Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Visible and the Implicit in Modern West Landscape Show

Alexandra Fuller, “Abandon 01,” 2023, Archival Pigment Print on Bartya, 24 x 96 in., Edition of 3

With one of the four cardinal directions — and a major cultural signifier — right there in the name, we should not only expect Modern West to frequent the landscape in art, but to come up with an exceptional example from time to time. Such a one hangs at the center of the exhibition Out There: a Landscape Survey. All that’s required to be labeled a landscape, instead of a portrait, is for a work’s width to exceed its height. Alexandra Fuller’s “Abandon 01,” which stands two feet tall, extends along the wall, unbroken, for eight.

Landscape format, maybe, but that’s not what makes “Abandon 01” a landscape, though it certainly makes it a more satisfying one. Making it a landscape is the work of the abrupt range of cliffs, variegated by layers of sedimentary stone laid down over millions of years, that rears up from the desert floor and extends so far to either side that the ends of it diminish in size and seem to curve away from the camera’s eye: tricks of perspective, presumably. Such characteristically upthrust, striped, and eroded rock formations in such large quantities are unique to Utah and parts of Colorado. Specifically, this is the western, Utah edge of Colorado’s Roan Plateau, just as the Wasatch Front is the western limit of the Rocky Mountains. This vista speaks volumes to a geologist, which data include the hydrocarbons trapped in it: coal and natural gas in particular. It’s for this reason that the railroad thought to run its rails as close as possible to the impenetrable heights. That this bit of what many would call “God’s country” was once thought to be worth only what can be mined out of it, and that many powerful interests still see it that way, would be a tragedy of epic proportions if it weren’t so pathetic.

It’s become a cliché to label any work of art that doesn’t limit itself to a single material or method as “multi-media,” which term has begun to lose its meaning. If all art is multi-media, and arguably it is, then none is. That said, Alexandra Fuller is a poet as well as a visual artist and has expressed herself in two parallel forms: a photograph and a body of vividly felt language that she has lettered across the string of mothballed coal cars that she found abandoned on now-useless tracks: a railroad spur she camped in front of, so she could photograph the scene in accord with what has long been recognized as the best approach to this work: early on a clear morning, when the sun is a generous lover and the air a crystal vessel. 

It’s essential to realize that Fuller doesn’t view this as a story as black-and-white as the photograph. She acknowledges instead that if it weren’t for what are often called “extractive industries,” development of the West would have taken a very different shape, and generations seeking a job or work would not have had the opportunity to sincerely devote themselves to labor here. We cannot dismiss their devotion and their family biographies lest our own are seen equally subjectively. For Fuller, the end of mining isn’t the clean, unilateral victory it represents for environmentalists. The story is more complex. “During this shifting time,” she writes in her statement, “I want to remember and acknowledge the communities who gave their lives over generations to power the growth of the region. Even as we abandon it, we all must acknowledge that coal has touched everyone of us. There is not one among us who can wag a finger that’s not coated in fine, black dust.” 

Out There includes 17 artists, most of whom will be familiar to Modern West’s regulars. They all appear frequently, and most have some work in the collection, giving their audience a chance to witness their gradual, and occasionally sudden evolution. Two themes that made for new work were the ongoing environmental crisis, which has only grown worse while almost nothing is done by those who could and ought to help, and the pandemic, with its associated social isolation and continuing controversy, in spite of mortality remaining high. 

Phil Epp, “Collapsed Barn,” 2022, acrylic on board, 30 x 40 in

A smoky, blood-red sky and a low-hanging sun that appears daunted by the task of climbing into it, a challenge emphasized by the angle of the jutting roof, allows Phil Epp’s “Collapsed Barn” to bring a traditional subject, usually one evoking nostalgia, into the crisis-prone 21st century, charged with anxiety. Jiyoun Lee-Lodge, whose Waterman series combined an identity-negating splash of water with hand-held digital devices, in order to explore the impact on life of confinement to screens for connection, has moved on, in “Aspen Eyes #3,” to explore more universal conundrums of seeing and being seen. 

Landscape is a theme particularly suited to abstraction, and with it Shalee Cooper presents the quality of “Stillness” that is not part of a quiet hour, but rather the instant when things stand motionless in anticipation. In “Elusive,” Patrick Dean Hubbell makes the gradual accumulation of history and structure, two gifts time makes to the land, visible in a way that they rarely present themselves to the distracted and detail-oriented human eye.

Patrick Dean Hubbell, “Elusive,” 2015, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

Al Denyer’s landscapes at first project an aura of timelessness; she’s an artist who seems to do what she does regardless of what is current or expected. But those who follow her realize that over a decade, with each new work, she’s lured viewers from the Amazon rain forest drainage all the way home to the Wasatch Front. Like the reality of climate change, she has brought her vision ever closer, not just to here, but to now as well.

In 2022, Billy Schenck was on the receiving end of some criticism that was not wrong in its specifics, but draconian in its intent. About that same time, he painted “Dusk at Spring Creek.” Turning a scientist’s eye on that canvas, some things become evident. It records the moment when the sun reaches the horizon, the ground losing the light even as the mesa remains illuminated on its west side and the other falls into shadow. The clouds become inverted, lit from below instead of above. The creek remains visible due to reflection from the still-luminous sky. Most remarkably, the viewer may initially see nothing else in the sky, but, on further gazing, begin to find the pale stars seeming to emerge. Anyone who truly loves this magic time of the day cannot fail to recognize a fellow spirit in the artist.

Billy Schenck, “Dusk at Spring Creek,” 2022, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 in.

Another painter with the eye and mind of a scientist, but the heart and soul of a painter, is Kiki Gaffney, whose pencil brings vegetable matter so close to life that the splash of ink or gold leaf that follows seems like it should set it aflame. Geometry and decay represent the before and after of trees and stones alike in her studies, while the gold lines in “The Valley” locate its land forms beneath the clouds that shroud it, revealing secret affinities like those in “The Striped Spire.” All through Out There, the visible and the implicit wrap around each other like rocks in a rushing stream or foliage blown in the wind.

Out There: A Landscape Survey, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through

3 replies »

  1. Nice, Geoff. I loved this: ” . . . whose pencil brings vegetable matter so close to life that the splash of ink or gold leaf that follows seems like it should set it aflame.” I just wanted a visual to accompany it! 🙂

    I’m not familiar with Kiki Gaffney’s work but after this description will check it out!

  2. This perceptive review shows the critic/not critics deep dive into each piece. I look for more of this.

  3. Gaffney is married to artist Tom Judd and lives in Philly, as I recall. They have a most precocious child. She shows frequently at Modern West — Gaffney, not the child. As yet, that is. Astrid’s day is coming. And very soon, I suspect. Why not a summer show of work by elders and progeny, Diane Stewart and Shalee Cooper?

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