Much has been written about Jann Haworth, but two things seem customary to mention. One is her formative involvement with Pop art, which began in England and with which she still identifies. This biographical fact might otherwise escape her American audience, since the substantive work she did then and continues to do bears little resemblance to the vacuous, superficial images, so like advertisements, that began flowing out of New York a year later. The second is her collaboration with her then-husband, Peter Blake, in creating the three-dimensional collage of assorted persons that was photographed for the 1967 cover of The Beatles’ album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Much is rightly made of the fact that it remains one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century life, but less often noted, and almost never commented on, is the presence in that photo of two life-size cloth figures, one a grandmother on whose lap perches the second, an image of Shirley Temple wearing a sweater that celebrates The Rolling Stones. They sit together beneath a potted palm, off to the side of the jostling crowd, and are worth recalling for two reasons: because they demonstrate continuity in the artist’s interests and output over half a century, and because even at that early point she insisted on carving out her own distinctive space in the midst of an otherwise disheveled world.
Nine new Haworth works recently debuted at Modern West Fine Art, accompanied by three pieces that reveal some sources and influential preoccupations. In late January, immediately following the U.S. presidential inauguration, more than two-and-a-half million women around the world marched to protest a social order that would sooner hand over control to any man, no matter how unproven—even one proven incompetent—than to a woman, while deliberately refusing to rationally debate her past or potential contributions. It may have been the largest coordinated demonstration in human history, but not nearly so many creative writers or artists chose to memorialize it as did the acts of 19 terrorists on 9/11. It has been a stressful time, especially for members of what is locally a minority, but in Sundance and Salt Lake City, where Jann Haworth has lived since the millennium, she set about forging a response to that outpouring of immediate feeling and lasting commitment to ongoing change.
Although in some ways atypical of her previous work, the art of March shares one characteristic of everything else Haworth has made: it’s immediately recognizable, yet hard to classify. An argument that goes back to Leonardo and Michelangelo holds that, where painters only make pictures of things, sculptors make actual things. But of course sculptures are also pictures in the mind, and so Haworth, while she fundamentally prefers sculpture, has moved on. “I don’t think pictures or sculptures,” she says. “I think objects.” So objects they are. There is nothing trivial about the point, to appreciate which it helps to step back and recall a couple of historical moments. One was when the Greeks figured out how to free their figures’ limbs, so they could extend their hands or place one behind the back, instead of rigidly at their sides like the Egyptians had it. If a viewer wanted to know what that hand held, he had to walk around the statue to find out. Thus sculpture led the way in opening up space, making the third dimension a meaningful component of art. Yet twenty-three hundred years later, at the dawn of the 20th century, relief sculpture such as was placed on important monuments was considered superior to freestanding statues. So the relative merits of these two fundamental ways of making art remain in flux. And perhaps the best description of Haworth’s objects is that they combine, and so simultaneously possess, the representative versatility of a picture assembled from the uncompromisingly solid reality of a sculpture.
What does it really mean to say her objects are neither exclusively paintings nor sculptures? What, exactly, can be seen in the gallery at Modern West? The first thing I noticed had nothing to do with their fabrication. Rather, at a distance what leaps out is that here are arranged groups of figures: ensembles that interact and compose themselves in depth, like a motion picture image. In other recent works she has shown fragmentary images: identifiable, but fragmentary views of Minnie Mouse; full-length portraits of significant, if uncelebrated women; her group portraits, like the “SLC Pepper” mural on 250 S. 400 West and the currently touring mural, a collaborative “Work in Progress.” Often she refers to, and arguably corrects, the Sgt. Pepper’s cover. Now, however, it seems that working with groups was one of several things on her mind when she started March, though it’s impossible to know what order these preoccupations influenced the result. In addition to groups and moving pictures, the conventional framing-and-glazing she settled on reminded her of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, which before they became irreplaceable were meant to be held in the hand and played with like children’s puzzles. So even as the static ethos of painting was closing in, she was thinking along the lines of how these objects might be animated, if only in the mind or in the way a viewer animates a sculpture by moving around it.
Surprisingly, this is the first time she’s placed objects in conventional frames, under glass, like so many paintings. It’s a puzzling, counterintuitive notion that demands a look back at previous objects. Fortunately, there’s one just around the corner: an ensemble that greets visitors as they approach the compactly hung show, consisting of two juxtaposed parts that add up to one figure and appear, at first, to be surrounded by plain wooden frames. Yet the essence of art lies in one thing appearing to be something else, and these apparent frames turn out to function like stretcher bars. Only a small section of one peeks out from within the canvas of the upper unit, which forms the head. In the lower, more interactive torso, there are actually two separate parts, one a painting cradled inside the wooden rectangle, the other wrapped around it to form one arm and the figure’s clothing, which can be playfully removed in order to better see what’s beneath. So what would likely have been taken for frames in the past were really structural parts, necessary scaffolding which the art surrounds. In no sense are they traditional frames, which separate an artwork from its surroundings.
Another innovation here is that the works form diptychs. Haworth has always preferred single objects, or occasionally triptychs, but dislikes pairs. She may have left herself with an entire unexamined strategy to explore now, because looking around, it’s clear she’s found innovative ways to make these couples respond to each other. In “April” and “May,” the compositions are mirror images and the colors inverted, with enough small changes between them that when they are looked at together, the eye leaps back and forth and the details dance. In the most involved pair, “February” and its aptly named “Inversion,” the latter quite literally inverts the former. Initially this is like a print and its negative (for those who remember photography before it was digitalized), or an image in a mirror. But depth is also reversed, recalling a casual or absent-minded viewer’s attention to the fact that both are sculpted in depth. Items in the background of “February,” like the protesters’ signs, come to the top in “Inversion,” while deep recesses hold the foreground figures.
For all the dense visual data she’s included, however, Haworth doesn’t really depict the original marchers realistically. Only their signs hint at their identities. They don’t display the elaborate surface details they would have shown in person or in news photographs. Missing are both individual styles of self-presentation and the one much-noted, unifying detail: those winning pink knitted caps with feline ears. Even gender has been scaled back, limited to anatomical hints drawn from a lifetime spent limning every conceivable shape of woman. What we see are interchangeable drawing mannequins, some with shoulder pegs and all with jointed, posable limbs. While their anonymity might seem a sacrifice, they have surrendered their identities in favor of universality. Even their clothing, what might be workout attire or a modern dance or theater troupe’s rehearsal togs, speaks to equality making a statement. Thus, in place of a potentially misleading verisimilitude—reference to a specific time or place—she constantly reminds us that we’re not seeing superficial facts, but witnessing images, facts on a deeper level, and that images, essentially ideas, can be both protean and powerful.
Depending on a viewer’s prejudice, which probably has a lot to do with age and experience, what makes Haworth so good, or else merely old-fashioned, is the extent to which her objects combine aesthetic material with the social commentary that is their implied content. That the figures she presents are in the form of mannequins may seem a brilliant trope, full of philosophical musing and psychic revelation, or it may seem to diminish their overall impact. To that end, there is a case to be made that art, like poetry in W. H. Auden’s defiant statement, makes nothing happen. And so, until some artist brings about a real revolution, we do well to keep making and sharing art that stands on its own. And Haworth’s marchers demonstrate an interest all their own, which acts on the viewer through the medium, regardless the message. They are the protagonists of situations and events made pleasurable in themselves, and as an era of antiheroes has shown, protagonists tend to get the sympathy of their audience in a way that transcends their individual merits or flaws.
But then it’s in aesthetic pleasures, and the subtler, metaphoric meanings they convey, that March really springs to life. Some of the object’s virtues have already been mentioned, but when it comes to their most charming and convincing quality, by making the entire object out of corrugated cardboard Haworth has opened up a persuasive range of sensual effects that all arise from a unifying source. In itself, the paper surface makes a responsive ground for a range of media. The most evident is chalk, an idea that, like the cardboard itself, came from the demonstrators’ do-it-yourself approach. From a distance, various skillfully applied colorants convincingly mimic metal, leather, wood, and fabric, while the machine-made, parallel lines produced by the corrugated interior layer appear and disappear, here on an edge peering out from a cut, there echoed by frottage, or rubbing a marker over the otherwise invisible texture, and in a number of bravura passages, fully exposed where the cover paper was cut into and ripped away. Cardboard layers produce real depth, which Haworth either undermines or underscores with perspective drawing. The disarticulation of the mannequin’s limbs, for example, takes the form of gaps in the drawing when in the background, while in the foreground similar body segments float apart. A small encyclopedia of visual riffs, some effectively in one representational dialect and others in another, coexist side-by-side, and the well-practiced, 21st-century eye accepts the polyglot result.
Haworth identifies time as the theme that runs through March. The titles, from the punning “March” to “February,” “April,” and “May,” the appearance of important friends, at least one no longer living, the box-like frames, the doubling and reflections—all these things emphasize small changes that accrete, not unlike the way the frames of a moving picture or the days of a life give rise eventually to substantive changes. We can only access time directly through memory, but memory can alter and degrade. So here we are, then, at the primary and ultimate role of art, which is to interact with imagination and memory to create something that lasts.
March by Jann Haworth, Modern West Fine Art, 177 E. 200 South, SLC, through October 14.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.