The title says it all. In September of 2022, at the AAUW Utah Women’s Art Exhibition, among nearly a hundred professional quality works of art, the Marie Eccles Caine Student Honor was awarded to Allie Wheeler for “Presence,” which celebrates not only the domestic roles of women, but the technology they have developed over years that makes their labor ever more sophisticated and effective. More to the point, the work memorializes the “presence” of Allie Wheeler, as woman and artist, in her own life.
“Presence” can be seen again this month at Bountiful Davis Art Center, where it forms part of Memoria Technica, an art form she describes as “artificial aids to memory,” but which might just as well be called reliquaries. The reliquary has become a popular genre among Utah artists, each of whom finds subtle or substantial ways to make it personal. Wheeler’s version is particularly her own. We can all see antique reliquaries presented in museums as works of sculpture art, which they surely are, but may well wonder about their contents. Surely, in their original context, the relic and the art that contains it were like a jewel and its setting, or like a statement and the proof. But the personal history that Wheeler enshrines remains her property, just as the essence of a work of art continues to belong to her even after she sells it or gives it away. Or does it?
On such a well-travelled road, no one path will be unique, but the combination of choices an artist makes can be as distinctive as a fingerprint. Wheeler’s collages bring together commonplace images that often subversively convey a man’s point of view, but in her versions acquire a “generic woman’s” identity. In her quadriptych, “Credit Where Credit is Due,” images of such fundamental activities as transportation and communication — buggies, cars, radios, TVs, and sheet music — appear in what might be called a persistent female context — fashion, painted nails — so that the alleged cultural division between a man’s world and a woman’s, and the act of giving each “due credit,” are resoundingly critiqued. What makes this personal is that Wheeler has chosen the images from her own context. These images were part of her not-so-subtle indoctrination.
A technique she pretty much makes her own is the accordion fold. In “Presence,” the two wings each consists of half a dozen immaculately crafted picture frames made to fold together into a compact form for storage or transportation. The images in them are surely among the most mundane and fundamental elements of our presence on earth, beginning with the one thing every child will include when asked or choosing to draw a picture of their home: the doorknob. The wheel shows up in a wheelbarrow. Cooking and sewing appear as well, but featuring the innovations that those considered to be responsible for them — no surprises to be found there — have made to simplify and improve their work.
It would be dereliction of duty not to mention the caliber of Wheeler’s craft. In her “Reliquary of Grandmother,” she splits an exquisite model house in two parts which can be separated to show the pleated life map held within. Wheeler likes to list her materials explicitly: Baltic Birch Plywood, Poplar wood, kozo rice paper, pva glue, JB weld. Only an idiot would be surprised that she cares as much about such details as a man might, but her results reveal two things about her that have nothing to do with her gender. One is that, when she comes to embody her sense of self in an external object, she executes it perfectly. And the other refers back almost 600 years, to Jan Van Eyck’s astonishingly precise self-portrait, on which he boasts, “As I can.” In Memoria Technica, Allie Wheeler succinctly replies, “So can I.”
Memoria Technica: Allie Wheeler, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountfiul, through Nov. 4