Place is not a thing, it is not even a space, it is an experience. An experience that, through the artist’s hand, can be shared. This is the concept that drives “Spirit of Place,” featuring works by Darryl Erdmann, Mark Knudsen and Paul Vincent Bernard, currently up at Phillips’ Dibble Gallery. These artists are tied to the landscape of the west, though in varying degrees of literalness, and for the exhibit, each artist chose two locales, for a total of six locations, which each artist set about exploring to provide their individual interpretation of place.
Seen out of this context, Darryl Erdmann’s paintings would be the least likely to be identified with specific place. In his work, Erdmann takes us on metaphorical abstract journeys, showing to the viewer the truth that “place” need not be a thing or even a space. For Erdmann, place is something so metaphysical, so specific to the individual that that state of mind, the elemental foundation, simply cannot be described and for Erdmann, the result is a range of abstractions, from the most boldly explosive in “Outer Marker” to the more resolutely controlled in “Defining Moment.”
“This whole show for me was a composite,” Erdmann says of the idea of exploring place. “I stayed true to this throughout. For example, Alpine Loop was my choice. Every time I have been up there it has been proportionately in my mind green to black. I wanted to stay true to this subjectivity. It always seemed so contemplative and vast.” Interestingly, Bernard’s painting for the same subject shares Erdmann’s palette of greens and yellows — though his forms more directly suggest the mountain peaks of the Alpine Loop, peaks rendered in crisp detail in Knudsen’s view of the backside of Mt. Timpanogos. Interestingly, Erdmann’s “Defining Moment,” is also very structural and geometric, suggesting that he sees harmony in nature not as unbridled elements thrown to the wind but as a cognitive sensibility that can be grasped by the rational mind and contemplated, pondered.
By contrast, his “What’s Mined is Yours” is a response to another kind of inner sensibility that reacts to the natural environment in a way that is entirely different than the orderly structure Erdmann found in Alpine Loop. “When I visited Kennecott I wanted to show the textures of the shovels and the mining and the process, a very different kind of painting, a man-made painting, wrought with digging and mining,” says the artist. Kennecott has presented Erdmann with unnatural upheaval of the land, in fact just after a massive landslide, so the chaos and debris is immense. The inner sensibilities are most certainly not at ease with this sense of place and this is reflected in the canvas, where disorder and artificial use of the natural are in conflict with what it no longer is and the sensibilities struggle with this canvas. It is an inner frame of mind that makes this reality of “place.” This feeling of the place, imbued with elements that are not always visible, is contrasted by the linear emphasis of the mine’s characteristic strata that are apparent in Bernard’s and Knudsen’s works.
To say, though, that the work of Bernard, and certainly Knudsen, is more ‘literal’ than Erdmann’s is not to suggest that they are remote or devoid of sensibility. Looking first at “Moab Rim in Winter,” one might get the idea that Mark Knudsen is another “red rock painter,” and maybe he is, but a singular biographer of the landscape of Utah is a more accurate title for Knudsen and those who know the land of Utah and know the art of Knudsen know that there is a whole lot more to these “red rocks” than meets the eye.
The view in “Moab Rim in Winter” is one Knudsen has seen numerous times, as it sits outside the front door of his second home — a visiting friend once said about the view, “I think I would just rather stay here in Never Never Land” — but one that took Knudsen a long time to paint. “I had never expected that I could ever paint the Rim,” he says, “it looks just too chaotic. I walked out of the door in early morning, the melting snow had revealed the rim in such a way that I realized I could paint it. The particular conditions made it possible to look at this and make a painting out of it.” It is apparent that the magnificence of this land is more than just its physicality for Knudsen, who is awed by its immense splendor; it is also about time, about changing conditions, how light and the elements can transform place from one day to the next.
The Great Salt Lake is another such place. It doesn’t have the grand vistas of the Moab Rim, or the Grand Canyon’s South Rim (also explored in this exhibit) but that’s what intrigues Knudsen about it. “I like to think that I am looking for beauty that is sometimes overlooked,” he says, “and the landscape of the lake is often overlooked.” The Great Salt Lake, according to Knudsen, is an optimal subject, because without the inner artistic vision to transcend physicality and to see the massive presence of beauty, it would simply be salt, mud, and acerbic water where only brine shrimp can live. “Stansbury Jetty” is an ethereal painting seemingly of some unearthly landscape and Knudsen has used his artistic intelligence to project various elements so the viewer might see this. Firstly, there is no human context. The area is broad and flat and appears limitless. The water is rendered as a reflecting mirror, giving it an unearthly quality, and the island seems untouched by time, older than time, resistant to time. It is this transcendent vision of a landscape not too many miles outside of Salt Lake City that qualifies the inner perspective as a factor of “place.”
Paul Vincent Bernard’s representation of the same area shows the artist at his Minimalist best. With a simple — in this case monochromatic — palette, the printmaker-cum-painter, uses his tooler to incise lines, building up texture and form, so that “Ice Bound” is a massive white form that pushes against a black background, creating a delicate haze at the point of collision. The resulting work reads beautifully as both reference to real space and form, and as a matter of built up abstract lines.
With his seemingly simple methods, Bernard is able to create a variety of effects, from the stillness of “Ice Bound” to the glow of “Les Matins.” Bernard’s “Swell Season” is an apparently monumental structure with line that, unlike most of Bernard’s work, has pattern and rhythm. “That’s the first time I used the line to contour,” he says. “It was the San Rafael Swell that pushed me into that mode, to use the line instead of the strata. I wanted to follow the form, becoming more sculptural. It’s not a dark looming thing it’s a bright curvaceous thing, the form opens and pulls you in and up.”
By contrast, but appearing almost as a purposeful counterpoint, “Deep End,” Bernard’s response to the Grand Canyon, is a great vacuous void engulfed between two rises and is created of line that is for the most part vertical following the drop in this gulf. In this case, “place” is defined by what it is not. “I was inside looking towards the back wall,” Bernard says of the inspiration for this work, “and you can see more sky but it is the deep end, and instead of the Swell pulling you up, you sink deeper and deeper.” In “Deep End” the focus is on the presence of “place” and in this relationship to absence the viewer feels a sinking sense of being driven deeper, and deeper, not by the void, the absence, but by the bottomless pit that is the presence of “place.”
These three artists, working from inspiration of six chosen locations, have each presented their own artistic visions of their response to that “place” using their own artistic methodology, and in doing so, have each contributed to a sizable exegesis on the comprehensibility of the “Spirit of Place.” Whether states of mind, perception, or fundamentals of being, all artists agree that “place” is not simply a thing, it is not only about space, it is an experience.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.