The Statewide Annual Exhibition invites all Utah artists to submit their work—the art itself, not slides—the accepted works to be shown as a group in the Rio Gallery. Each year’s exhibit tackles a loosely defined subset of art, three or four specified media, all work made in the three years since the previous show. For 2017, painting, sculpture, and installation are included, though oddly for a time when excellent installations are almost routine, none is present in the gallery. Every three years the survey is completed, beginning again the next year. It’s common for galleries to show a unified body of work, made by a single artist, in virtually a single creative act. Because this survey takes such a relatively long time, the Statewide may challenge the audience not only to compare the works of numerous, differing artists, but to compare a vision that was new two years ago with a fresh example by an artist who absorbed the earlier work’s influence.
To better show what this means, take John Sproul, who spent four years exploring the human figure without reference to its surface appearance, eventually filling Finch Lane Gallery with a dozen double figures, whose silhouettes he carved out of fields of color. In this body of work, he presented an original, eloquent form of expression. “FiveEight,” the single example here, becomes an outlier that must stand on its own while fighting for attention. So, the Statewide may not allow Sproul, or any artist, to make the best possible impression, but it does provide an introduction: an opportunity to see a snapshot, or really scores of snapshots, of what is going on in sculpture and painting in our state, inviting comparisons, assessments, curious coincidences, and, maybe most important of all, the impetus to see more of these artists’ works when the opportunity arises.
Of course, some works fall between the fixed categories of painting or sculpture: Sally Rydalch’s “Home Ground” smooths some of the rough edges of geology through an approachable combination of woodcut, wood carving, and tantalizing assemblage. There’s no paint, and it’s not conventionally sculpted, but it’s charming, evokes Joseph Cornell’s hugely popular boxes, and feels both painted and sculpted. On the other hand, while Wendy Wischer’s physically monumental knot of tree stumps, ‘Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy,’ makes a spooky impression that arises directly from its crafts-like fabrication directly out of such tree-sourced materials as cardboard and paper, it’s impossible to deny it holds its own in a room full of some very strong sculpture, including perhaps the edgiest piece in the show: Madison Donnelly’s chair that implies it was molded in direct contact with a naked human backside.
While medium is still a useful measure, using it as the necessary condition for entry creates an opportunity for ambitious artists to lend an avant-garde edge to what are otherwise rather conventional works, to bold but mistimed works, or those done in media that don’t have the audience or status others do. Subverting convention was not only acceptable a century ago, but necessary, and a certain amount of confusion and sticker shock were the price of art’s escape from stifling aesthetic standards. Academic art wasn’t wrong or bad, but the market conditions that restricted all art to a single model were, and breaking the rules was the only way to change them. But that said, a hundred years later, the avant-garde has diffused throughout art and lost its identity, if not its primary reason for shocking the dwindling art audience. The notion that transgression can still be a badge, however ironic, of authenticity, no longer makes sense. The question we may want to ask, instead of what harm is this doing, is what might a given medium gain from a challenge.
For example, this year the Best of Show award went to Jethro Gillespie’s “Tally Mark Quilt.” As the title unabashedly signals, Gillespie’s entry is neither a painting nor a sculpture per se, but a modestly innovative quilt. It’s hung on the wall here, which suggests a painting, but then again many quilts are showcased in this way, and it’s not clear what qualifies this one to be viewed differently. There’s nothing wrong with it as a quilt, and certainly not as a work of art. In fact, the use of the tally mark as an abstract means of quantifying events and qualifying experiences feels spot on, overdue even, and every bit as appropriate to art today as are the letters in Gary Barton’s gouache “Lexicons and Signals,” a torn-and-pasted collage offering the cerebral pleasure of discovering it’s actually painted and not assembled, or Susie Polychronis’ “I MOVE MY LIPS,” in which an emotionally plangent phrase appears with its stencil technique seemingly reversed, the stencil serving to stop out rather than dispense her paint. But, and I’m not just being a spoilsport here, those are actual paintings, achieved with a combination of painters’ tools, materials, and skills, and it’s presumed that the jurors who admitted them thought they brought some special quality not just to art, but to their medium as well. Awards are trivial to certain artists, but not to all. Some add name recognition to a resumé, others bring in cash. The Statewide can do both.
Let’s be clear that the question is not whether a monochromatic canvas can be a painting. Robert Rauschenberg settled that one in 1951, with his white paintings. The problem, or rather the vulnerability of this jury’s choice isn’t that Gillespie’s work breaks some no-longer-observed rules of painting. The problem is that its quality derives from and belongs to its being a quilt, and a better quilt than it is a painting, even as there are better paintings hanging around it. Consider Downy Doxey-Marshall’s excellent “Paisley Pond,” which was accepted but then ignored by the jury. Doxey-Marshall achieves what few modern painters (and no modern quilters) do, which is to grant her viewer control of the neurological marvel that is her aesthetic experience. From a distance, her canvas unambiguously shows up as a light-filled body of water in which various vegetation appears: some reflected, some refracted. Walk up close, though, and time and space transform it, so that it dissolves into clots and smears of viscous, colored oil. Back away, and watch again as paint dissolves like a moving-picture image, doing something humans cannot do any other way: restoring nature to its luminous and pristine, original condition. This is skill, on a level rarely seen but as admirable as ever, and newly relevant to our time.
It’s often said that the last great advance in aesthetic language was Cubism. True or not, the thought lends significance to Erin Berrett’s “Texaco,” in which the application of paint with a knife instead of a brush, so that streaks of color side by side replace a graduated field, brings her image up to the dividing line where optics yield to pixels, Ben-Day dots, posterization, and so many other graphic techniques. Here it’s possible to see two things at once: the rounded, shiny metal cans that are her subject and the slabs of tint and shade that reproduce them. Something similar, something paint can clearly do, happens in Laura Romero’s “Compadres,” where transparently deployed visual devices remind eye and mind of countless invisible components, each with its own requisites and even its own culture, at work behind the screen on which our reality is projected. By revealing her craft, she pays homage to the anonymous laborers who feed us.
Al Denyer’s calling her “meticulous marks” painting instead of drawing has more to do with their completeness as works of art than with the tools she uses to make them, but a case can be made that with her switch from paper to canvas, she’s aligned the scale of her marks and the texture of what supports them in much the same way as David Smith’s brushing paint on his last sculptures took them beyond hybrid terms like “painted sculpture” or “3-D paintings,” making them something altogether new. Like a medieval penitent trying to expiate sins through strenuous labor, Denyer spends uncounted hours making the smallest marks she can in order to beautify what came to her as images of mass destruction. The sensuous results don’t misrepresent the destroyed urban and natural settings that inspire them so much as they invert the mordant 20th-century photographer’s observation that Kodachrome II, the era’s most popular film, made even pollution beautiful. Her Aleppo Spectre series, which began with satellite images of the devastated ruins of one of Earth’s oldest inhabited cities, envisions the possibility of healing a wounded planet.
More self-consciously breaking down the discrimination between painting and sculpture has lent synergy to Lenka Konopasek’s powerful, yet often cool and efficient mastery of the medium of paper. For the organically seductive and ominous “Growth 2,” that paper was first painted black, so that when she tore shapes like blades of grass from it she doubled the number of torn edges: one of paper, one of paint. Standing before the result, one is likely to undergo a sense of shifting scale not unlike Alice’s in Wonderland: a feeling comparable to the promise, in Early Renaissance perspective paintings, of being able to walk right into the illusionistic space within the art.
There always will be a place in art for simple appearances, since art both begins and climaxes in the nexus of eye and mind. Cindy Stapleton’s still life of a dressmaker’s tape, “Measured Up,” recalls where every art student must begin, while Colby Sanford’s “Teaching of Light and Shadow,” despite its puzzlingly poor draftsmanship, carries the link between teacher and student across generations. But while just seeing can be enough to make art, it’s noteworthy how many artists also want to set the receptive mind on the journey from image to idea. The title of Jason Lanegan’s “Reliquary for the Evidence of Cheating,” a reverently crafted display case containing a bent pipe wrench, will probably puzzle anyone who doesn’t know that the extension on a tool to add leverage is called a cheater, while Stephen Wolochowicz’s “’Parts’ Blue Bulb” will frustrate all but the artist’s creative peers, who will enjoy conjuring up answers for its half-mechanical, half-organic mystery. And in “I Miss Everything About You,” Emily Dyer Barker puts not only the mind, but the body, cell phone, Internet, and heart to work recalling the pleasures and, ultimately, the pain of loving and losing something precious. It’s worth noting that notwithstanding five centuries difference between her digital technology, visual in only the most abstract linguistic ways, and Lexi Johnson’s oil paints in “Back When,” both artworks are able to evoke personal memories in ways general enough to reach, yet specific enough to move, their viewers.
Some artists voyage with equal determination in the opposite direction, from the idea to its visual elaboration. Joshua Graham’s “Veritas Natura” updates a Victorian map of the brain, in the process finding playful and aesthetically pleasing plant and animal stand-ins for human traits, while Lacee Black’s “Koi” further smudges the dubious dividing line between humans and nature. Two seemingly opposite takes on the impact of technology arise between Brian Jorgensen, whose “Geoscape” finds a face in a cataclysm that portends catastrophe on a global scale, and Erik Brunvand’s “Totem,” which could be said to say that the ominous darkness we fear is, after all, only our own shadow.
It’s not clear whether, in “Line,” Heather Stamenov went from image to idea or idea to image. Her image of nature as amusement park combines two familiar things into something ominous, adding another point to the argument that a work that has either an idea or an image cannot really avoid acquiring the other. As the Rio Depot continues its antique task of facilitating such reciprocating journeys, the art will continue to far outperform whatever we can say about it.
“UT ’17: Painting, Sculpture, & Installation,” featuring work by 69 Utah artists, Rio Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 12, 2018.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.