Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Making Connections: The American Horizons Festival

Most months when editing this ezine, I begin to see patterns and connections in our arts community. Sometimes I think the confluences are simply constructs of my imagination; but other times — like with the number of video installations last month — the evidence is too strong and I have to conclude that somebody out there is talking to someone else, or at least peeking at someone’s calendar. This month, I know for a fact that people have been talking (because they told me). But the connections, the collaborations going on this month (and next) are not simply between a couple of galleries or museums. These connections go beyond Utah’s visual art world to include libraries, museums, the performing arts and more.

This collaboration is called the American Horizons Festival, an exploration — in art, film, music and literature — of the ups and downs of the American Dream. The Festival’s activities and performances extend over a three-month period (March to May) and include (now take a deep breath, or skip to the next paragraph): the Salt Lake Art Center, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, the BYU Museum of Art, the Utah Symphony and Opera, the Salt Lake Film Society, the SLC Film Center, NOVA Chamber Music Series, The Gina Bachauer Foundation, the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the City Library (the Big Read program, which has its own large list of collaborators), the Gale Center of History and Culture, Sam Weller’s, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.

It seems many people have an artform they are almost exclusively loyal to. They regularly attend Gallery Stroll but almost never go to the theatre. Or they love the Symphony but don’t even know that there are regular poetry readings around town. So, you might miss the type of collaborations of the American Horizons Festival if you didn’t have someone to tell you what is going on. But that’s what we’re here for.

Here’s an example of how it works: You go to your local library and the book they are reading as part of the Big Read program is John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the Great Depression, the Grapes of Wrath. After reading and discussing this novel, at the Utah Opera in May you’ll have the opportunity to see the World Premiere of the opera based on the novel, directed by Academy Award-winning director Eric Simonson with a soaring score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. In the meantime, you could see films based on the novel or other Steinbeck works at the Salt Lake Film Center and Salt Lake Film Society.

Or, since you are reading this article and presumably have an interest in the visual arts, you could look for an exhibition dealing with the same themes. Your search would lead you to the Salt Lake Art CenterResonance and Return, on exhibit through May 19th in the Art Center’s Street Level Gallery, is an exhibit of Social Documentary Photography from 1935 to the present. The exhibit focuses on the tradition of documentary photography begun with Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration project in 1935 (which included photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, Marion Post Walcott, and Arthur Rothstein) and continuing in the work of contemporary photographers like Judy Bankhead, Julia Dawson and Ken Light.

As an exhibit in its own right, Resonance and Return reflects the discoursive quality of the American Horizons Festival, due in large part to the subtle and perceptive curatorial efforts of guest curator James Swensen. Swensen creates a quiet, non-differentiated exhibition space where each photograph selected, strong enough to carry on its own visual soliloquy, engages in an informative dialogue with the other photographs in the context of the larger exhibition.

Each photograph, simply framed and of the same general dimensions, are arranged in an order which signals no chronological or thematic distinction. A photograph entitled “Ada with Kelly,” which features the tanned and freckled arms of a mature woman encircling a naked infant, could easily be mistaken as something by Dorothea Lange, but is actually by Judy Bankhead, taken in 1992. Ken Light’s “Child of the Fields, Rio Grande Valley” (1979), which shows a scruffy girl in the middle of a pumpkin patch, gives little hint of its 45 year separation from Ben Shahn’s image of girls picking cotton.

The issues dealt with by the FSA photographs in the thirties continue to surface in the documentary photographs of today, whether it is issues of poverty, or the invasive identity-defining power of the media. Russell Lee’s “Mexican Man in Front of Movie Theatre” (1939) shows a middle-age man standing next to the smiling white faces in the movie poster for “City Streets.” In Brenda Ann Keneally’s “Inc. Murder 2001” a young African-American boy is dwarfed by the large marketing posters that attempt to define him.

Graceful aesthetic similarities also occur in the exhibit, as in the case of Russell Lee’s cropped image of a girl traveling in a car (1939) and one by Ken Light showing a migrant family in Florida (1982).

One might see the “dialogues” cited here as odd coincidences, meanings in the eye of the beholder, but with so many enjoyable coincidences one can’t help but see in this exhibit the studied eye of a professional curator. Swensen avoids blatant, obvious statements, providing dialogues to be encountered but allowing the observer the joy of discovery.

To experience more inter- and intra- disciplinary dialogues you’ll want to attend as many of the American Horizons Festival programs as possible. For more information, visit the Utah Symphony website.


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