Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Installation Art of Robert Taplin & Corey Strange

Works by Robert Taplin at the Salt Lake Art Center

A long time ago in a gallery far, far away, rebels banded together to create an art with a new relation to reality. They called their art “Realism,” but we know it today as merely the opening engagement of a movement that came to be called “Modernism.”

The paintings, and the new drawing technique that would be called photography, that were exhibited in Paris in the middle of the 19th century had their roots in the Enlightenment, in the conviction that there is an ultimate reality that is physical in nature and can be discerned by objective observation. The intractable truth of this view of existence hasn’t stopped later critics from throwing sand in our eyes and the gears of progress. After all, they point out, not everyone chooses to live his or her life as though this were true. Others try and fail. So if the truth is not universally accepted or practiced, it may as well not be true. The name given to this collapse of faith, either in the existence of reality or in our ability to discover it, is Postmodernism.



The arts, too, underwent a change. Of course art is more vulnerable than science or philosophy to the caprice of fashion. Artistic styles change when the public grows bored; the change always appears to be an advance, but in fact the progress in art since the discovery of abstraction from nature during the Upper Paleolithic has been on the level of improvements in punctuation. In thirty thousand years we’ve learned to suggest space and time more accurately, but as far as capturing one person’s experience and making it available to another, it doesn’t get any better than the animals drawn on the walls of Chauvet Cave. We humans had it all at the start, although we like to do it differently from the way our elders did it. There’s no harm in that, unless we start believing that the older art has ceased to function, or that the only way forward is to follow the footsteps of the latest thing.

The news from the Salt Lake Art Center is that Modernism not only is not dead, but it is alive and reasonably well. Robert Taplin’s The Five Outer Planets is a bold effort to update in sculpture the kind of work that T.S. Eliot and James Joyce did in literature almost a century ago. Modernists like they accepted that content, because of its ultimate grounding in reality, was universal, but that exploration of form gave it fresh significance and new accessibility. For Joyce, to take one example, the extraordinary adventures of Odysseus as he journeyed through the world and back home could inform the life of a Jew in Dublin in 1904 as he went about his everyday life.


Bound Saturn

In a similar way, Taplin distills three levels of meaning from the subject of his work. The five outer planets are, first of all, alien and mysterious astronomical objects. Everyone I’ve told about this work has hastened to point out to me that even as the work was being installed, Pluto was demoted from planet to sub-planetary object. Yet astronomers recognize not two, but four kinds of objects in orbit around the sun, and they know far less about the outer ones than the inner, which are presumed at least to be like Earth.

These planets were long ago named for the principal Roman gods — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto — who are the fathers and sons of three generations of immortals, with more family drama between them than Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer together can match: betrayal, cannibalism, bondage, drugs, incest, castration, and marital infidelity being just the headlines. To suggest this duality of identity, Taplin has fashioned each figure twice, once in smooth but unpolished gypsum, then again in fiberglass that is lit from within. Since the planets, though made of gas, are visible by reflected light, while the men are gods, either version could represent either subject. Doubling the poses, which interlock but do not mirror each other, increases the ambiguity. The sizes diminish from Jupiter’s thirteen feet tall to Pluto’s two, and the distance from the entrance very roughly suggests their orbital relationship. The interplay of size and distance adds yet more uncertainty.


The poses illustrate parts of the narrative: Jupiter stretches his arms out in freedom; Saturn is bound; Uranus doubles over his grievous wound; Neptune body surfs; Pluto crouches in the underworld. But all this, visible as it is from afar, is prelude to the close-up encounter with the exquisitely modeled flesh of these powerful men. Each used in turn to unquestioned authority, their bodies display the simultaneous evidence of physical strength and the ravages of biography. Their faces invoke, without specification, genetic diversity, while some muscles sag and others disappear beneath fat. It is easy to see how the corruption that power brings happens to the flesh as well as the character.

Surfing Neptune



While The Five Outer Planets presents heroes of antiquity, the young installation artist Corey Strange offers New Heroes at Ephraim’s Central Utah Art Center. Strange doesn’t identify his heroes the way Taplin does, but after a few moments in the gallery they begin to reveal themselves. Installation is perhaps the most self-conscious art form, originating as it did in the artist’s awareness of the gallery as context and a desire to explore its influence on the work of art. An artist is a maker, of things usually, but always of abstractions, and Strange’s Heroes are the abstractions that emerge from his self-conscious exercise of his artistic ability to create them.

If “site-specific” means anything, it means incorporating the place where an artwork is shown into the work of art, thereby metaphorically inverting the evident physical relation between dweller and dwelling. Installations may ignore the site or may, as The Five Outer Planets has done, move from their original site to another without suffering fatal damage. Some would-be installation makers choose to address the space and to ignore the structure that creates its form and character. Corey Strange addresses the sites where he exhibits closely, pointing up both the real buildings and the environmental and structural ideas they represent. In essence, he abstracts qualities from a place and uses those qualities to call attention to themselves and, at the same time, back to their physical embodiments.

Corey Strange at CUAC

The heart of New Heroes is the presence in the main gallery of a single window, set in a side wall near the front and embedded several feet deep in the old mill building’s thick limestone walls. Without openings there can be no architecture, and while this space has six potential exits, there is only this one that uniquely accommodates the eye and mind, rather than the feet. Windows open the view and yet may delimit it at the same time, becoming both the origin and the extent of perspective. Strange has drawn another window in red tape on the wall exactly opposite the real one. Standing between the two, they appear no more than distant cousins. In fact, the red line drawing was done from a spot close to the back of the gallery. When one stands there, a surprising and delightful likeness emerges between the actual window and what turns out to be its “spitting” image. Close on this discovery follows the realization that any likeness can only be true from the point of view from which it is made.

Many modern artists treat words as another species of pictorial matter. A promising characteristic of Corey Strange’s art is his willingness to treat them exactly as material things: subject to manipulation and the discoveries artists have always made about what happens to the meaning when the form changes. Two words figure not less than six times each on the gallery walls. One is “AND,” the other “NOW.” Both appear woven into the surface of a partition that effectively divides the central gallery space into three areas: one wherein the single window and its drawn twin appear dissimilar, a second in which only one or the other is visible, and a third from which the resemblance can be seen. Repeated in the negative weaving on the two sides, they imply different meanings in two reversed phrases: AND NOW. . . vs. NOW AND. . . . On the front wall, only the very top and bottom of the letters are seen on either side of the entrance, the empty wall between interrupting them in something like the way the door interrupts the wall. In the back, both words appear to wrap around corners, calling attention to a common characteristic: both join and simultaneously divide what goes before with and from what comes after.

Corey Strange at CUAC

Neither Robert Taplin’s nor Corey Strange’s installations are without fault. One viewer objected to the way the Outer Planets were hung from wires. Another argued that the Classical allusions mean little to today’s audience. Corey Strange’s red and white color scheme baffled viewers and detracted from the work’s aesthetics. Yet both move toward the reintegration of content with form that must occur if art is going to resume its central role in culture and not continue its slide into irrelevance. According to the (exaggerated) rumors of its demise, Modernism did not die alone and it did not die in vain. Along with Modernism, the work of art died, to be replaced by a type of activity called art making. I will have something to say about this next month.

The Five Outer Planets is on view through December 27th at the Salt Lake Art Center. New Heroes was on exhibit at the Central Utah Art Center during the month of November.

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