The Tom Waits song comes to mind. “What’s he building in there … With that hook light in the stairs/ What’s he building in there?” But it’s not really right, the association. There’s none of the foreboding of the Waits’ song in Steve Dayton’s works, now at Phillips Gallery. None of the threat we find in lines like, “I’ll tell you one thing/He’s not building a playhouse for the children.” Dayton really is building a playhouse, of sorts; or, rather, several of them, and they’re not just for the children.
The titles are something out of the Surrealists. “It Was on a Sunny Day and the Purple Dogs Were at It Again Cavorting Among Broken Buildings.” Though, with the Surrealists as well there was more than a touch of foreboding, especially among the Belgians. It’s all light and fun for Dayton. Punny. “The Great and Spacious Shed of Damocles Hangs Over Nine Moist Triple Decker Slices of Cake in Assorted Flavors”
He calls his constructions “absurd realities.” They are painted, carved-wood ensembles. Many are staged in a shadow box. Certain images, or items really, appear frequently enough to speak of a repertoire. There are paint cans: Dayton loves colors, especially “exaggerated colors.” Food and furniture are ubiquitous and often appear together: butter dripping on a chair is a motif that occurs more than once. Hands, often appearing from above, ring with an echo of Monty Python’s hand of God.
In a review of his show at Phillips two years ago, Ann Poore, touched on the biographical highlights. Since 1989 the graphic designer has been in West Jordan, where we can imagine him tinkering in the garage: sawing, hammering, gluing, painting. When he emerges, after a hard day’s work, in one of the Hawaiian shirts he likes to wear, his neighbors might wonder, “What’s he building in there?”
They can find out, through Mar. 11, at Phillips Gallery, though they when they leave, the still may be scratching their heads. Deciphering these works might be possible, though not necessarily preferable. In Dayton’s case, we might heed Susan Sontag’s advice, against interpretation, and just let them seep, like melted butter, into our consciousness. Just because the artist puts his works in a box doesn’t mean we should.
Steve Dayton, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 11
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.