by Kasey Boone
If you haven’t been to the UMFA in a while (and, well, there’s good reason – it’s the only art museum in the state that charges regular admission fees!) then make March your month to go. If you time things right, you will not only be able to see their always intriguing though fairly eclectic permanent collection, but also be able to catch four worthy temporary shows for your $4 admission price. No matter what your interests, one of these shows is sure to appeal to you: the early Utah art of Revisiting Utah’s Past, Nickolas Muray’s photos of modernist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo, the “Gesture Paintings” of Hyunmee Lee and the installation art of Brian Snapp.
For all you financially-challenged or non-UMFA member art lovers, the ten-day period between March 10th and March 20th is when the stars and planets are aligned for you. All the signs are right, for you’ll be able to see the newly hung works of Hyunmee Lee as well as University of Utah assistant professor Brian Snapp’s installation, Curing, before it comes down on the 20th.
It feels appropriate to mention signs in the same paragraph with Snapp because that is what his installation is all about. Occupying the Education Gallery, the installation is a series of fired clay pieces, suspended from the ceiling via meat hooks. Each ceramic piece hangs in front of a chair, upon which, according to the artist’s statement on the exhibition placard, you are invited to sit. Next to each chair are four ceramic tiles supporting a pile of rock salt. Each of the chairs is different, running a gamut of styles, from Queen Anne to Mission.
The ceramic pieces are the main focus of the installation. Each one is marked (whether through painting, incision or carving) with images, symbols or signs from a variety of cultures and fields of understanding, including religions, herbology and the symbols of ethnic and economic groups like gypsies and hobos.
Legends explaining each of the symbols are provided next to the artist statement. In this statement, the artist invites us to contemplate the symbols as a method for “curing.” Snapp makes no pretensions to magical abilities. Though he uses many images of plants associated with traditional medicine, he says the signs are meant to be a contemplative exercise, to cure from metaphorical rather than physical ailments. If this all sounds a little too new age for you, well it may be; but don’t worry, Snapp is not a new age ideologue and what I enjoyed most about his artist statement is his humor. “I am no longer interested in trying to create balance in my life,” he says, undercutting a usual mantra of the new agers. “I have yet to live in a world disappointingly directed towards compassion to know whether balance is important or attainable.”
Compassion, the viewer assumes, is achieved by contemplating the symbols culled from a variety of cultures and methods of thinking, which implies an all-inclusiveness. But I think one of the powers of symbols is their ability to be understood on a non-linear level by the community that employs them. To need a legend to understand the symbols strips them of their immediacy. The stylistic variance in the chairs are, I assume, also meant to imply a universality, but I think this is complicated by the fact that though different styles, the seatings are all still Western seatings. But I do appreciate the fact that Snapp incorporated a seating arrangement in the installation. Far too much artwork is seen standing up on a concrete floor, which does not encourage lingering, let alone the contemplating desired by Snapp.
Despite my caveats with the installation, I do think Snapp’s exhibition is worth contemplating and absorbing. Visually, the show creates a nice dialogue between repetition and individuality. I didn’t take the time to sit in every chair and contemplate the installation from every angle, but one could. And I felt the ceramics were a strong visual element. They look somewhat like a box lantern but are irregularly shaped, and designed so that they look like wet clay hanging from the meat hooks. One feels that they could slip off at any moment and crash to the ground. This is intentional, I assume. As the artist explains, “If we don’t do something soon to change the politics of intolerance we are all dead meat.” And the legends are worth it if only to learn what the Hobo symbol for “mistress of the house is horny.” (Apparently there are either few hobos or few horny women in Salt Lake because I have yet to find a house with the marking). If anything, I think I would like to see more of Snapp’s humor directly in his work. He’s obviously serious about what he wants to say, but sometimes irony is the only way to speak to people these days.
Less problematic as a whole are the works of Hyunmee Lee, which, beginning with a reception on March 9, will be hanging in the expansive Great Hall. Oftentimes the Museum’s peach walls can seem impossible to deal with, but Lee’s subtle shadings of grays and ochers look great here. The dozen or so works in the exhibit are all large, about 7 ft square. The show’s subtitle “Gesture Paintings” is unfortunate because it seems to lead away from the work rather than towards it. Gesture painting refers to Harold Rosenberg’s term, action painters, for the Abstract Expressionists. For Rosenberg the canvas was a sort of existential playing field and the marks on the canvas were a record of the artist’s struggle. If Lee’s works are to be seen in this vein, I think they must be seen as a slow, steady struggle, an accumulation of experiences, slowly and intently layered over time. A few superficial marks are carved out on the top of the surface of the paintings, but they serve more to accentuate or occasionally delineate than they serve to be the full expression of the painting. The show’s title “Intimacy Without Restraint” is much more apt of what is going on in these works.
The Frida Kahlo portraits by portrait photographer Nickolas Murray are on exhibit in the upstairs changing exhibitions room. The first thing you’ll notice is the real Kahlo was not near as cute as Selma Hayek, but this suite of 21 photographs dating from 1937 to 1941 show that she is vastly more interesting than the screen actress. The blending of European and Mestizo that was in her blood and in her paintings become apparent in these portraits. The UMFA has also included in the exhibit objects from their pre-Columbian collection reflective of those found in the photographs of Kahlo.
Working our way backwards (literally because these works are in the very back, at the second floor hallway near the board room) we come to the exhibition on Utah pioneers, “Revisiting Utah’s Past” which features paintings and some sculpture by early Utah artists as well historical materials such as photographs, books, and journals that emphasize the historical nature of the exhibit. The Museum’s press release points out that the settlement of Utah was not typical, and the Mormon pioneers’ desire to find a place of safety in the high desert may have let them overlook some of the harsher aspects of their environment. An 1861 journal entry from artist George Martin Ottinger reads, “As we drove out of Emigration Canyon and got a view of the Valley with its Great Salt Lake glistening like burnished silver on the morning’s sun. The rich green foliage and neat white villas of the city – the air of peace and quiet hovering over the ‘Rose blossoming in the desert.’ We could not but stand speechless with admiration and wonder. It was so beautiful and as we cast on thought back over our toilsome journes [sic] we could not help but give one – long hurrah. The accumulated hardship of days was forgotten – Our heaven was reached.”
Ottinger’s optimism is sometimes mimicked by lovers of early Utah art, who often have trouble seeing the actual work behind the date and name of the few artists who painted in Utah in the early years. And if you hear anyone gushing about the actual pieces in this exhibit, that is probably the case. There is really not an astounding piece in this exhibit, though the piece by John Hafen is nice; the Albert Bierstadt is capable but not anywhere near his best work. I think it is no mistake that this exhibit has been hung back in the interior of the building, the place for board meetings and research committees, as it emphasizes the art historical aspect of an art museum. But as an historical exhibit it is interesting and as a cultural mile marker it indicates just how far we’ve come in our short history.
Well, there you have it, something for everyone and all for only $4. Take the time this March to visit the UMFA. My suggestion is to see the Lee exhibit while your eyes are fresh, then take a breather on one of the many chairs in Brian Snapp’s installation. Find your favorite hobo marking and make a mental note of it to be painted on your neighbor’s house at a convenient time and then proceed upstairs for a quick dash through the Kahlo portraits before taking the time to get educated about Utah’s artistic past.
This article originally appeared in the March 2006 edition of 15 Bytes.