by Geoff Wichert
One of the more telling lessons of the nature and behavior of art can be found by studying photographs of the apartment shared by Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. The two were compulsive collectors with great taste, and some of the most important paintings of Modernism started their careers hanging on the Steins’ walls, as seen in those fuzzy, black-and-white photos. It’s instructive to compare those images with the ones provided by the museums where these undisputed masterworks now hang . . . or better still, to compare the actual paintings in important collections in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and beyond. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is the difference between a painting, even a future historical monument, hung in a dense array the way one might display family snapshots or a private art collection on a wall or table, and the sterile isolation and iconic lighting that, like Pavlov’s bell, alerts museum crowds that an object is no longer quite of this world.
The goal of “The Beginning of Now,” a pop-up exhibition and book release continuing at the Westgate Lofts, was initially to present an experience as close as possible to touring Jimmie’s, the home, studio, and gallery that comprise a single, total environmental artwork and self-portrait of Jim Williams. At least that’s what Williams envisioned, and he had hoped to build accurately-scaled residential rooms, walls covered in life-sized photos that would recreate what some have called their gothic architectural presence, then place actual, portable parts of his ensemble in front of those backgrounds.
It didn’t entirely come off. There are places in the Loft’s ground floor gallery space that approach the surround-sight immersion and deeply layered experienced of Jimmie’s, where generations of building and adaptation of the structure have been revealed by stripping off old paint, wallpaper, and patches. The rough concrete of the gallery create a sympathetic feeling, but one we know too well from our own lives, while the large space and reasonable material limits require viewers to unplug themselves at the edges of one tableau in order to move on to the next. It’s as if the gallery aesthetic, with abundant room for each object to stand on its own, has generated not only expectations in viewers, but an architecture conducive to what it does best: presenting objects apart from their environments.
While accurate observation based on the privilege of having seen the original, none of the above should be taken as comment on the ability of Jim Williams’ art to make the transition to a conventional setting. In fact, the brilliance of some of his transformations, which make up the fundamental process of his work, is if anything highlighted by their being given room to strut their stuff. Everyone will have personal favorites, but I’d cite two here. One is a photograph of Tom, Dick, and Harry—performative alter-egos of Williams and two friends—eagerly holding up a cardboard box (cardboard and cotton t-shirt fabric being two of his primary materials) to show the camera its contents: their three eagerly grinning heads. The other is an entire magazine, bolted to the wall, with a slight addition made to claim kinship between the image on its cover and the artist. This stuff is revelatory and wonderful, but there’s so much of it in the original that seeing, let alone appreciating it all, could take living in it as long as it’s taken Jim Williams to create it. Which, for the record, is either 20 years or a lifetime, depending on how you count.
So it’s worth dropping in, if only to encounter one of the great protean imaginations ever to call Salt Lake home. The other reason for this brief exhibit (it closes June 25th) is the release of a book about Jimmie’s and its maker, with photos by Tj Nelson and text by Cara Despain. A limited number of copies handmade by Mary Toscano will be followed shortly by a paperback edition. Nelson’s photos were taken in the actual house, and while no mere photo can capture the multiple sense paths and dimensions through which it reaches visitors, they do permanently memorialize specific views and moments, and together build a composite in the mind that may be as accurate as memories, while more readily revisited. Despain not only captures the essence of Jimmie’s, but gives it a temporal dimension by limning the palpable currents of art history and autobiography that flow through its space at right-angles to the light. Not many visual artists write this well, but Williams is fortunate to have someone with her insight into the creative process doing the self-effacing work of revealing his.
If you miss this, one day you’ll only have to lie and say you were there. There will be a second opening on Friday during Gallery Stroll. Come meet your neighbor.
the beginning of now, a solo exhibition by Jim Williams will be open at Salt Lake’s Westgate Lofts (ground floor: 328 W 200 S) June 17, 6-9pm. For more info: http://www.thebeginningofnow.blogspot.com
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.
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