wide Web (see November 2007 edition). Hunter has now returned to Ephraim, this time as artist rather than critic, accompanied by another friend, Lisa Carroll from Oakland, California. Like many artists, they belong to a network that allows close connection, cross-fertilization, and even collaboration to take place as if distance meant nothing. Mere irony, then, that it is geography and a sense of place that informs and shapes their largely collaborative exhibition? Or is it precisely the importance, even the necessity, of more fully experiencing each unique place we encounter in our unmoored modern lifestyle that motivates this work?
On entering the gallery, a travelogue of places and themes begins: ways of representing and thinking about geography. By the door, Laurel Hunter’s title, “On the Shelf,” literally locates about two-dozen small drawings while figuratively commenting on the way appearances are captured and stored for a variety of uses.|1| Beyond, on the left, Hunter’s “Cirque” unfolds and lays flat the horizon surrounding a tarn, a steep-sided mountain pool, in a single, jagged line that loops dizzyingly around the central blue body. On the right, Lisa Carroll’s “Western Sector (Part 3)” captures in overlapping clay discs the analogous distribution patterns of unbounded living things, simultaneously displaying organic growth across a scale from lichens on a tree stump to cities on a continent.|2|
Next along the same south wall, Carroll’s “Found Paper,” |3| eighteen small collages in gold- and silver-foiled frames, contrast ceremoniously with the loose organism of “Western Sector.” Hung in small groups of three, four, or five, these monochromatic abstracts initially create a kind of rhythmic patterning along the wall, like bars of music. At some point it becomes apparent that they’re not really abstractions at all. From Boise and Bakersfield to Cheyenne and Santa Fe, they’re maps of Western cities grown from little bits of paper stuck together like paper wasp homes. All the paper is white, giving them an austere, classical look that suits their presentation and resonates with “Western Sector,” but one wonders what more variety in the paper sources might do to the visual texture and the metaphorical reading.
Across the narrow space from Found Paper is an example of just such an alternative. Here window envelopes cover the wall, hung in ranks and files like modular architecture stacks our dwellings and workplaces. Each neatly aligned window allows a fragmentary view into the individual life or occupation within, though each in reality is a fragment of Lisa Carroll’s exploration and its residue in her consciousness. Maps and scientific engravings mingle with found objects and goods manufactured from natural materials. It’s an encyclopedia of the world of human discovery and creation.|4|
The work that initially connects most clearly to the show’s title spreads across the gallery floor in the large niche at the back of the main floor. Recall that The Skies Were Not Cloudy All Day comes from a song that asks, “Oh give me a home … on the range.” Here Hunter presents a field of tent-shaped objects, too loosely arrayed to be a military encampment, and diminishing in size as they reach into the apparent distance. It’s a 3D joke on a 2-D convention. Lest we miss the way their ranks narrow as their size decreases, she has marked the floor with converging boundary lines. She called the piece “Tents,”|0| but it’s not clear if that should be spelled literally, or wouldn’t better be “Tense” — not just taut, but referring linguistically to how we transpose time. There is a parallel, after all, between our universal ability to verbally represent events at increasing distances in time (‘I had already made plans before I got your call and am telling you I will proceed to your needs after what I will do next,” to take a very simple example with five distinct times) and the artist’s ability to depict three-dimensional spatial relationships on a flat surface. That Hunter chose the floor is a bit problematic; I was there alone and was able to hunker down and take in the full effect of the forced perspective,|5| then rise to standing and enjoy the joke as the illusion gave way to the mechanism of trickery. Those who remain standing may have a different experience.
If tents on the prairie invoke skies, cloudy or otherwise, what of the cosmos? The second-floor installation, with its familiar — yet — open-ended title, “This is It,”|6 -7| attempts nothing less than to recognize the unity of the universe as the place wherein we dwell. Climbing the stairs, one ascends the tail of a comet, or revolves against the luminous arm of a spiral galaxy. At the top a rhythmically articulated room, combined spaces formerly used as a mezzanine and an attic, stretches to the far wall, where an elongated, horizontal oval opens like a view into what could be God’s drawing board: sketches in alternating black graphite and white medium of planets, craters, and galactic clusters recalling the limitless creativity of matter. In its use of the given space, with its rough-hewed limestone blocks and gigantic timbers — each simultaneously a natural material and the product of human crafting — and delicate railing surrounding the vertical space that soars from floor below to lantern above, “This is It” may be the most lovely and graceful use any artist has made of this upper gallery.
Too often, looking at art today is like watching sports on TV. We witness professionals doing something that used to belong to us, but which has been elevated beyond our reach. But good art — art that belongs to us — is like coming across a game of touch being played in the park. Watch for a moment, cheer if you like, and you may be invited to join. It was like that in the Renaissance, when guild members could talk to Michelangelo about commissioning a work. Something like that happens in The Skies Were Not Cloudy All Day. Instead of intimidating us, these works invite us to join in the admittedly serious — too serious to be so exclusive — play of making pictures of our world.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.