Una Pett’s artist statement says that she’s “a lifelong student of the human figure,” but you won’t find any evidence of it in her current show at the Salt Lake City Main Library. With the exception of “Entryway,” a view of Library Square in which you’ll catch just a whiff of a figure in the bottom right corner, these scenes are devoid of human life.
Always Within Never, Pett’s exhibit of small works done in acrylic with collage and mixed media elements, pays homage to the building that currently houses them: Moshe Safdie’s five-story wonder and surrounding complex that over the past ten years has become the center of the city and one of its residents’ favorite buildings. For Pett, it is a space in whose “complex and active space I find myself over and over again drawn to the interludes, quiet moments when light and form come together to create rich arrangements of shapes and shadows.”
Looking across — and through — the spaces in these paintings, there is a distinct hint of voyeurism, of the solitary and unseen gaze. But though the people the building is meant to serve are implied by the architecture depicted — we see doorways, alcoves, and stairs — their actual presence is glaringly absent (as are the books and magazines). This absence imbues the paintings with a sort melancholy, but also a reflective enchantment. The scenes here remind us why librarians are so intent on hushing their patrons — introspection, reflection, concentration, these are all reasons why we go to books and to the places that house them.
Pett’s paintings, a dozen of which depict the library, are small and well-composed, painted in thin, sometimes transparent layers, giving the paintings a richness their size and lack of detail would otherwise deprive them of. In these paintings, Pett is interested in fundamentals: value (many of the works are either monochromatic or close cousins), line, design, composition. Virtuoso flourishes or expressionistic impastos are not at play here: rather, the artist works with understatement and subtlety to let the works slowly breathe their presence so that air and light is sensed as much as concrete and glass.
But this is not to say that the works are easy, or sketches, or by any means unfinished. Careful attention has been paid to key elements of composition and line. A piece like “Despite Straight Lines” is perfectly poised — were the viewer/ painter to take one small step forward or back, the line of sight that descends four floors and keeps the whole piece active and yet well-balanced would disappear. In “Grace,” Pett has aligned the building’s south-facing sheets of glass with the long stairwell that descends from level 5 so that they become one unit, juxtaposing the firm solidity of one plane against the transparency of the other. In “Early Light” we find ourselves peering in to each of the four negative spaces, made asymmetrical by the tilt and cropping of the composition.
These works exploring the library are complimented by another group of even smaller works, hanging together on the shorter, north wall of the gallery. Most measure only a couple of inches in any dimension. They appear to be cropped slivers of other works, standing alone or collaged with other pieces. In some cases they are little more than horizon lines, created where two colors meet, or where ground and sky are separated by the thickness of the paint. If these works were any larger they might fall apart, but as they are they demand to be peered at, creating the intimacy that comes with proximity. Pett calls these works “Odes” and “Mementos” and there is just enough in each to call to mind a vague sense of atmosphere or emotion.
The library works have something of the memento about them as well. Almost all could fit in a coat pocket, making them like devotional pieces, made for easy transport and frequent reflection. Though they pay attention to certain details of the spaces they depict, it is to the exclusion of many others: the same way our memories will often consist of vague general structures alongside precise details.
For all their peering across open spaces, ultimately these works feel like their gaze is directed inwards. Libraries are meant as public spaces, though not necessarily as social ones: a library is a place where we are alone together, each of us communing with our own thoughts; which is why our relationship to the space is stronger than to any of the people we might encounter there. The hidden alcoves and broad vistas, deep spaces and intimate corners that Pett paints in these works are accurate enough depictions of Moshe Safdie’s architectural creation, but more importantly they are evocations of the interior experiences that those spaces help to create.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.