No matter how much we may enjoy and even prefer an immediate and strong response to what we see, not all artworks can be adequately replied to with a simple “yes” or “no.” For two promising young multidisciplinary artists, Naomi Marine and Matt Kruback, art is clearly a way of visually thinking and discoursing about preoccupations we might more conventionally associate with aesthetics or philosophy, and it makes perfect sense that they choose to render their musings real by relating them metaphorically to variously familiar examples, like the nature of rocks and the sort of uncanny biological expressions they sometimes support. It may take some contemplation to plumb the depths of their productions, but it turns out to be time well spent.
Each of their two dozen pieces, which are divided between the Alice Gallery’s walls and a pair of vitrines, makes reference to nature in some form. Like a political debate continually deferred until a later date, there will come a time when the arts will have to discuss plagiarism from nature, but this is not that time. It’s enough to say that where a scientist might argue that the way microscopic crystals of silica combine to form an entire valley, whether Monument or Goblin, only grows more compelling the more it’s understood, artists don’t seem to be able to contemplate the environment for long without wanting to remake it in their own image. This may be where the popular image of God arose.
Kruback focuses on stones, though he doesn’t invariably label them as such. In fact, six of his 11 works call on the fractal-like similarity between the way crystals make up a stone and stones make up geography, a resemblance he calls to mind by collectively titling them “Breakwater.” Executed on paper using colored, sometimes metallic inks, they play with one of the fundamental propellants of abstraction — the mind’s desire to seek order, and if necessary project it into any suitable, sufficiently complex pattern. The titles don’t distinguish between them, so I can’t do so here, but some of them could almost as easily be knitted or woven textiles as crystals. Rotating successive images slightly brings static geometry to life, while perhaps the ones that come closest to connecting with the world beyond the gallery are the circular sections that call to mind Robert Smithson’s pre-Spiral Jetty explorations of the theme. I found them not only easy to look at, but cerebrally stimulating. Easiest to ascribe a verbal meaning to, though, were two panoramic photo montages depicting rocky terrain that had been tied together in post-production with imaginary, day-glow cords. Their shared title—“Rhetoric”—may have overstated one objective of the whole ensemble: to show how boundaries and connections that seek to subdivide the world into intelligible and manipulable parts are arbitrary. As overdetermined as that may sound, the lines weaving between and around the rocks call up a host of associations to lasers, early Christo, and just what makes Andy Goldsworthy so great. When all is said and done (and of course it never is), an artwork that can send the mind off in search of a nagging sense of association does something worthwhile.
Natural geology may not be as easy to reproduce as some landscape gardeners think, but Naomi Marine has thrown herself a greater challenge by messing with biology in somewhat the same way Kruback exploits geology. Beginning in two dimensions, with some more-or-less conventional metaphors, she’s drawn some mysterious objects or events that seem to require the presence of life to explain. Her use of Greek is more ambitious and allows her to shade from structure to physiology and beyond, as when she titles these “Kairos,” one of two ancient Greek words for time. The one we still use, in words like chronology, refers to moments that exist like beads on a string. Kairos means the one perfect moment: the right time. With exquisite ambivalence, this could be either a warning against self-deception or an exhortation to wait as long as it takes for something real to appear. Gazing into their depths, which she seems to have caught roiling like a magic potion, anything seems possible.
Though her more numerous mixed-media pieces seem to find their inspiration in the natural history museum, Marine doesn’t waste time or effort trying to make their mountings pass for specimen quality. They come closer to the amateur magic of the pre-museum Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, which is undoubtedly a richer association. Take the presumed series, of which two are here, titled “Diastemata,” an apparent reference to the gap between teeth. Set in red velvet, these teeth invoke nothing so much as the faux specimens that have inundated interior decorator stores and, presumably, the homes of the pretentious naifs who shop in them. Others, consisting of doubtful anatomical parts surrounded by surprisingly shocking tufts of fur, wink at viewers broadly enough to ensure that, no matter how ready they may be to generously fall for them, they really aren’t meant to pass a scrupulous inspection.
Marine’s point, and Kruback’s, are logical Siamese twins, which combined are reminding us, as we must remind ourselves every time a precept threatens to become a pattern on the way to a rule, that appearances are deceiving, and especially so because our minds so desperately want to be deceived. I rarely feel this way, but I can’t help thinking that it would be great if the entire show could be kept together, since the individual delights gain from being so earnestly, if speciously, collected together.
prima facie, featuring the work of Matt Kruback and Naomi Marine, Alice Gallery, Salt Lake City, through November 10.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.