Symbols being slippery things, you don’t have to believe Joshua Luther when he tells you his current works are about the transmission of knowledge and wisdom. Or, believe him, Luther being the hand that drew these images and the mind that conceived them. But don’t feel constrained by his framing.
A Salt Lake City artist, Luther studied at Utah State University (BFA, painting) and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (MFA, printmaking). He first came on our radar in 2009 when he and Ike Bushman transformed a derelict warehouse along what is now UTA’s S-line into a pop-up venue featuring video work and one of Luther’s spiraling word drawings. The latter was similar to what you may remember from Luther’s 2012 exhibition at UMOCA, Meaning: informed by epistemology and linguistics, Luther’s spiraling vortexes of language played on the arbitrary, symbolic nature of letters and words and their ability to elicit human emotion.
In Vessels, his exhibition at The Gallery at Library Square through Nov. 10, Luther continues his exploration of symbols, though he has left his linguistic vocabulary for a purely pictorial one. Most of the images that line the gallery space are a variation on the same basic idea: vessels or containers, as suggested by a few graphic lines, passing liquid from one to the next. Some are as simple as a one to one transfer, while others include several nested vessels like a Russian matryoshka. The vessels both contain and transfer liquid, sometimes explicitly at other times implicitly.
For visual artists, one idea or motif can be enough to satisfy for years. Think Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. The pleasure comes in the variations, the subtle differences. Luther creates these differences through thin layers of paint built up over a base of collaged newspaper. In some pieces, where the newsprint is largely textual, you feel a hint of his early word vortexes. In other places, colorful advertising sections become the liquid contained and transferred. The resulting works on paper construct immersive narratives that engage both the intellect and the emotions: his works are clearly conceptual in nature, the counter lines of the vessels and their transparency suggesting a conceptual image rather than one rooted in physicality; yet his soft palette, rough lines and textured surfaces imbue the works with an emotional quality that seems to come from lived experience.
“The fluid contained within these vessels represents the essence of our stories and knowledge,” Luther says in his artist statement. “Like a flowing liquid, it drips from one vessel to the next, signifying the continuous transmission of wisdom, insights, and traditions across generations.”
But symbols being symbols, and not strict allegory, you could into these works with your own associations, your own experience. The suggested “intergenerational exchange,” in Luther’s words, could be of another sort. It could be a transmission of pain or sorrow. A deep cerulean blue in most of the works suggests water, a symbol of life. But look at “One Pool Passing to Two,” with its blood red color, and in the wake of recent events you may find a more troubling intergenerational exchange: of folly, hate and death.
Joshua Luther: Vessels, Gallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 10
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.