The Springville Museum of Art’s Spring Salon is the largest annual exhibition of work by Utah artists in the state. More than 1000 works are entered for consideration each year. From these, the museum manages to hang several hundred on their ground floor galleries. The Salon is too large, too heterogeneous a show to try to make sense of as an exhibition. So, taking inspiration from something Bob Olpin wrote for us years ago, we invited our writers to choose a few pieces that struck them, for whatever reason, and write about them.
Question: What is the difference between Mount Rushmore and the Spiral Jetty? The question may sound absurd, but the answer matters to lawyers. Mount Rushmore is the property of the United States government, and so is in the public domain, while Spiral Jetty is the property of the DIA Art Institute, and its image is protected by copyright. This was discovered a few years ago by a local brewery that used a photo of the Jetty on its label, only to be sued for infringement. As a recent Supreme Court case proved, one involving a portrait by no less than Andy Warhol, not even art is a safe haven for copyists any more. So only the popularity of Robert Smithson’s magnum opus could have kept viewers at this year’s Spring Salon from noticing that two of the collected works were, in fact, pictures of another artist’s property and not, as would be true of Delicate Arch or Grand Canyon, a work properly in the public domain.
That said, both Clay Wagstaff and Tamia Wardle use Spiral Jetty to call attention to the dire plight of the Great Salt Lake, though their individual reactions differ in subtle ways. Clay Wagstaff dates his painting, “Spiral Jetty No. 7,” to 2023, but he shows the stones covered in the salt crystals they wore like a bridal veil when they emerged from decades of submersion 20 years earlier. In those first few years, they sank from sight and reappeared annually, the basalt almost immediately returning to its natural black color. At the same time, Wagstaff’s Spiral Jetty is remote from the shrinking Lake, but still has its satellite pools, features of the extremely shallow and porous floor of the Lake that characterized resent, increasingly dry years. So it seems likely the artist has taken a familiar form of artistic license, in which various views of a subject are combined to produce an idealized portrait. The substantial dimensions and panoramic character of “Spiral Jetty No. 7” further recommend this point of view.
In her block print, “Reaching,” Tamia Wardle takes a different approach: one that better conveys the extremity of current conditions. In a bent perspective, she places a bird’s-eye view of Spiral Jetty between a foreground presentation of a Western desert landscape below and a brace of rolling, curly, cumulous clouds floating above. In this way she brackets the drama taking place on the lakebed between two scenes of nature. She shades her colors gradually as she goes, in a printmaker’s tour-de-force, from the brown of the near desert to the blue water of the distant lake, islands, and sky. The exposed lake bottom, which makes up more than half of this tall, narrow image, is cracked and crazed by drought, and as the title suggests, the coiled rock spiral seems to reach like a thirsty proboscis towards the distant lake. Robert Smithson foresaw the gradual erosion and disintegration of his masterpiece, but if he had ever anticipated it would eventually revert to dry desert, this is how he might have imagined it.
DIA Arts has shown restraint and care in handling the Spiral, and must know that under present conditions, it’s no longer a jetty, having lost its qualifying body of water. So the restoration of the Salt Lake that these artists advocate for is in everyone’s interest.
99th Annual Spring Salon, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through July 8