If air is colorless, how is the sky blue? During the pandemic, faced with isolation, some people turned to television for companionship, while others got a dog. Artists tend to be loners, a useful skill for the solitary hours they must put in, but even their survival skills were tested. Jean Richardson must have pondered the blue lines on a package of notebook paper and wondered if, having been sundered into eight and a half-inch segments, they could somehow be rehabilitated, set free to run as she imagined them before they were plucked from the ether and confined to material form. The result of that imaginative inquiry and a lot of studio time, two essential ingredients of art, is “Linear,” a tail for a horse standing twenty-one hands tall. Though made from bleached paper, with strands so narrow they could be hairs, yet the small amount of blue ink filtering the light imparts to the result the ghost of a tint: not really sky blue, but enough to make curiosity visible.
When the Utah Division of Arts and Museums settled on the current format for the Statewide Annual Exhibition (SWA), they divided various media between three large categories, so it takes three years to fully sample Utah’s many artists throughout the State. This year, Mixed Media and Works on Paper are being shown at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. “Mixed media” used to be the catch-all term for whatever doesn’t fit elsewhere, but it may now be the most common genre one encounters in the gallery.
“A tempest in a teapot,” tells us something trivial is asking for attention. When it comes to extinction vs. survival, however, we need a new, more imperative language. In “Last Tasmanian Tiger,” Alison Neville places devastation in a sardine tin, and then puts hope — which Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul” — in another tin with “Parachuting Beavers.” By forcing her audience to come close and rewarding them for looking closer, she makes her subjects feel that important.
If that’s true, what are we to make of Brandi Chase’s “Like Two Turtles at Gikal,” which splays out over the gallery floor and includes a book to be read? Perhaps aware of how furniture today has become almost as disposable as the cardboard box it comes in, Chase undertook to dismantle an old chair to see for herself how its comfort and durability were achieved. First of all, she kept a journal, in which, like a scientist, she described the physical parts of the project, even as, like a poet, she wrote down her personal discoveries and responses. When she realized that not every chair knows all the secrets, she found another to follow the first. Neither does every project succeed in becoming art, but Chase’s program turned a corner when those two chairs, one dying while another sat mute and witnessed the fate of its distant cousin, reminded her of an event in her life she might have preferred never to think of.
Non-spoiler alert: to find out what connects chairs to turtles for Chase, it will be necessary to spend as much time in the gallery as it takes to read this review. For Chase, an essential concept comes from the prolific Mexican artist, Gabriel Orozco, whose vast collection of flotsam and jetsam, whether cast up by the ocean or dropped on stadium astroturf by sports fans, demonstrates the potential connection between all things: “When you put together a group of objects, regardless their origin, you form a constellation: a group of associations that somehow belong to you,” Chase quotes him. For her, such a constellation fell into place when the corpse she lays out on the floor for us to witness recalled the turtles for her. “When I recognized it, I wept,” she says. Curiosity, ingenuity, determination, memory, and above all, sensitivity are among the media that comprise “Like Two Turtles at Gikal,” and that this viewer responds in precisely the way the artist felt when she made her art asserts its perfection.
Another artist whose passion for her subject translates into art the viewer feels is Pat Debenham, whose collage, “All Over This Land,” takes its title from the 1949 Pete Seeger and Lee Hays folksong, “If I Had a Hammer.” If the Weavers, Peter, Paul and Mary, or anyone else who sang this universally popular tune then could have known that 75 years later there would be so little progress in Civil Rights or self-determination for families, they, too, would have felt Debenham’s imperative to act. Expressed by the central figure, who stretches from her fist, in the upper-left corner where “reading” starts, down her arm to her head, which continues the motion through the direction of her gaze and her inaudible voice, clearly evidenced by the tension expressed in every part of her body, her determination is echoed by the rapt attention of another woman who literally “leans in.” Together they form one of the many triangles that give this image its elemental power.
The judges, Pat Hickman from New York and Julio César Morales from Arizona, seem to have had no trouble filling the gallery with similarly plangent and penetrating works. It may have to do with the difference between localities, but the 28 works by 24 artists shown here easily outnumber the similarly centrifugal efforts among the recently closed Spring Salon, which included ten times as many works over all. One artist who showed in both is Tamia Wardle, who here employs the so-called Agamograph technique, in which gallery denizens strolling past see one image at first that segues before their eyes into another. One image in “Renewal” is of a dove carrying a green branch in its beak as it flies over the dry bed that was once a body of water. The other image is of luminous rain falling from a dark sky. The dry lake here is shown the same way she represented the Great Salt Lake in Springville.
In what might be a case of parochialism if it weren’t such a universally compelling example, two other artists’ works center on Great Salt Lake. One is Jim Frazer’s “Skeletons in the Lake,” an articulated lament for its vital environmental role, five of which parts support a singular sixth image that combines the title skeleton, water, and a reflection of the distant, snow-capped mountains which used to, and must again, supply the Lake. The other is Valerie Atkinsson De Moura’s “Leave Behind,” which excoriates the complacency shown by the many stewards who for decades allowed their charge to wither before their eyes. Presenting as a puddle of water beneath a dripping spigot, closer examination reveals the puddle to be two overlaid maps of the Lake, one showing its extent as seen on maps, the other its present plight. The tromp l’oil painted cardboard faucet glued to the wall mocks those who suggest that a magic hose bib exists, and that running a little more water into the vastly parched West will soon fix the problem. This may be the only comment thus far equal to the double-dealing of those who see this as solely a problem for public relations.
The urgency these artists express contributes much to their art, but also present are artists whose stalwart presence proves the constancy of traditional art. Stefanie Dykes, who lately has been as likely to print on fabric as paper, never fails to break ground with new images surmounting ever more original supports. “Garden Bed Rolls” emerges from her inquiries into Apocalypse, Apocatastasis, ‘Apausecalypse,’ and the Bardo: four distinct experiences of the end of time. It’s not clear if these bed rolls would be any use for sleeping, but they borrow the name and image to produce a garden seed dispenser that could be easily carried over long distances. Presumably after the end of civilization the literal purpose could be useful as well. Either way, it’s good that someone is thinking about what future life would be like if we were forced to spend it in fundamental tasks like growing our own food … if only to propel change in the way we live now.
Anyone who has seen Dykes at work, happily putting in the hours her ambitious projects require, will recognize her as a living refutation of the canard that only an unhappy person can succeed as an artist. A deliberate member of Utah culture as well as its artistic community, she contributes to both. A different point of view, but artistry of equal invention, can be found in Lenka Konopasek. Here is an artist whose work precludes any notion that she is at ease in a constantly threatening world. While the forces of nature — storms and fire in particular — figure large in her artworks, there is always a human contribution present, as though large violence must always be a collaboration of great powers. Recently, Konopasek has opened a window into the sources of her uneasy feelings, speaking of an anxiety that she experiences in the isolation of her studio. This insight comes partly through her revealing statements, but also from the objects she has been making since the beginning of the Pandemic. Typically these are supported from beneath by cobbled-together wooden or plastic structures and defended above by sharp spines or quills. Between these extremes, though, they look soft and vulnerable. “Void,” the example here, may take its name from its color, which argues that, like an astronomical black hole, what appears solid is in reality an illusion. Using few colors and contrasting materials, she invokes the complex and unresolvable character of the human psyche under stress.
Finally, the best historical model for our present day may be the Biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, in which the once-united and powerful people are fragmented by the loss of a shared language and, no longer able to understand or talk to each other, form factions that frustrate each others goals. This image of living in the wreckage of past greatness fits the art of Frank McEntire, who ceaselessly combs the detritus of earlier cultures, hoping to find in them a way forward. “Nature Fights Back” is either an alternative to human error or a path humanity might follow: an ally we must join with and, the world at last reunited, go forward together. Evidence at the Statewide Annual argues that the artists are ready to take that path.
Utah Division of Arts and Museums Statewide Annual UT ’23, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 16
All images courtesy the author