“Money doesn’t talk; it swears” — Bob Dylan
Money does a lot of things, and like swearing, they can be good or bad. Consider twenty-first century art, for example. Money attracts talent, and with unprecedented amounts of money flowing into the art market, there is so much wonderful art being made that people in Seattle, Boise, or Salt Lake can focus on their local art scene and not have to feel they are missing out on direct access to the ‘real’ art being made somewhere else. Skill, wherewithal, and the opportunity to pursue inspiration are all attributes of this endowed moment. Witness the installation by Stephanie Leitch at UMOCA: the skill Leitch brings to bear on her complex and challenging idea has produced a work offering immediate aesthetic pleasure on first encounter, going on to occupy a place in the memory and imagination for reflection and reconsideration.
Of course, no amount of money can change the importance of first-person experience: the actual work directly massaging the senses, reshaping memory, and sometimes—not always—making a viewer think. What then, of another of the products of so much money, which has been a new bureaucracy inserting itself between the audience and the art? Thanks to them, interpretation is routinely treated as if it were the sole reason why art is created, instead of a common response to a work with its own—visual—reasons for being. One of the things these bureaucrats do is fight for control of meaning. In the process, interpretations are invented and imposed, and the audience is urged to see through someone else’s eyes.
What, then, can be said about the direct impact of Untitled Apogee? It nearly fills the Projects Gallery, so that only a perilously narrow space is left around it, yet it is mostly made up of unenclosed—if physically inaccessible—space. Leitch makes that space eloquent, a metaphor of itself, especially once the floor, made of white limestone sand contained in shallow wooden trays, is recognized to be a map of the State of Utah. Spaciousness may well be Utah’s premiere quality: the one thing sought in common by so many of its pilgrims. And if the ground is Utah, the ceiling—white fabric molded into cloud-like shapes—initially suggests a cloudy sky. So an inch at the floor, and a couple of feet overhead, and connecting these two planes, measuring the distance without filling it, are hundreds of red lines. Each emerges from the ceiling, in the process drawing down an inverted cloth cone, then travels through space in parallel with all the others, and disappears into a dark circle, not unlike the ring of a target, set in the sand.
Each of these three elements plays its own mysterious role. Anyone who would like them to remain mysterious, at least until they have a chance to ponder them, would be wise to skip not only the curator’s card on the adjacent wall, but premature contact through the review published in the City Weekly, which readers of the 15 Bytes blog were directed to, and parts of this review. Also avoid the comments of the artist, despite her being regarded as authoritative on the work’s correct meaning. After all, that is only one way to think about art. A work of art is not the best, nor even a particularly good way, to make a precise statement, and a case can be made that it’s better to view the artist not as an author, but as an instigator. She starts the game, and then everyone gets to play. Not her ball; not her rules. That way, as circumstances change, the work can be seen to evolve over time, and it can have at least a shot at lasting relevance . . . or even immortality. There is no such thing as a masterpiece that means exactly to us what it did to its original audience, let alone to its creator.
The lines are where the action is. Their color recalls the chalked string used by builders to ‘snap’ mark a line on their architectural projects. As one walks around the work, these lines do indeed snap, setting off retinal POPs as they pass before and behind each other. Standing close, looking up or down, they seem to converge, generating a sense of scale. Their presence in the work mirrors their presence in the mind: two dimensional, disembodied emblems of distance, together they reveal the fact of space. It must have been insanely difficult for Leitch to arrange these lines so perfectly, matching their origins in the ceiling to their destinations in the sand (or vice versa, if you prefer), using their lengths to contour the fabric. The pleasure her accomplishment produces has something to do with its being rare in the world outside the gallery.
Well, then, what about the fabric ceiling? Clouds remain a viable reading, in which case the strings resemble rain. No wonder the floor is sand: these few hundred traces do not exaggerate the paucity of Utah precipitation. Then again, while the underside of the fabric is all that can be seen, the mind willingly conjures the upper side: the concave surface hidden from view. That side suggests a relief map of the valleys that make Utah habitable. No matter how much we like to contemplate the majestic mountains, it is the low places between them that beckon to us, as they also do the strings. These are plausible readings, but do they offer as much pleasure to the reasoning mind as the total does to the senses? Looking longer, looking again at the two large planes, congruent but unalike in character, and the hundreds of lines that transfix their details, something else comes to mind. That would be the sets of linked maps found in geography texts, that in turn plot topography, politics, agriculture, resources, and so forth. In brief, these two parts, the flat floor and the baroque ceiling, might represent the same two-dimensional area, their contrasting meanings pinned together by lines that give physical form to the concepts underlying the whole cerebral catalog of the real-world models we call maps.
Of course few savvy, cultured humans can resist the lure of a secret key to the unknown and mysterious, so most of us will succumb to that card on the wall. Here we are told that the six-hundred-plus points indicated by red lines are, in fact, the plotted locations of LDS houses of worship, while the lines take their cues from church steeples. While simple enough facts to be clever, we must presume these are supplied on the card because they were not encoded in the work itself. The black rings in the sand don’t suggest churches; they suggest what they are: holes. ‘Apogee’ means the highest point in an orbit, but if anything, the strings represent perigees, the points where the heavens come closest to earth. When it’s not trying to force-feed a reading not self-evident in the work, the card is erroneous, ungrammatical, or incoherent. It confuses Utah State with Utah Valley; refers to the ‘local culture’ of Salt Lake City, as if it also has a remote culture; it contrasts three overlapping categories: images, architecture, and reality; invokes ‘the space between construction and gravity;’ uses ‘negotiate’ to characterize the paths of straight lines; and finally, credits Untitled Apogee with revealing ‘the tension between the ground plane and its limits.’
The problem here is not that this is badly written. Its author probably has an advanced degree, having read those critical texts arguing that art writing must not, under any circumstances, be apprehensible by reason. The problem is that it is well written for its purpose, which is to intimidate readers and cause them to accept certain counterintuitive positions. One, the trivial one, is that Untitled Apogee is entirely, only, and uniquely about the position of the LDS Church in Utah, as intended. The second, more insidious idea it wants to enforce is that only the curator, and by extension the text, the card the curator writes, can lead us to the correct understanding of the art of our times. The idea that what is in the work, its content, is already ours, before the work exists and before we see it in the work, apparently trivializes the present day’s notion of art. Instead of making evident things we have already glimpsed, putting them in the picture, so to speak, artists must be geniuses who have seen what lies beyond our ken. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the artist; perhaps we are only being asked to accept that the curator knows better and sees more deeply than we do. And of course, among those paying a price is Stephanie Leitch, whose evocative and sensuous installation could play many roles in many viewer’s minds, but is required instead to labor for a living.
Stephanie Leitch: Untitled Apogee is at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City through February 22.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.