Since completing his MFA at Yale in 2014, Michael Ryan Handley has been busy. A native Utahn, he now operates out of studios in Philadelphia and New York. His artistic processes are complex and experimental, combining a western fascination with the land with a typically eastern penchant for industrial materials. “I’ve always used multiple processes for making work…it’s very reactionary, impulsive and methodical,” he says. Such dueling aesthetics and approaches work surprisingly well together, evidenced by Handley’s exhibition Sublimation, now on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
Broadly speaking, the show explores “the importance of water, or lack thereof, and its generative power to change the look and feel of areas experiencing prolonged drought, as well as its creative ability when left unhindered,” according to UMOCA’s press release. Water serves as the show’s theoretical underpinning and a conduit to a dynamic conceptual and phenomenological experience for viewers. Indeed, water, or a lack of it, is as pressing a concern as ever, as massive droughts are connected to attenuated political events such as the civil war in Syria and economic decline in South Africa.
Entering the gallery space, viewers are met with an assortment of two and three-dimensional works curated in a simultaneously plethoric and highly ordered fashion. On each wall hang tightly grouped horizontal paintings, which are arranged at varying intervals and heights. With a muted yet jarring yellow base, Handley uses water as a conceptual medium that inscribes brown stripes across the base of the painting once it evaporates. While utilizing a similar process for the entire series, these “evaporation paintings” are also distinct, allowing “each process…to run its course with the moisture eventually disappearing, leaving a record of their previous states of existence,” according to UMOCA’s release.
The fact that the evaporation paintings are placed at varying heights on each wall may frustrate traditionalists, however their effect is dizzying, inducing a phenomenologically rich experience that departs from traditional art exhibitions. For Hadley, this effect is meaningful, “even though each painting is unique the paintings are intended to be taken in as a whole experience. As one work. I feel the varying height of the work is representational of how one would take in the terrain of a descending landscape. I wanted the viewer to be positioned in that experiential space.”
While a single drop of water can dramatically alter the surface of these paintings, water, or lack thereof, signals more dramatic changes for Handley’s large sculptural structures, which face each other magnificently in the gallery space. Hanging above the two-dimensional pieces, the sculptures resemble military weaponry from a battle long passed. They are coated in iodine-exposed silver leaf, creating photonegatives which cause the sculptures to change with exposure to the light in the museum. Their existence is at once monumental and fragile, altering color with each passing day they remain in the gallery space. Silver iodine was used in daguerreotype photography, the source, Handley notes, “of how we have come to know the world through pictures over the past 150+ years,” but it is also used in the process of cloud seeding, or industrial age rain-making, and the sculptural forms refer to the mechanism attached to the wings of airplanes in the cloud-seeding process. “I wanted to represent this object in the form of an oculus and in the organic shape of an eye. But I feel there is very much a sense of assault or military presence in these works.”
When Handley left Utah, he reversed the migratory trajectory of artists like Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt, who came west to further their artistic dialogue, but he continues to be part of the dialogue they began. The seminal Land Artists of the ‘60s were keen to explore the conceptual properties of landscape for its own sake, and, in America, were careful to avoid the political implications of land use that accompanied their interventions. It appears that in 2017, however, we can no longer ignore the consequences of sustained land use. In an increasingly divisive political climate, the government’s role in advancing ecological preservation and renewable energy hangs in a perilous balance. The pressing need to acknowledge and adapt to climate change shrouds an artistic fascination with the American landscape with a sense of alarm and worry. Indeed the struggles we now face render the Land Artists’ grand artistic gestures somewhat naïve. This sense of urgency need not create a fissure between today’s artists from the Land Artists, however. Instead, artists can broaden the visual and intellectual language of Land Art, affirming that while human intervention may be harmful, its effects can be instructive. Hadley supports this idea, noting, “I want to progress the canon of Land and Landscape art. My art practice is focused on the evolution of what we call Nature and I do believe there is a strong relationship to climate change with my work.”
Sublimation by Michael Ryan Handley at UMOCA, Salt Lake City, through September 9.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.