Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Rio Gallery’s Homage


We pay most of our attention to innovators in the arts: individual artists who forge new expressive means, seemingly entirely by their own creative powers. Yet the more closely we look at, say, Van Eyck’s substitution of linseed oil for egg white, or Titian’s replacement of boards with canvas, the more reasonable it seems to admit that while those artists proved the value of the changes, they did not originate them. Earlier practitioners were there first, and eventually they inspired the great man to emulate them, and the famous success that followed levered a far wider change. The truth is that influence is how change makes its way through art. The Smithson Effect argues that a single artist’s vision can take root in the perception of many others, examples of which were traced and tracked down in their works by curators acting like detectives. Homage, now at the Rio Gallery, looks at the same process from a different point of view. It was artist Namon Bills’ idea to just ask artists who influenced them, and then invite them to exhibit works that showed off the influence. Those who responded include many of the best-known local artists. The influences they named reveal something about the DNA of Utah art.

On the one hand, we get much of who we are from our parents, but judging by the numbers, artistic ability is not something that is commonly inherited. On the other hand, one of the more common complaints made against modern art is that it lacks emotional content that affects viewers. When he was growing up, Joe Ostraff felt the common drive to distinguish himself from his father, Albert, but fortunately both men lived long enough for the son to come to admire and appreciate his dad’s unique “gifts.” Saying more would only dilute the pleasure of encountering these men through Joe’s artistic response to his dad’s influence, but the theater he built |0| and filled with an audience of his dad’s birds is the sort of art experience that grows on the viewer and often asks to be shared with others. Blue Critchfield is another artist whose father made things; Turtle Depley is a musician, but also the kind of man who turns everything that comes his way into art. His son became a visual artist, but the sort who turns not just things into art, but his ideas as well.

After parents, teachers may be the most influential people in our lives. Gary Barton cites Paul Klee’s paintings as having encouraged him in his own work, but Klee, like his friend Kandinsky, was of an era when artists took seriously their role in helping others find their way in art. Hans Hoffman was one beneficiary of their approach and became probably the most influential teacher of American artists. Neither Steven Sheffield, who here celebrates Hoffman’s influence, nor Barton actually studied with the teacher he cites, but each thereby situates himself in the history of art. Ceramic sculptor Von Allen’s |2| choice, Donna Nicholas, was the sort of teacher who didn’t just demonstrate a vocation, but a complete approach to life.

It’s not an accident that Von Allen’s choice is a woman. Most persons who spend their time making art—most artists, then—are women, despite the facts that men win the awards and make the money. If I were a young woman, I’d go through this show carefully reading the labels and cleave to the stories of women who have inspired each other. One superb example is Aundrea Frahm, who here celebrates Sophie Calle with a most exquisitely challenging video that takes off from the cliché “walking on eggshells.”|3| Those who guard galleries against random vandalism usually don’t show much interest in what’s on display, but the gentleman who keeps an eye on the Rio returned to this piece repeatedly over several days. Given Calle’s predilection for making art that responds directly to life, even if and when it discomforts viewers, this is one homage that would seem certain to please the artist who evoked it.

Finally, these are exciting times downtown. Demolition and reconstruction have gone on long enough to have lost their novelty. Justin Wheatley’s musings on the intrusion of humanity into nature, which he brings into focus with the help of Lyonel Feininger’s architectural abstractions, would be timely in almost any city at almost any time,|4| but they seem more so now, when the Rio Gallery and so many other splendid resources are in peril of being scattered to the winds in order to make room in what has been their magnificent home for a farmer’s market. Yes, food has become a fad in our time, and anyway, when has art not had to give way to the demands of commerce? But surely this building has done its duty to Mammon, and its value as a shrine of an era of human history has some value, too.

2 replies »

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful look at the exhibit Geoff. You always add an intriguing dimension to your reviews.

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