When we say an artist puts her life into her art, we usually mean that important events become significant subject matter. But for Sandy Brunvand, the process is both subtler and more pervasive. Hearing her unravel the origins of her paintings and prints, whether in exceptionally accessible written statements or in her spontaneous and acute conversation, two things quickly become apparent: from the beginning, a fundamental curiosity about the workings of the world that would do credit to a scientist or a philosopher has informed her work, and she never rests. Instead, each new discovery or understanding, whether found in nature or in her studio technique, spurs further research and new imagery. The result is like that mythical boat that over time saw every single plank and fastener wear out and be replaced, yet while totally changed was still thought by its crew to be the same vessel. The Sandy Brunvand (she pronounces the U like “brew” rather than “brush”) whose art is on exhibit this month at Park City’s Kimball Art Center differs in every salient detail from the person who entered art school over twenty years ago, but those two figures are sequential expressions of a driving energy instantly recognizable by anyone who has been fortunate enough to feel its touch.
Sandy Brunvand’s enfolding and unfolding view of everything begins with a most essential duality: life and death. We can follow the evolution of this point of view if we imagine the trek she takes every day, leaving behind cement sidewalks in favor of the trails that wind into the hills surrounding her northeast Salt Lake home. Deep geologic facts are visible here, but so is the disruption living things work on them, making marks in ways analogous to her studio process. The small plants that, enlarged by close observation, become frequent subjects of her art |1| express their genetic code, but they also carry that code in seeds they always contain. Equally visible is the dissolution of living things after death. The reciprocating passage of matter through self-propelling life and back to mortal inertia becomes in her vision analogous to the binary code: the sequence of ones and zeros, of presence and absence, that forms the bedrock of our contemporary understanding of reality. So those numbers, stark patterns of straight lines and circles, frequently flow through her works. In keeping with their natures, sometimes they are visible, but other times they are covered by subsequent marking so that only the artist knows they are there.
Duality is always present in Brunvand’s works, sometimes obviously, as in the frequent diptychs, and at other times more subtly, as when she combines an organic subject with a grid. Pairs can occur side by side—again, the diptychs, which can be horizontally or vertically arrayed—or can be layered one upon the other, like geological strata, as in paintings with inset wax vaults or her more recent Chine Collé prints. The best way to appreciate the originality of her use of multiplication of images and techniques may be by recalling the discovery of mathematical perspective. Refusing to accept that a two dimensional surface required a monocular vision—that it could only represent objects existing outside space, like saints and angels—Renaissance painters gradually learned how to present objects in apparent space, as though being seen stereoscopically, when in fact there was only one image. If that’s true for what is looked at, Brunvand as much as asks, why not equally for what is perceived? And so her work urges us, when looking at one thing, so see it in context with something else: life in the presence of death, the organic surrounded by the abstract, a unique instance in the context of infinite iteration. She’s not trying to reconcile them; in her cosmology death ends life. But she wants us to see alternates, the way contrasting colors cause us to see each more vividly.
Brunvand’s visual polyphony finds an echoing pattern of doubling in her life. At 18 she left Michigan to come to Utah for the outdoor life, making her one Utah artist who couldn’t count on family history or cultural roots to connect to her audience. While many artists struggle to avoid an academic role, she enjoys teaching. And although she always knew she would be an artist, painting was not her first medium. Instead, like many of her peers in the 70s and 80s, she bought into the notion that material-based arts, which had previously been relegated to the status of crafts, were about to take a place besides painting and sculpture. She earned her BFA in 1989 in ceramics, a medium demanding hard physical work that she stuck with for a dozen years, until she developed degenerative arthritis in her thumbs: a condition that derailed not only her career in clay but her avocation as a mandolin-playing musician. In fact, it threatened her on a far deeper level; since it is the opposable thumb that makes us human, she explains, and it was her thumbs that were most affected, she felt threatened by the loss of her very humanity.
Faced with the inescapable premonition that, as she calmly–but–chillingly puts it, she had only a finite number of effective motions left in her hands, she realized they would be used up more quickly in the obdurate medium of clay. More importantly, she had to open her mind to the growing realization that she would not reach her artistic goal in clay in any event. Although she remains “humble before materials,” and still describes her core technique as “putting materials together and letting them sing,” and hardly anything leaves her studio that doesn’t involve collaging disparate media, Brunvand finally accepted that not all materials are equally eloquent on the conceptual level. Many an artist that far into a career has quit at that point. But Brunvand thought about her subjects, those plants so “strong in their struggle to survive,” and realized there was something there that needed to be “adequately served by what I do.” Deciding to start over, in 2001 she went back to school.
Judging from her MFA show two years later, her efforts to compress her art into two dimensions were rewarded with rapid progress. The binary code, expressive of presence and absence, appears almost immediately and proves to be a powerful aesthetic device, capable of forming contrast, balance, and visual drama in addition to its symbolic capacity. Still at heart a musician, though severely restricted in performance, she transposed the traditional hymn “I’ll fly away” into binary code and it became, in fragmentary form, a key element in her work. The botanical elements—seed pods and desiccated plant forms like leaves reduced to a fine net of empty veins—also appear. And there is a third theme: her dog, named Zobel, who will eventually be replaced by another named Scruggs. She begins every working day with a session of blind-contour drawing of this companion, the point man on her daily encounters with nature. These drawings, often of paws, are collaged into numerous works. Eventually, when she tires of picking his hairs out of her work, she will deliberately include them as an additional linear element.
One pattern underlies all her work: a deeply private person spending much of her time alone, absorbed in communicating with nature on the one hand, and on the other with sharing the fruits of solitude through her art. Communication is a frequent theme in works titled “Layered Conversation,” “Primitive Messenger,” and “Quiet Messenger.” The titles refer as well to characteristic layering techniques, as in “Emerging Loop,” “Obscured Code,” and “Buried Rhythm.” In each, earlier work on the surface of a canvas or sheet of paper has been used as a ground over which another layer has been created. Sometimes the conversation is obvious, as when gaps in the second surface allow the first to be seen. The upper layer then serves as background, while the earlier surface comes through to become the image: the skin of the plant whose form is created by the shape of the gaps. At other times, the conversation is less public, as when the artist’s response to what was on the first layer covers it completely.
Two major changes that came about during this period proved synergistic. One was her discovery, while a student at the U of U, of printmaking, a medium that proved accommodating to her collaging and layering techniques. And back in the 90s, while at the Evans Street Fair, she’d met Eric Brunvand, a multi-instrumentalist with a Bluegrass band and a day job as a computer science professor. In addition to music and teaching—she says “the teacher me is one of my favorite me’s”—they soon had art in common, as Eric brought first his physical prowess and then his intellectual curiosity to her side. Eventually he emerged as a printmaker in his own right. Considering the historical roots of computers in technologies such as printing, weaving, and musical instrument making, it’s probably not so strange that he finds time between international encounters with today’s digital technology to study Japanese woodblock or European etching techniques.
In 2003, inspired by a network of non-profit printmakers’ collectives in Austin, Texas, Sandy and Eric joined together with Stefanie Dykes to found Saltgrass Printmakers in Sugarhouse. Their responsibilities range from the routine tasks of running any business to staging spectacles like the Steamroller Event, in which dozens of amateur and professional printmakers filled the pavement around the facility with matrices that were printed by driving the modern equivalent of a steamroller over them. Membership in regional groups, like the Southern Graphic Council, and international printmakers associations add further distractions. She also teaches and mentors student artists, both at Saltgrass and the U of U. And of course an artist who changes mediums can expect to lose some momentum. Yet the clearest vision of where she is now may come from close friend Stefanie Dykes, who says Brunvand is “coming into her own visual language:” something many artists complete their careers without achieving. This, Dykes says, is Sandy Brunvand’s moment.
It’s easy to see what she means: in addition to the Badami Gallery at the Kimball Art Center, Brunvand has nine paintings in the “Nine Muses” show at the Bountiful/Davis Art Center and a show of mixed media works featuring her dog’s hair in Savannah, Georgia. But impressive numbers aside, there is the quality of the work, which cries out for the invention of a new word. Artworks achieve allegory when an image simultaneously summons up both a specific instance and a universal experience. But in Simple Chaos, an oxymoronic series title that invokes the frontiers of human knowledge, what might be called “tri-multaneity” emerges from canvases graced by eloquent marks capable of standing alone and evoking appreciation, but that also summon up both the likeness of living things and analogies to events. The line that ascends is sharply cut, sinuous and muscular, and it moves like a line of music, growing harmonically. Like calligraphy, it finds variation within repetition. If the net-like canvases of Jackson Pollock suggest consciousness, these lines recall thought, turning back in order to go forward with renewed vigor. Works in color show a rich palette not only of color areas, but of textures recalling the gestures and accidents that applied them. Wax surfaces are translucent or reticulated, a result requiring total control. Brunvand has said, “I am not a precise person; I can be meticulous, but I’m not precise.” But what is precision when the subject is as messy and changing as the way we feel when walking through a forest of giants, each harboring a world of smaller beings? What is precision if not the meticulous observation, without program or prejudice, of the paws of a sleeping dog as it chases a rabbit in its dream?
Looking back over the first decade, give or take, of Sandy Brunvand’s second career in artmaking, something she said when tired, distracted, and off her guard comes to mind. “It’s tough. You don’t always have a successful day,” she said, “but you can be successful.”
Sandy Brunvand: Trail Explorations will be at the Kimball Art Center through March 15. Nine Muses is at the Bountiful/Davis Art Center through February 16. Sandy Brunvand’s work can be seen online at www.sandybrunvand.com and www.saltgrassprintmakers.org
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.