Space is a commodity with resounding significance as of late. The isolation necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic has made more immediate the symbolic power of spaces — home, work, school among them — and the perceived absence or overindulgence of one, which may drastically alter our relation to another.
The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA)’s new exhibition, Space Maker, investigates this rich and sometimes fraught connection between space and identity, drawing from work by faculty within the University of Utah’s Department of Art and Art History to showcase compellingly the ways in which artists have navigated their own artmaking during this once-in-a-century crisis.
The exhibition features 33 artists, ranging from tenured to newly hired and adjunct faculty. The faculty showcase, which takes place every three years, requires submissions created in the last two years. In the show’s current form, this makes for a powerful testament to the creativity born out of the world’s seemingly unending uncertainty.
Curated by artist Nancy Rivera, the show begs to be reckoned with on its own terms, beyond the mere faculty “showcase” of past iterations. This is illustrated in both the titling of the exhibition and its curation. “In the past, ‘Recent work by U of U art faculty’ has been part of the title of the exhibition,” Rivera explains. “However, in the early planning stages we decided not to include it, as ‘faculty’ is an academic term that not all audiences may be familiar with. This allowed me to take a curatorial approach that was focused on an overarching theme.”
Undeniably, the assortment demonstrates a wide spectrum of subject, media, and style in works incorporating the playful, serious and conceptual. An urgency permeates many of the works, which wrestle with themes such as climate change, isolation and loss. While the artists were driven to engage such powerful themes, viewers have undergone radical shifts as well, and will read into the works their personal hardships carried throughout the last year. “It was hard not to see the influence of our time in lockdown and quarantin,e and in some cases, the artwork’s original concept took on new meanings when seen through the lens of our new normal,” Rivera says.
Upon first entering the gallery, several works compete for our attention. Along the northern-most wall, Lewis Crawford’s pigment and ink drawings, “Construct No. 3-5 (Bell and Tree),” and “Construct No. 3-7 (The summary of an adventure),” invite us to imagine the underlying geometry in the manmade and seemingly prosaic spaces around us. Opposite Crawford piece’s are Edward Bateman’s gargantuan digital prints made from inscribed 3D models, including “Half Dome No 1.,” “Yosemite from Above,” and “Mount Watkins Sunrise No. 1,” from the Yosemite: Seeking Sublime series. The images are surreal and otherworldly, mimicking with a cool remoteness the rounded, mountainous forms of their namesake. Interestingly, Bateman includes the 3D models of the mountains in a nearby display case, allowing viewers to reflect on a fascinating juxtaposition underlying our perception. Rivera, too, enjoys how the displayed 3D models evoke the process behind the images’ creation: “We don’t often get to see how that incredible end result of the image is achieved,” she says.
Comprising a large section of the wall it inhabits, Beth Krensky’s “Dispatch from Solitude #1: Walking the Unknown Path,” is a multi-faceted work — composed of a recorded performance, text, a chair and photographs. The work is a sort of Exhibit A of performance art, demonstrating the ways in which one event can be captured in multiple iterations and how our interpretation of the underlying event may undergo drastically different connotations depending on which of these media is the focus of our interpretation. Rivera was drawn to the work for this very reason. “Krensky was investigating how you access a performance piece by deconstructing it,” Rivera says. The work recalls Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965, which whimsically tackles conceptualism by rendering three versions of a chair — the three-dimensional item, a photograph and a written description.
Floating amid the two-dimensional works, Lenka Konopasek’s sculptures compel a close viewing. The artist’s use of materials is among her signatures — ranging from large hanging paper sculptures to small mixed media works that evoke a sense of remarkable frailty — and here it’s impossible to ignore that “Seclusion 2” (2020) resembles an actual virus.
Other works, including John Erickson’s “Call for Backup,” mixed media painting, 2020, Moses Williams’ mixed media sculpture and Simon Blundell’s “Light Within” use vibrant color and intrigue to bring their mysterious subjects to light.
Al Denyer’s series A Sense of Place: Chasing Stansbury I-VI is striking, evoking careful and laborious handiwork of the artist’s sketches, each white charcoal on paper drawing compiling in seemingly infinite variations to create the unified whole — the majestic face of a mountain range.
Elsewhere, Sylvia Ramachandran Skeen’s hand-built enamel sculpture, “Remote Possibility: thirst quencher” and Brian Snapp’s ceramic “House my Brother Built” present playful, small-scale sculpted works in an intentionally hand-crafted and non-polished aesthetic. While Snapp’s pieces represent small houses paired down to their most basic shapes, the innocuous connotation of their child-like depiction takes on a deeper meaning: Snapp’s original series tackled the symbolism of home amidst the horror of displacement for refugee families; in 2020, the works take on an even greater psychic prominence, as one contemplates the role of the home as site of safety, reflection, and refuge from a deadly virus.
In a separate space, the metallic leaves of Wendy Wischer’s tree sculpture, “Reflecting Hope,” reverberate with the movement in the room, leaving small and lively reflections on the gallery walls. The work makes an ethereal impression in a room otherwise filled with conceptually challenging subjects. Among them is Carol Sogard’s “Endangered Ecological Communities: Sea, Sky, and Land,” composed of strips of vibrant wallpaper-like images, vertically configured. The wallpaper is visually rich with assorted figures, animals of the sea, land, and sky, now endangered. At first glance, the wallpaper evokes something familiar and comforting —something which would adorn a child’s room, for example — but closer inspection reveals various examples of our human misgivings and contributions to the climatological and environmental disaster. Adjacent to Sogard’s work is Paul Stout’s “All watched over by machines of love and grace,” a sculpture that spits out names of extinct species at various intervals. In a fascinating interplay, Stout’s work speaks with Sogard’s by hammering down on the harmful impact of extinction through the visual and taxonomical display.
Another gallery room is a dedicated print room, showcasing several approaches to the art of bookmaking, printmaking, and digital illustrations. Noteworthy among them are: Michael Hirshon’s series of three digital drawings with pen and ink; Elizabeth DeWitte’s linocut relief print “Quakies;” Trishelle Jeffery’s comic-style works, including “People I am Not;” Emily Tipps’ “Amazing Brine Shrimp,” letterpress on Lettra paper, which evokes, in a playful way, the ecological destruction of the Great Salt Lake by recalling the lake’s abundance in years passed; and Kylie Millward’s “Domestic Remiss,” and “The Rhythm of Menstruation,” two works from the artist’s MFA thesis show made shortly before the pandemic, which present even more resoundingly due to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women.
In another gallery space, photographic creativity is on display. The video and photographic work of Jaclyn Wright, including “Untitled II,” explore identity in relation to the barren and colonial landscapes of the American west. Adam Watkins’ trio of uncanny, hyper-focused images, including “Spilled Milk,” “The Book of Lilith,” and “Interludes,” contain fascinatingly detailed “constructed reality” imagery a la Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson. Across the gallery, Erika Cespedes’ work is a good pairing, as pieces such as “Goodnight” depict melancholy figures floating through familiar environments, evidencing the enormous and all-consuming weight of loss. Setting off the curiously unsettling tone of the room is Naomi Marine’s mixed media sculpture “I’m What’s Inside You,” which depicts a body-less head, mouth agape, consumed by an unknown force. The eerie sculpture showing the terror of bodily invasion evokes the debilitation of a virus which takes hold without our knowledge or consent.
For Rivera, a 2016 graduate of the U’s MFA program, curating this exhibition presented unique challenges, chief among them the inability to meet with the artists and interact with their creations in person. “I spent a lot of time reading (and re-reading) artist statements and artwork descriptions for each of the works selected. As I read them, I found myself highlighting words, grouping pieces by theme, and thinking of my own interpretations of the artworks. It didn’t take too long before I saw the threads that connected them,” she says.
As an artist, curator, and arts administrator, Rivera is accustomed to working with artists from around the state and deftly communicating often complex themes underlying an artist’s work to various audiences throughout the state. This show, however, was a unique opportunity to work with some of her past faculty mentors and to see how their work has evolved over the years. For her, it was important not just to showcase the diversity of perspectives from within the department, but to detect themes which unite otherwise distinct media, styles, and approaches. “I was surprised by realizing that even while living through a pandemic that disrupted many aspects of our lives, these artists still found a way to feel inspired to continue creating. There are works that were made in direct response to the pandemic and which express — through striking visuals and narratives — the feelings many of us experienced during that tumultuous time,” she says.
Indeed, Space Maker is a fascinating testament to the role of art as a catharsis of sorts, opening infinite avenues through which to explore both the tension and the beauty of our shared existence.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.