When the late Art Danto, then a leading American philosopher and one of the stars of art criticism, identified the 1990s as “the decade of women artists,” he specifically referred to those who had achieved national or international recognition for what we now call Contemporary Art. The sculptor Rachel Whiteread, who used homes about to be demolished as concrete molds, leaving a cement cast of the houses’ interiors, or Kara Walker, whose cutout paper silhouettes of ante-bellum plantation life mocked — and corrected — the lies about slavery that were still in play after a century and a half, were just two of the many artists breaking both gender and artistic limits. Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic still make headlines, but in a recent survey of leading artists, names like Martha Rosler, Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon, and Agnes Martin appear well down the list of candidates, almost all of whom are men.
Fortunately, there isn’t much interest in Utah in multi-million-dollar, competitive art. Novelty for novelty’s sake — what is sometimes called “the perennial avant-garde,” is less important than the feeling that an artist is in touch with what concerns and motivates the local community. And it happens that women, who make up a majority of people but are nevertheless described as a minority, are fully present in every minority group struggling for recognition and a sense of identity. Which happens to be a major concern of Utah artists and their audiences.
One artist whose works span the divide between paintings that hang on gallery walls and passionate concern is Al Denyer, who recently led eight graduate art students from UMFA into the Marriott Library’s archives in search of a Sense of Place for the Salt Lake City locus. Given the way galleries and even museums operate today, months or even years may go by without an update on even an active artist, but Denyer’s work can always be found upstairs at Modern West, where recent works by the gallery’s most popular locals remain on rotating display. This month, however, she is joined by 14 of her significant colleagues, in an exhibition titled Perception. Spread over the main, conversational space and smaller rooms normally reserved for artists in residence are works by a virtual who’s who of women who have shown recently at Modern West.
According to Modern West’s website, Perception intends to “spotlights the voice and talent of our artists with a diverse exhibition that features a range of medium, scale, technique, and vision–all refined and redefined through a woman’s lens.” For those who appreciate the long-overdue way women artists have taken the lead in filling in and correcting the incomplete and distorted image of universal human experience, 15 artists who explore contemporary visions without tossing tradition completely aside, chosen to demonstrate the enumerated qualities, is surely worth a look.
Rebecca Campbell should dispel any concerns about the intimidating character of today’s art. Her works here depict foodstuffs, whether still in the ground (“Sunflower”) or being prepared (“Pears”). “Glass” and “Now” likewise depict moments from what could be the artist’s daily life, presented in an unsentimental and engagingly individual manner. Then there’s Kiki Gaffney, who survived several misguided efforts by her college faculty to discourage her from making art her vocation — perhaps thinking it should be her hobby — and who spends countless hours getting to know the relationships between her living subjects and their natural environments. While the things she depicts are familiar, meticulously observed, and precisely rendered, because she takes them beyond the limits of conventional treatments, she introduces her audience to a more global, longterm view of the natural world. Without undermining her powerful view of nature, she finds remarkable, abstract ways to suggest patterns and order that may be otherwise hard to discern.
The measure of inclusivity at Modern West can be taken in the room where “Reach,” a black-on-black abstraction by Shalee Cooper, faces two white-on-white conceptual works by Amy Jorgensen. There too, “Entrenched” and “Systemic,” demonstrate just how entrenched and systemic structures are made intractable by their invisibility. But the ultimate comparison might be made to the art of Angela Ellsworth, a “small-f” feminist (one who isn’t doctrinaire, but instead relies on instinct) who says her art “explores a wide range of research subjects including physical fitness, endurance, illness, social ritual, and religious tradition,” and every aspect of whose life involves … walking. Her playful and engaging, semi-geometric paintings and sculptures of walking shorts have enigmatic titles that, if nothing else, encourage viewers used to being spoon-fed artists’ intentions to think for themselves.
So in addition to “medium, scale, technique, and vision,” Perception offers art that ranges from comfortable to challenging. There should be something for everyone, but beyond that, there’s the possibility of coming in to visit an old favorite and discovering something new and unprecedented. Every person is a paradoxical combination of unique stories that add to the breadth of our knowledge and familiar, even shared ones that remind us we are all human. These 15 women differ only in their ability to make so much of it visible.
Perception, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Apr. 30