“Great Salt Lake Sunset” does several things we look for art to do. It immortalizes a dramatic moment in time and space: the setting of a brilliant sun over Antelope Island on a haze-free day, offering an inspiring, spectacular, and always rare event that offers a durable alternative to the mundane disappointment of many actual visits. By presenting an idealized moment, it makes the visible world more vivid and perfect than it often appears to us: no contrails or even clouds mar the radiance of red-orange sunlight on the horizon beneath a blue evening sky, in which stars are just beginning to emerge. And it shows the lake’s surface gently rippled by reflecting waves. In future, when it may be little more than a dust bowl, this print will recall what may well be Great Salt Lake’s final moments of transcendent beauty.
The artists who invented photography in the 1840s would probably be amazed to see how many of the photos being taken today are purely documentary — ID pictures, industrial demos, vacation snaps, and of course selfies — and how few are made by artists. Much further back in time, five centuries in fact, the artists who invented printmaking would be even more surprised by what has become of printmaking. All those photographs? Except for the digital versions, most of them are prints. Most of our packaging is printed. Magazines and books. Junk mail? Someone once said that if Leonardo, who spent his entire life trying to paint perfect copies from nature, could see the number of flawless prints modern consumers toss casually in the landfill, he’d weep. But just as there are artists who still use cameras, there are those who still make prints. One of them is Rob Chipman, 15 of whose remarkable reduction prints are currently on display at the Bountiful Davis Art Center.
Chipman’s artistry will surely please lovers of the landscape and nature; the close alternation of local scenery, like the stone massifs of Zion, with the distant and equally wild coast of Big Sur, provides contrast that broadens scope and perspective, while intimate views of wildflowers in their native environment similarly compare with the human impact of Positano’s picturesque settlement on the Mediterranean coastline. And of course the print medium, in which graduated hues and tones are replaced by alternating, meticulously-placed zones of solid colors, lends a greater presence to the artist’s intervention between the original scene and his representation. But to fully comprehend this printmaker’s achievement, some understanding of the reduction process is required.
In fact, Chipman’s artist’s statement is pretty much an explanation of his technique, while remaining reticent about his aesthetic process. In this, he may be trying too hard. Reduction is something that, like making an omelette, may be quickly grasped when explained, while the elaborate demands it makes in practice remain unseen and unimagined. Most printing takes place in parallel fashion: each color has its own independent plate, while reduction printing is sequential. To use a single printing plate to apply so many colors requires mind-boggling planning. Lightest colors go first, then their part of the picture is cut away on the plate to protect them from darker colors that come later. Thus the entire composition has to be present in Chipman’s mind before he starts, and he must either start with as many pieces of paper as he wants to have prints, and be perfect at each stage of the work, or make extras and hope they’re enough to cover his mistakes. The fact is, while some famous artists have produced a few of these demons, few have made anything like the number this artist has made.
Fortunately, a detailed understanding of Chipman’s process is not a requisite for appreciating the sense of place his art creates. His mountain meadows, captured at the moment in Spring when the green fields sprout thousands of exquisite flowers, speak of nature’s bounty as though neither nature nor artist had to strain after their effects. To see Positano from the beach is to see clearly how the town hangs suspended between the mountain spine of Italy and the surrounding sea … just like the most populous cities of Utah lie between the Wasatch Front, which resembles a series of coastal bays, and the central lowlands beyond.
Until now, Chipman’s scenic splendor has remained intact, like his theme of the resemblance between widely separated, yet superficially different places. His lakes, Powell as much as Salt Lake, are still brimming with luminous water, his skies clear or full of radiantly colorful clouds. To be sure, we need these reminders of how wonderful our living planet can be. Whether such vistas will continue to speak the truth, or whether the challenges nature faces today will call his vision into question, remains to be seen. Like the single plate with which he produces these colorful landscapes, nature is a singular event moving through time. Like Ron Chipman, we cannot ignore the complete picture in favor of one or another local effect. The outcome of what we do depends on the choices we make.
By Process of Reduction: Rob Chipman, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, Nov. 13 – Dec. 23.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.