The Biblical Book of Genesis, with all its great visual tropes — the creation of all from nothing, division of light from dark, story of the Fall, and so on — has been enormously popular with artists at least since Medieval times. The third chapter begins with the first-ever confrontation between good and evil, symbolized by the encounter of Eve and Satan, who appears in the form of a serpent in the Tree of Knowledge, and who persuades her to eat the forbidden fruit. Among other things, it’s a provocative early assessment of the essential risks students and their teachers must take. BFA candidate Brandi Chase found a way to prolong the charm of the Illuminated Manuscript version of that story on a colorful ceramic platter, while updating the symbolic figure of the serpent with a twist that is as timeless as it is modern. Her professor, Brian Snapp, is retiring this year and she became one of 30 of his students that he invited to join him in Bad Artist and friends, an enormous farewell exhibition in the (new) Gittins Gallery, the traditional space marking both farewells and welcomes for U of U art majors.
There’s a reason why translators of Genesis have preferred to name clay as the first, divinely chosen sculptural medium: the one used by God to fashion the crown of his creation. What other material can begin as mere earth and yet aspire to represent the highest orders … in fact, seemingly everything, whether living or dead? And there’s not much that cannot be invoked by this versatile medium, as over a hundred clay objects in Bad Artist and friends seem determined to prove. Snapp himself sets the tone right at the door, where a pair of concrete suitcases simultaneously welcome visitors while recalling the mixed feelings of their owner, who has his bags packed and ready to go, despite some inevitable mixed feelings.
The spontaneous surfaces of those sculptures also recall right at the start the age in which Snapp stepped into his double role as fabricator and teacher. Immediately following the Second World War, Americans emerged for the first time as international leaders in the arts. They combined elements of abstraction, then still a controversial technique, and expressionism, mostly in large canvases that firmly seized the world’s attention. Their influence was then like mother’s milk to the next generation, which included Peter Voulkos, perhaps the first sculptor to exclusively use clay not as an interim step, but as the final component in large sculptures. Incidentally, they also gave enough impetus and definition to glass artists like Dale Chihuly to turn what had been “art glass” into Glass Art.
Brian Snapp’s appropriately dominant presence as the eponymous Bad Artist, then, is marked by a substantial body and wide range of works. The smallest is a shelf of goblets bearing the suitably academic title: “Utilitarian/Nonutilitarian,” in reference to the theoretical distinction between their forms and ornamentation. The largest is an installation that borrows its title from the sport of golf: “Back Nine,” referring to the second half of the game, and presumably the second half of life as well. Here, five life-sized human silhouettes, three on the wall being among the presumed spectators (along with a flock of birds perched on the transom of a nearby doorway), and two on the floor that epitomize the actual game, complete with sand and water traps. The symbolic distinction between vertical vistas and horizontal bodies underscores the title’s weight.
Between these two installations, and scattered around the gallery, are several classic, Ab-Ex influenced pieces that are large enough to stand on the floor and face their viewers. The series “House of My Brother/House of My Sister” contributes three components: “Temple,” “Home,” and “Sanctuary,” each with its bold profile, compound perspectives, and abundance of detail serving to celebrate the macro- and micro-cosmic dimensions of all things. Many of those qualities are gathered elsewhere in ironically-titled sets, like “Bloated” and “Future Housing.” Later, where a movement’s disciple might have stuck with abstract and expressionistic protocols, Snapp took to using a wide range of inscribed and painted marks, glyphs, and symbols, including some pieces in which clay, while present, is not completely foregrounded.
Some of the student contributions address specific transgressions of tradition that their professor must have modeled. Hanna Bowen’s “As I Recall” mixes virtuoso rendering with manufactured items to produce a picnic on the gallery floor. Whether to recognize the time demands of exhibitions or just to show off, she specifically modeled moldy fruit, bread, cheese, and even a banana. Vanessa Romo’s feminist surrealist vest, complete with secondary characteristics including pockets, is wrapped around a pillow and perched on a chair for the duration. The piece that comes closest to Snapp’s larger works — large in size and in subject — is Ajmal Ahmad’s installation, the title of which is translated as “The Ignored,” though “forgotten” might serve equally well. Here a body wrapped in a white shroud and black kufiya lies on a weathered, damaged Palestinian flag, surrounded by significantly shaped stones and held in place by models of important buildings: important, that is, to this human being, though clearly not to those who routinely destroy them. Tears of Rage, as one Nobel Prize winner put it recently: indistinguishable from tears of grief.
It quickly becomes clear that these students understood soon enough that neither exquisite craft nor good ideas alone were enough, and these thirty clearly rose to the challenge. In “Open Cupboard,” Kate Wingard didn’t just draw meticulous studies of patients in intensive care, but points up the universality of the violence that can happen to any one, at any time, by inscribing seventeen images of first response in action on a nearly encyclopedic array of plates, saucers, and bowls. In Etsuko Freeman’s “Teapot” a venerable piece cut from a tree testifies to the important connection of ceremony to life. Heidi Moller Somsen’s “Insomnia,” in which a winged nightmare perches on the would-be-sleeper’s head, bids us not forget that often the worst happens in our own heads.
It wouldn’t do to leave the impression that just because they hint at meanings, these works lecture the viewer. In fact, another of the lessons they arguably demonstrate is their generally light touch: their preference for question over answers. Sylvia Ramachandran Skeen’s “The Artist Dreams of a Missed Opportunity” conjures nostalgia for what didn’t happen, but which might have. Nolan Baumgartner’s “Formal Study #1” seems so rich with possible futures it could be displayed on ones wall and never lose its sense of potency. And finally for this commentary, but surly not for the many artists in Bad Artist and friends, in “The Journey Continues,” Juanita Marshall tells her mentor the thing he must surely want most to hear.
Bad Artist and friends, Gittins Gallery, University of Utah Campus, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 22. Reception: Thursday, August 24, 6 – 8pm.
All images courtesy the author.