I’m standing on a sandstone cliff, about to make my way down to “False Kiva,” a Class II archeological site located beneath a dramatic overhang in Canyonlands National Park. In the distance, Candlestick Butte is unmistakable. It’s a flat fin of a rock that juts out into the wide canyon of the Green River. I doubt it would be less recognizable if I saw it from the other side, its characteristic outline flipped horizontally, like so many selfies. In the distance, I see a faint blue outline above ridges of orange and purple, Mount Pennell, of the Henry Mountains range. Or what I presume is Mount Pennell; it could be Mount Ellen, I’m not sure. Because I don’t so much recognize the form as orient myself to its direction, knowing it should be there, and assume. And that’s when I think about Laura Hope Mason’s exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery, 240 miles away.
Mason’s exhibit, which shares space in the east gallery with the pottery of Barbara Ellard, consists of scores of paintings that wrap around the walls. They are in a variety of sizes, but most of them are modest to small. The palette is restricted, almost monochromatic, with lots of grays and pale shades of green, blue and teal. Textures add some diversity when colors do not, but the most prominent formal aspect of these works is line — contour lines, from faint to determined, carving out forms across the panels. Some are easily readable as the outlines of mountains and peaks, while in others, the viewpoint and perspective are less legible — yet each retains the feel of the terrain of the mountain west. “An important aspect of my work is the juxtaposition of macro and micro views,” the artist says in her exhibition statement. “These paintings do not inform the viewer whether they are looking at a mountain from an aerial view miles above, or if they are on a trail looking for the next cairn that marks the dirt path.”
One cannot imagine impressionism, that art of haze and indefinite shape, being born in Utah. Our state is a landscape of line, whether the soaring and craggy lines of the Wasatch and Uintas, or the undulating ones of the Colorado Plateau, and Mason is right to let the lines do the speaking in this exhibit. Filled in with color, shade and detail, many of these “landscapes” would be fairly pedestrian ones. Left to solo, though, the lines come across with a sense of authority, provoking joy as they fire the mirror neurons in our brain to imagine tracing a pencil across a piece of paper or a stick in the sand as we admire the landscape before us.
The exhibit essentially asks, “Can we recognize a mountain or peak from a simple line drawing?”
Yes, will be the answer for many. Though some lines are so basic they could represent almost anything, others have features distinctive enough — say the nipple-like curve at the top of one peak — that you’re likely to associate them with a specific locale. Your neighbor, though, may be imagining another place, hundreds of miles away. Subject to the same geologic and meteorological forces, many peaks and mesas resemble each other. Conversely, though trails and the parking designs of national and state parks have habituated us to think of iconic landmarks from one angle, they, of course, have multiple views (up the road from my view of Candlestick Butte, Whale Rock is an aptly named formation when you approach it; not so much from the rear).
If you were to take any single one of these works home, I suspect you would find yourself disappointed. Not that Mason hasn’t created some outstanding compositions in these paintings, but any single one of these works would lose much of the power they generate within the context of the whole. The sheer number of works, surrounding you as you make your way around the gallery walls, creates the proverbial sum that is greater than its parts. It’s not unlike a day spent hiking in a place like Canyonlands. Your destination may be a place like “False Kiva” — which has become famous for the night photographs taken there showing the Milky Way — and the fetish for photography has trained us to view these single, fixed, picture-perfect views as the point of the journey, but in truth our body experiences the journey as scores of tiny fragments, a thousand simple line drawings glimpsed along the trail, suspended in our memory like constellations in the night sky.
What is a Mountain? paintings by Laura Hope Mason, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through June 9, Gallery Stroll May 19, 6-9 p.m.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.