Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Peeking Into the Palace of Art

Gallery group shows recall double bills at the movies: if the contrast between artists contributes to a better understanding of each other’s works, or resonances enrich a common sense of purpose, the group show serves artists and audience alike. For the arts writer, though, they present a challenge. Right now, for some reason, group shows abound, and with five or more artists in one place, what the jargon of our times calls ‘triage’ assumes undue influence.

At the Phillips Gallery, Reminiscing channels the presence of seven successful Utah artists who have passed from the scene, leaving significant bodies of work as their legacies. Lee Deffebach, Irwin Greenberg, Waldo Midgley, Moishe Smith, Doug Snow, Harry Taylor, and Francis Zimbeaux may no longer be household names, but a couple of rooms lined with their works stand as a ringing challenge to today’s artists, as well as a useful barrier against complacency in community standards. For me, Irwin Greenberg came as a complete revelation, and I anticipate spending many pleasurable-if-futile hours alternately pondering and marveling at how his brush was able to seamlessly render both precise architectural detail and smoky urban atmosphere at the same time.|0|

At Art Access, five women fill two rooms with enough variety to put paid to any idea that women’s art must be less universal than men’s. In the back room, Amber DeBirk’s fused glass boldly makes the case for art that doesn’t just preach environmental responsibility, but practices what it preaches.|1| Too many artists act as though their holy mission to talk the talk somehow exempts them from also walking the walk. Eleanor Scholz’s genius for transposing everyday objects into characters is matched by the courage with which she treats her prescription for antidepressants to the same transformation. In Cihuatl, Mujer, Woman in the front room, Ruby Chacon, Veronica Perez, and Maritza Torres romp with energy and humor through what in earlier hands might have been only the grievances of women. Torres makes brilliant use of those familiar, cardboard-framed red and green 3–D glasses and contrasting colors of paint; instead of feeding left- and right-side perspective to the appropriate eye, she feeds light and dark, causing her images to vibrate rapidly as the brain tries to decide which eye to trust.|2| The result is not unlike the cognitive dissonance we live with in a world where all things are polarized by politics.

Through March, Rio Gallery’s Redux demonstrates the kind of results obtainable through public funding of arts on a tiny scale, relative to what we spend on other social priorities. Gary Barton, Jane Catlin, James Charles, Sue Cotter, and Madison Smith each received sufficient funding to allow a brief, precious period of work that didn’t have to pay for itself. All report, and display, positive results. For example, Jane Catlin’s large, colorful, and experimental drawings on both sides of mylar sheets replace the spatial illusion produced by doing this on glass with a softly focused view of nature that feels optically lively and more true to how we actually see, rather than to the freezing influence of the camera.|3|

Sue Cotter’s enchanting bas-reliefs address our current dissatisfaction with the continuing predominance of artistic and literary conventions we no longer trust, exploiting the non-fictional genres of assemblage and memoir in their place. Some model the exteriors of specific examples of indigenous Mexican architecture, which astute viewers can open to reveal an interior tableau in which tiny, meticulously arranged objects gathered during the artist’s travels symbolically recount her experiences, both specifically to her and as universals.|4-5| Within these dollhouse-like treasure troves, the resemblance of tiny, richly symbolic objects to toys combines with their serious presentation—like the somber way children so often play—to create a universal feeling.

Other kinds of hoards appear in other works. “Testament of Beauty” brings together a variety of specialized languages: sheet music, relief maps, samples lined up for comparison. Like many of Cotter’s pieces, it not only invokes books (journals, guides, directories, encyclopedias), but incorporates one made by the artist, which hangs on a chain from a hook and can be held and opened by the viewer.|6|Others are tucked away for safekeeping here and there. On a nearby pedestal, our current absorption in the quarrel over paper vs. digital books gains perspective from a series of ‘rock books,’ including one in which various personal treasures are filed away in a jar with a string through the lid for safe keeping—like the irreplaceable medieval codices that were chained to a reading desk. One senses that it takes time for these replica worlds to unfold and be discovered, just as it took time to live the life they attempt to recapture. In a less literal way, that could be said of every one one of these seventeen artists.

 

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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