Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Sarah Stoddard’s ‘Anthologia’ is a Journey Through Collage and Narrative

Sarah Stoddard, “Silver Spoon and Silver Pool” at Bountiful Davis Art Center. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

The practice of carrying one’s own water in a purpose-made bottle—a modern canteen—has become commonplace, but it doesn’t rule out the possibility that the person carrying water also has a carafe set aside for the purpose at home. And they may even have a traditional silver spoon they keep in it. While modern science rejects the efficacy of the practice, for centuries people kept such a spoon in their water, often keeping that water in a silver carafe as well, in order to preserve it, pure and safe. Such advice, or some such old tale, probably underlies the collage, “Silver Spoon and Silver Pool.” Here a woman dressed in what might be a Victorian nightgown and surrounded by foliage that suggests an outdoor setting, accompanied by a horse that is either a dwarf or else far away, gazes into a small, highly reflective body of water. Well apart from her, but still in the same work, a barn owl, bag of flour, daguerreotype portrait, chambered nautilus, serpent, stuffed chair, and so forth are distributed upon a landscape of mountains and foliage. Such a dry description might prompt a reader to wonder just what it’s all about.

In her exhibition statement, artist Sarah Stoddard thoughtfully undertakes the reviewer’s first task: describing the work. “Anthologia,” she writes, citing her exhibition’s title, consists of “… meticulously hand-cut shadow box collages and their wallpaper complements.” She rightly considers this information important to decoding and appreciating her efforts. The contrast between the two collages in each piece, one the 3-D contents of the shadow boxes, the other the 2-D elements outside the box, arguably accomplishes three transformative goals.

A view of two walls of work by Sarah Stoddard at Bountiful Davis Art Center. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

First, it establishes a format. The repeated pairing of an unframed collage, mounted directly on the wall, and the framed-and-glazed box that erupts from its visual center, compares to the volumes in a set of books or the chapters comprising one of them. It’s only necessary to step outside the gallery where “Anthologia” resides to be reminded that most art shows, regardless of theme or purpose, collect works whose size and shape were individually determined. Rather than being separately conceived and executed like them, these collages are parts of a greater invention.

Second, it establishes a hierarchy of presence. The contents of the box are originals, seemingly taken from random sources. Being mounted in space brings them to life in a way that delights the eye even as it frustrates photography. Needing to be seen in person, they are the heart of the work, the crown of this creation. On the other hand, the “complements” have been reduced by being attached, unframed, directly to the wall like so much paint—or wallpaper—after first being copied and printed in a low-definition or grainy fashion. We probably look in the box first, finding what’s there isolated from our own space by not one, but two steps up.

Then there’s Stoddard’s statement, invoking authors, their books, and their characters and events, to the exclusion of other visual artists. Stoddard’s art, though necessarily visual, will be in search not of the objects she invokes by depicting them, but in pursuit of the roles those objects play in building believable stories that the viewer may choose to enter. Nothing is precious; instead of carefully copying the natural world, she has collected somewhat random examples from it. She no more means to trivialize these by such means than she intends to trivialize stories by calling them “fairytales and fantasy.” Her structure works against the tendency to conceive fiction as trivial or the opposite of reality, when instead, for her, it is reality that has been elevated and structured by being “curated,” and so made suitable for her purposes.

Sarah Stoddard, “Empty Shell, Unraveled Spool” at Bountiful Davis Art Center. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Stoddard cites four examples of objects enchanted by their roles in storytelling. There’s the barely material curse that sends Snow White to sleep . . . perhaps found in a leather-bound book, or made entirely of breath. In “Sabriel,” author Garth Nix assigns necromancy, or communicating with the dead, to seven magical bells. Jo March, the protagonist of “Little Women,” cuts off her hair, forced to trade her vanity for something more practical. And Bertha Mason, the secret wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester, burns down his mansion and drives Jane away. If these don’t sound like fairytales, they’re certainly not the sanitized versions that have replaced an earlier collection of myths and legends that captivated children while preparing them for real life.

Perhaps the best description of Sarah Stoddard’s “Anthologia”—a 17th-century term that comes from Greek and once meant a bouquet of flowers, so by extension a collection of poems or epigrams—is to call them talismans: objects with magical powers of suggestion that may prompt the imagination to carry a sensitive person, such as a writer, on a journey full of formerly familiar objects made strange by an uncanny process, and with her, to bring others, such as us, along.

Sarah Stoddard, “By Sound and Light” at Bountiful Davis Art Center. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Anthologia: Sarah Stoddard
, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Feb. 17



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