What is surely one of the most thought-provoking, suggestive, and yet elusive titles attached to a work of art this season may currently be seen on the walls of Phillips Gallery. As a title, “In Between Dreams” draws much of its power from being an original turn of phrase, a quality in short supply in this overly-connected and increasingly copycat world. Unless one is a fan of acoustic musician Jack Johnson, this may be the first encounter with the perplexing phrase, and just what it means to be “between dreams” is free to reverberate on a fresh and personal chord.
The painting that accompanies this evocative phrase is similarly enigmatic. On a gold leaf ground straight out of the 14th century, yet which feels unexpectedly modern here, Sandy Freckleton Gagon’s exquisitely-rendered figure poses as if dancing in an almost featureless land rife with odd perspective clues: a row of vertical poles, a path, a pair of wheel ruts leading to a distant hedge or tree line. A flurry of tiny leaves blow about her, close and conforming like a second garment covering the efficient costume she wears. There are birds present, most so tiny they are lost in the wind-swept leaf matter, one large enough to be a second subject. Questions arise: are we seeing literal dreams, or aspirations? Is she the dreamer, or the substance of the dream? What does it mean to be between dreams? If the artist knows the answers, perhaps they’re encoded in the dancing figure’s gesture of surrender to nature’s embrace.
Someone at the opening commented on the sheer variety of Gagon’s subjects and genres, which seemed noteworthy even in a place where most of the artists display topical versatility. It’s probably not that her interests vary more than most artists, or that they’re unusual. In fact, Gagon’s range of subjects is conventional, including portraits, still lifes, figures of women, and animals. But what she chooses to do with them gives each her own very personal meaning.
Take, for example, a couple of raptors, one in flight titled “Burden Lifter” and another either taking off or alighting, called “Defying Gravity.” In the latter, the possibility that inspiration once again came from a song title is underscored by a background similar to that of “In Between Dreams:” a harvested, or in this case burned-over, agricultural field. Both birds’ heads partially eclipse a full moon, yoking an object and a creature that are defined by their interactions with gravity: the moon in orbit, the bird in flight.
Or there are the interiors, still-life like but more like scenes from an intimate memoir. Some invoke an artist’s workspace, with painter’s tools and collected objects like sea shells or unusual containers. Food and drink partially consumed, sustenance for the labor, and which might have been edited out by more conventional artists, are mixed in with the rest. The likelihood of a family just offstage is suggested by children’s toys and other effects and some paradoxical paper dolls — none of them the stuff of high-class Nature Morte.
Such documents of the artist’s presence offer a key clue to what sets these works apart from everyday expectation. For centuries, art was taken to be an inward journey, no matter how much the artist relied on appearances for clues to matters of substance that lay within. Only in the last half century have surfaces, seen for themselves or as clues, often ironic, to other externalities, such as celebrity or the structure and operation of society, tended to replace the personal struggle for understanding and perspective. For deeply experienced and personal reasons, Gagon has access to that older notion of art’s capacity for substantial values. Two of her bodies of work that are present in the gallery only in transformed versions suggest how this might have been possible.
One evident influence comes from art that is more overtly religious than the palpably spiritual expression of so many of the works at Phillips. There can hardly be a subject more likely to encourage introspection than sincere exploration of deep philosophical questions, which may account in some uncertain degree for the strength of Utah’s artistic community, even as it made the Baroque era one of the high points of Western history. And another contribution visible here seems to arise from portraiture, a paradigm among media that study the exterior for clues to what may be found within. In addition to “In Between Dreams,” figural compositions like “Force of Nature,” “The Feel of Water,” and “To Believe in the Impossible” surely owe some of their balance between anatomy and physiognomy to regular portrait study and practice.
The phrase, “Do unto others,” makes a humble appearance among these paintings. Though generally thought to apply as a universal rule, Sandy Freckleton Gagon makes it possible to read these words as a kind of artist’s statement. An artist’s struggles and what she achieves only matter if she can render them visible in some form in her work, so these simple words may constitute the essential mission statement. It only remains for those of us in the audience to go forth and respond in kind.
Sandy Freckleton Gagon, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 11