A group show is rarely as popular as one devoted to a favorite artist, but even an assortment of mixed successes can usually beat a uniformly mediocre solo show. While it’s hard to imagine how three rooms full of abstract and representational sculpture that incorporate marble, bronze, clay, wood, steel, glass, and found objects could fail to include at least a couple of things for just about anyone to enjoy, it’s certain that just one eloquent piece, one luminous encounter that perfectly sums up this feeling or that impression, can make a gallery visit worthwhile. So it is with Moving Space: an assortment of sculptures by a baker’s dozen artists ranging from part-timers and art school students to seasoned pros and locally indispensable names.
During his recently closed exhibition at the Salt Lake Art Center, much was made of Jamie Wyeth’s belonging to “an American dynasty:” three generations of universally recognized artists. But Utah has fielded more than its share of talented families, and what “Wyeths” means to painting, “Fairbanks” means to sculpture. Ortho Fairbanks is more closely related to his uncle Avard than anyone else, and continues his work of memorializing the famous alongside the deserving but less well known in painstakingly realistic portraits. He’s represented here by an marble bust of David O. McKay, a bronze portrait of Baden-Powell in his signature Scout uniform, and a standing study of Philo Farnsworth. This last is particularly worth seeing for the way he takes Michelangelo’s signature gesture of rotating a figure around its spine, with legs turned one way and shoulders that face another, and complicates it with a further twist by uplifting arms that hold a large, conical object up for scrutiny. Fairbanks reminds us that academic sculpture, far from being over, still challenges those attempting to approach visual reality in new ways. From a more recent family come Dan Toone (see page 2) and his son Joshua Toone (see video right column), abstract sculptors who weld bright stainless and dark mild steel into contrasting assemblies that speak allegorically of philosophical predicaments and their related emotional states. Joshua’s works include two trios that hang on the wall, where they add a dimension by casting stable shadows alongside contours that shift as the viewer walks by.
The contrasting styles of Mike Call and Gary Hall prove that teachers can do more than stamp out copies of themselves. Both have worked with Ed Fraughton, but Call’s studies of Native Americans, like R. L. ”Doc” Poulson’s nearby and complementary studies of cowboy life, are rendered from life with an anthropologist’s eye and a story-teller’s feeling for anecdote. Meanwhile, Hall’s graceful-if-portly ceramic abstraction could hardly demonstrate a more different intent, and its title, “Really Fat Bird in Space (How Did That Guy Reach Escape Velocity?)” not only invokes Brancusi, but since “That Guy” could be either the bird or the pivotal modern sculptor, ambiguously leaves the question hanging whether Hall means to compare bird to bird or sculptor to sculptor.
Where Fairbanks and Call employ human figures in narrative ways, Cordell Taylor and Virgil Oertle fragment and distort the body to emphasize its rhythmic contours. Both emphasize technique, Taylor cutting and welding steel plates that must learn to accommodate the body’s curves, while Oertle uses the mimetic quality of bronze to capture not just flesh and fabric, but intermediate materials like wax and clay. Oertle’s torso also recalls the broken fragments of Classical sculpture that inspired 15th- century audiences to elevate humanity at the beginning of the Renaissance. Heidi Moller Somsen, like Cristin Zimmer (see our blog), works clay on the very large scale allowed by the U of U’s facilities. Because her human figures come close to life-size, viewers connect with them in a visceral rather than a cerebral way, leading to a more personal identification. Somsen adds glazes and raku firing to her figures’ postures to suggest life’s trials and the price of coping with them. Once fired, clay is as permanent as stone, which may have led Somsen to combine her mostly ceramic renderings with tree branches and plant parts. This perishable matter contrasts with the durable clay like water flowing from a stone fountain to recall how life plays out in an instant against a pre-existing backdrop. All her figures here are women, and her statement refers to motherhood, but there are no specific references to children in the works themselves, nor do their predicaments seem uniquely female. The choice to represent only women might be theoretical, as if she were addressing centuries of grievances, or it might be autobiographical: the artist as protagonist of an art she identifies with her own life.
Part of what Somsen does is to make found bits of nature seem like part of her design. Carma Hart Fuller starts with nature and treats it as the envelope into which her intentions must fit. Guided by her sense of the “integrity of the gourd,” she adds to or subtracts from its surface to produce textures and create designs. The preconditions imposed by her choice of gourd and her response to it seek to find some sort of balance where neither dominates. In the present instance, a network of raised white lines float over a neutral black background, seemingly pulled by gravity in draped curves over a surface that presses them outward into the surrounding space. It’s instructive to compare her small gestures and modest presence to the self-importance of Rod Heiss’s towering wood and glass fabrications. He calls his approach minimalist, invoking Robert Browning’s celebrated line, “Less is more,” but comparing the two raises the question just what the formula refers to. The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe argued that using less ornament brought structure into the foreground, but more than one Chicago critic compared his buildings to Louis Sullivan’s and replied, “Less is less.” One of the more commonly heard complaints today is that contemporary art generates less feeling and offers less for the viewer to relate to.
If Fuller finds a gourd to start with, and Somsen finds a branch to finish her figure, Lone Vilnius finds each of the components she assembles from beginning to end, presumably discovering the identity of what she is making somewhere along the way. This idea that found materials can be as expressive as marks made deliberately by hand came along recently, working from the notion that context, as much as identity, determines meaning. To the viewer’s curiosity about what each part was in its previous life, Vilnius adds the challenge of figuring out what it represents now. Beneath this puzzle dances the philosophical struggle between autonomous individuals and common purposes. In “Belief Window,” the two opposing energies achieve a kind of balance in which the components disappear into the final effect.
Two of the most evocative pieces in the show contrast with each other even as they demonstrate the duality of reference called ambiguity. In addition to the fat bird mentioned above, Gary Hall’s understated yet implacable “Device Fragment,” which hints that it might have been left over from some giant project, demonstrates contrasting, yet necessarily related identities on its two faces. In its sheer bulk and inscrutability it recalls Robert Frost’s shortest poem:
We all dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the middle, and knows.
Meanwhile, Sylvia Ramachandran Skeen’s four porcelain vessels decline any clear-cut separation between interior and exterior, or content and context, while their titles are more poetically evocative than descriptive: instead of long boat, “Long Voyage,” and in place of whale boat, “Whale’s Throat.” Equipped with spines that sometimes look like teeth (“Whale’s Throat, which also features lip-like gunnels) and sometimes like legs with cloven hooves (“Coracle [for Shallow Waters]” which looks like it would as soon walk as float), their creamy celadon-green glaze a skin over variously smooth, knobby, or ribbed anatomy suggests sea creatures—which, one way or another, they must be.
A couple of final thoughts came to mind in the gallery. One is that freeway construction aside, Bountiful is only ten minutes north of downtown. While a quick check of their exhibition schedule suggests the Center still views its mission in part like a community center’s, more interest in serious art by serious audiences might bring about more shows like this one. And, while 15 Bytes tries to keep its inevitable implication in sales promotion—as opposed to appreciation and connoisseurship—as far below the horizon as possible, some of the works featured in this exhibition are surprisingly affordable. Not only that, but sculpture is notoriously difficult to collect, exhibit, and care for, yet many of these works are small and appear durable enough to promise relatively easy care and feeding. If antique collectors are smart to regard road trips as opportunities to watch for treasures, why shouldn’t art enthusiasts and collectors draw from their experience?
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.