Before it became Utah’s contemporary art museum, UMOCA was known as the Salt Lake Art Center. Art centers became a thing around the country in the late 20th century, possibly beginning in the 1970s, when an art center in Portland, Oregon, became the first such facility to secure NEA support, opening the floodgates and establishing a link to the American West. Locally, in addition to SLAC, there have been the Central Utah Art Center, the Kimball Art Center, and the Bountiful Davis Art Center. Most art centers divide their resources between exhibiting art and facilitating art education and practice in the community, relying on community support for the latter. The Kimball and BDAC are still going strong, encouraging the public to take part in a variety of activities in studios behind well-run, contemporary gallery spaces. The demise of the CUAC was largely due to its not meeting its commitments to Ephraim City, while the superbly managed UMOCA remains the most dependable place in Utah to see progressive contemporary art.
All this comes to mind because of a fairytale adventure now at UMOCA and called, after taking of a deep breath, “Making stuff to express stuff, To share stuff, So others can feel or wanna make stuff, Hopefully.” The generous benefactor, graphic artist Thomas Campbell, has not only loaned examples of his works, but transplanted whole segments of his studio with the intent to create a very different atmosphere than the gallery ethos usually sustains. In the front corner, an “Actual Re-creation of Thomas’ Sewing Space” includes a work bench, beneath which are filed scrap books and an entire bank of sewing machines. Drifts of patterns and scraps perhaps six inches deep cover the bench top, while tools, samples, and sketches are pinned to the wall. Here’s where the process of separating the sheep from the goats probably begins: if this installation doesn’t make you want to hurry back to your own workroom and get busy, you probably don’t possess a hand-crafter’s soul.
Considering the sheer quantity of three-dimensional objects here, several with the processes of their making also on view, Campbell might well object to being called a “graphic artist,” but his sculptures have an illustrative directness about them — a three-dimensional graphic quality. Other examples drawn from the mix, like a skateboard included as part of a “commercial ephemera” showcase, are primarily distinguished by their strong 2-D design. At the other end of the gallery, behind a discreet barrier meant to keep both the work and the audience safe, a “Ceramic Installation” dated 2018-2023 showcases “High and low fire ceramics, wood fire, salt fire, spray paint,” including a potter’s wheel serving as a pedestal and some working shelves cobbled together from plywood.
In front of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the French have built a substantial pavilion that houses the entire studio of Constantin Brâncuși, donated to the nation on his death in 1957. It’s larger than this, and includes the historical architecture and floorpan. But the mix of works-in-progress and completed works has the same feeling, and some functional details, like the artist’s spray bottles, are missing in Paris. It was Campbell’s desire to take visitors behind the wizard’s curtain, where relatively few audience members ever go, and in the process to de-mystify how art gets made. In the process, he simultaneously takes viewers back to the days of the Art Center experience while projecting them forward into the possibility of their own artistic future. It’s a remarkable concept, well carried out.
Geoff Wichert objects to the term critic. He would rather be thought of as a advocate on behalf of those he writes about.