Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Trevor Southey: Reconciliation

The Southey painting deemed too controversial for the Salt Lake City airport

On the wall opposite UMFA’s entrance, looming over passageways leading to various destinations, the monumental painting Flight Aspiration can be seen almost as Trevor Southey conceived it for the Salt Lake Airport. Four horizontal figures fly from right to left across its surface: a man facing towards us, a women turned away, a bird, and a paper airplane captured in exquisite three-dimensional perspective. All four naked, someone quipped. Southey, who has seen this object of scandal only in photographs in the almost thirty years since it was taken from public display, muses on the difference between the photograph and the real thing. “I had begun to think it might actually be a bad painting. But now that I see it for real again, I think it’s good.” Perhaps this unexpected humility is the most striking thing about meeting Trevor Southey. Again and again we point something out to him, and inevitably he agrees. This is the first time he—or anyone—has seen his entire career laid out more-or-less chronologically, and he has readily accepted the view of it created by his friend Day Christensen, who was asked to curate the show because of his familiarity with the man and his aesthetic sense and has hung it with great sensitivity to both the individual works and their cumulative impact. Somehow, this artist has managed to work for half a century without falling back on the self-protecting ego on which so many depend.

Reconciliation by Trevor Southey, 1978, oil on panel, courtesy the artist

The sudden freeing up of strictures on artists in the Modern Era didn’t require the simultaneous devaluing of those skills that had reached an apotheosis in the Victorian era. There ought to have remained room for someone like Bouguereau or Sargent alongside Toulouse-Lautrec, Pollock, or Warhol. But there wasn’t. More than just realistic representation, drawing skills, structural knowledge, and even a taste for beauty all became cause for suspicion if not outright dismissal. That the result was a devaluing of working skills in the artist has long been obvious, but the simultaneous effect on the audience’s ability to appreciate art has been overlooked. So walking through the half-dozen rooms at UMFA where Trevor Southey: Reconciliation will remain until February 13th comes as a shock: not the shock of outrage or flat disappointment one often feels, but the shock of realizing how low our expectations have fallen. Month after month, we in the art audience visit and revisit contemporary shows, comparing and gauging works not just against each other, but against what we flatter ourselves are absolute, objective standards. And then along comes some blockbuster show full of famous names to reveal how crippled the standards are by which we are accustomed to judging.

The 1,100 Utahans who pressed into the UMFA for the opening certainly made it feel like a blockbuster. Even more striking was the way they moved almost reverently through the galleries, talking quietly to friends, but then were suddenly moved so strongly that they spoke to complete strangers with confidence, the way one does in church. This artist was so popular with these people that it was difficult to imagine how his pious and skilled images could actually ever have caused offense in person. Accepting uncritically for a moment the restrained, academic character of the paintings, prints, and sculptures that met the eye, it was possible to say that there is, at present, no artist in Utah—and few beyond—who brings to the work the sheer plastic power that Southey has reveled in for decades. The human figure, in which he excels, is thought a truer test of ability than landscape or nature studies, but because Southey’s figures so often display outward signs of inner suffering, his uncanny talent often shows itself more clearly in subjects that are less open to empathy: dogs, plants, even canned fruit.

Softening by Trevor Southey, 1980, bronze and steel, collection of Jim Dabakis and Steve Justesen

While today’s art students are encouraged to express their own feelings through muscular release, Southey’s practiced control allows him to reveal truths about the object of his gaze. When a modern artist looks at a thing and sets out to limn its contours, the weight he gives his line and the proportional distortion he permits express his feelings, his values, his responses. In earlier art and that of so-called anachronisms like Southey, those individual gestures encode into the marks made facts not otherwise visible or captured. They fool the eye into seeing space and time. They capture specifics of shape and surface texture that distinguish specific instances from general patterns. They suggest context and connect subjects to it. The result is a certain density of drawing, a web of marks redolent of the effort and energy used in making them that, while part of the drawing, reach out of it in the direction of original incarnation. Putting this into words, we say the image seems to breathe, to live, to have a soul, to be present. It’s not the accuracy of a photograph, but the truth of a mental image.

Thanks to cognitive science, it is no longer a secret that this way of drawing is even more a way of seeing, one that few of us ever learn to use even though we can see it when done by someone else. The evidence suggests that Trevor Southey saw this way from very early in his life, but ironically this ‘evidence’ per se is rare because Southey never developed the intermediate practice of preparatory drawing. Most of his drawing is done directly on the canvas and ends up covered by the brushwork of his paintings. With the exception of a few drawings in the second room, such as a meticulous torso or the uncanny “Skull” from 1976, the clearest sense of his draftsmanship is found in prints like the six nature studies in the third room. About these rooms: they are laid out chronologically, but the sequence is thematic rather than strictly calendrical. The works in the first room, which recollect his childhood in Africa, date from years later. The next room recalls his early preoccupation, as a convert to the L.D.S. faith, with eternal life. The bronzes that begin there display the same thorough working knowledge of anatomy visible throughout career and gallery, along with the reticence that marks the other pole of Southey’s aesthetic vision.

The third room, as befits the realism of maturity, documents Southey’s retreat from immortality to the mundane challenges of living. He acquires a farm and a family. Two of these, “Eden Farm” and “Comfort Waiting,” diagram the danger of getting what you want. In “Eden Farm” the wife, child, and cow represent apparent success, while on the opposite wall, one sees the reality. It’s a diptych, split between the family on the left and the artist on the right. In place of the neutral facial expressions he regularly chooses, here he presents himself devastated and more: shocked, his face livid with dread. It’s a portrait of a man who realizes he has committed himself to living a lie. In the fourth room, its theme taken from the painting that names the entire show—”Reconciliation”—Southey finally takes up the question of whether one can lie to his fellow men without also lying to God. Here religious subjects like “Prodigal” and “Samaritan” reappear, but without the conflict posing two male nudes together gave him in the earlier bronze, “Brother’s Keeper.”Here, the twin bronze figures of “Sleep and Sleep,” one nude and the other shrouded, hint at biological truths that were left out during a more theological phase.

Eden Farm by Trevor Southey, courtesy Private Collection

Comfort Waiting by Trevor Southey, courtesy private collection

Prodigal by Trevor Southey, 1974, oil on panel, courtesy the artist

Viewing these four rooms raises a question. Simply put, why isn’t Southey better known? Did he spend his best years trying to please an audience that wasn’t ready to recognize the universal human condition that lay concealed within his more narrow, personal struggle with his sexuality? Did the distortion in his development, rendered visible here by Dave Christensen’s presentation, do him permanent injury? In the beginning one sees a spiritual vision not unlike William Blake’s, except that unlike Blake, Southey could draw . . . especially anatomy, which he handles with both consummate knowledge and grace. But after some painful rejections, his figures began to withdraw into the paint itself, and while he learned to make a virtue out of drapery, which had rarely been so glorious since the High Gothic, he seems to lose conviction. Lighter colors, in both senses, become veils behind which his figures simultaneously hide while struggling to show their glory.

In the fifth room, the anatomy that had retreated comes forward, in focus and in front of the draperies. One can imagine that the Greek art of painting, lost entirely to us for almost two thousand years, looked like this. The strong sense of having finally become himself, who he really is, has to do with Southey’s eventual acceptance of his homosexuality, but it is nowhere near that simple. Michelangelo was probably homosexual, and his women are brutes. Caravaggio may have been gay, but his men are as far from ideal as his women. The Nikes and Aphrodites that survive in Greek marble, though, are every bit as beautiful as the males. And so are Trevor Southey’s women: closely observed, they are competent, budding, full of promise. But at the same time as he shows them, he protects them. Only “Vyacheslav” seems to step forth from the paint that surrounds him, the intimacy of his first name matched by the casual self-revelation of his pose, the composition directing our attention unmistakably to how, for the first and last time in this exhibit, sexual anatomy is depicted with the candor of optical clarity.

Sleep and Sleep by Trevor Southey, courtesy private collection

What held Southey back, finally, wasn’t the immodesty of his anatomical candor, nor his sexuality, nor even his un-modishness. I would argue that it was his choice to paint as if the Baroque never happened. His images turn away from theatrical drama set on an elaborate stage set, ultimately not to present a timeless, endless world of static values, but to chart the struggles that roil almost invisibly beneath even the most placid-looking exteriors. While he strongly rejected the slack, dispassionate images passing for religious art that he saw on his arrival in the US in 1965, he remains a close observer of the turmoil within the individual. Rather than events and their consequences, it is expressions and especially postures through which he wants us to read his subjects’ fates in the moment. His great theme, which took him decades to uncover, is not the generous, spiritual instincts that lead people to form communities and undertake efforts on each other’s behalf, but rather the way that such positive impulses are twisted into greed, destruction, suffering, and despair. “Bludgeoned by the beliefs of those who are absolute in their certainty of right,” he has written, “I believe we are first lost unto ourselves, and then gradually unto our fellows.” The oddly calm faces that stare out from even his portraits observe us and are resigned, not disinterested. Encountering them in his art we, with them, simultaneously recognize the human potential to do good and are asked the question—Why do we hurt each other instead.

Trevor Southey in his studio

It’s a question rooted in the atrocities of World War Two and the Apartheid system, both formative experiences of his earliest years, but which he came to see later in places he had admired and hoped to escape to: nature, religion, and in a new homeland. To have begun life in colonial South Africa and lived to see racism and ignorant reaction seemingly follow him to America must have seared his soul. Look closely: it’s all there in black, white, and vivid color swirling across emotionally intense canvases that capture our moment the way great painters have always done.

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