Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

With “Formal Elements” Modern West Foregrounds Three Artists Who Clarify Its Mission

Lenka Konopasek, “Spectacle,” oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

Lenka Konopasek, a Utah artist who emigrated to Utah from the Czech Republic, has documented disasters in her art involving humans and nature in many ways: tornados, mega storms, explosions, fires, even personal accidents; and yet when Modern West Gallery invited their artists to submit work concerned with the current environmental crisis — a show in August, 2021, called simply Earth — she chose a wall-size image from her body of paper sculptures: one in which hundreds of abstract, bird-like shapes flock over the wall in a seeming multitude: an energetic, swirling display that seemed to foretell continuing fertility in nature. On coming closer, though, a viewer could read the work’s title: “Swarm,” a word that most often describes overwhelming numbers — plagues even — of insects. Alternative uses gather earthquakes, meteors, and journalists ( ! ). In other words, the work of art perched on the razor’s edge between glorifying nature and acknowledging it as a threat.

More recently, in December of 2022, the gallery invited Arlo Namingha, a Tewa-Hopi artist from Santa Fe, to show one of his reductionist sculptures: a piece in three parts titled “Clouds #5.” The sheer physicality of the Indiana Limestone from which he had carved it, it’s gray color expressive of clouds, even as its shapes had more to do with the behavior of clouds than with their familiar shapes, made it a stand-out call for viewers to pay more attention to nature and take less for granted.

Eric Overton, “Shiprock #2,” 2021, Ambrotype 10 x 8 in.

These two art works came strongly to mind when the gallery announced it would invite their makers to join a third, also less-often seen Modern West artist, Eric Overton. A sculptor who has mastered the arcana of Ambrotype photography to use in capturing the Western landscape in a way appropriate to the time when these monuments were first photographed, Overton has displayed a large image in the gallery and circulated others in portfolios. In showing these three artists together, in greater depth, the current exhibition, Formal Elements, is intended to foreground the Gallery’s restatement of its original mission: to showcase contemporary art that celebrates the way the historical American West retains its unique identity as it enters a new era.

As part of being artists that the gallery’s director, Shalee Cooper, wants to bring forward, each of these three has a body of work that reaches back into the past, but also looks ahead, technically and in subject matter, to the future. Overton, for example, employs photographic techniques that date back to the era of western exploration: the Ambrotype, which was invented in 1854 to replace the daguerreotype, uses the same less toxic, more durable chemistry as the tintype, but on glass instead of metal. This allows the present-day photographer greater flexibility, in part because it can be seen and printed through, but also due to the way the wet chemicals are applied to the plate on site, so the artist can adapt the technique to the subject. For Overton the sculptor, this means he can emphasize three-dimensional textures, such as are seen in the skies of several of the works at Modern West. He can also manipulate chemistry and light to produce those amazing areas of shadow that seem almost to threaten the light. In the early days of photography, one technique tended to entirely replace what went before. Now, however, artists are able to combine positive traits from a range of approaches, and so literally bring the wet plate into the computer age.

Arlo Namingha clearly has a strong affinity for the formal power of his preferred limestone: its even, soft gray color, keen response to tools, and its variety of palpable, expressive surface qualities allow him to speak beyond the range of language — and without its limits. In “Four Directions,” an overall square shape — evocative of the observation that out West is the only place where the states are square — encompasses four related shapes, each turned to its own slightly varying angle of view. But he also uses other materials equally effectively. In his “Cultural Forms” and “Cultural Elements” series, the shaped, slotted, and polished stone wraps around wooden objects the way the right words might wrap around concepts or experiences. In the “Mother Earth” series, carved, polished, and laminated slabs of wood variously suggest the exposed layers of rock laid down over millions of years, then exposed and eroded over millions more. This is one of the oldest and yet most progressive trends in sculpture: using non-representational forms to lend ethical ideals and conceptual premises a material presence.

Arlo Namingha, “Cultural Forms 1,” 2021, indiana limestone zebra wood, 7.5 x 9.5 x 6 in


Arlo Namingha, “Eclipse,” 2017, Indiana limestone, 15 x 19.5 x 5 in

Lenka Konopasek is one artist who needn’t justify her reliance on photography, since many of her subjects would not be available any other way. Burning oil platforms or a suburb being literally torn to bits by a tornado are not things one can sketch the way Turner did the burning Houses of Parliament in 1834, when he remade painting into a modern art. But opportunity and personal safety are not the only things the camera provides. In her rodeo paintings, Konopasek inverts some hues, inserts false colors, softens focus, freezes motion blur, and reverses chroma and light values to produce a dazzling range of visual effects. In “Spectacle,” both the horse and falling rider pop out from the scenery as though they were in a different dimension. In “Big Bronco” and “Bronco 2,” paint handling suggests an X-ray. These are not arbitrary effects; they work with the captured, active poses of horse and rider to counter the viewer’s acquired assumption that a man falling off a horse is something too familiar to note. Konopasek restores the drama to something we are over-exposed to, just as she does to fires, building collapses, and other scenes from the evening news. The black-shirted man on a white background, rolling backwards off his horse in “Lay Back,” and the white shirt-wearing cowboy flying before a black sky in “Rodeo Bull” could easily be taking their last rides, and these images turn those moments into memorable visions. As canned sights go on displacing experience and spectacles replace the visibility of natural events, while those in control isolate themselves from those they have abandoned, it will be increasingly up to artists to provide the humor, the beauty, the terror, and the truth being drained from everyday lives.

It could be said that Formal Elements constitutes a statement of faith: of the belief that the West, in all the ways it has come to mean an alternative, a separate space, a place apart, still has something to show a nation, and perhaps a world, that hungers to feel important. If the modern West can offer creative visions of how the future should be seen, wouldn’t it be impertinent not to look?

Lenka Konopasek, “Bull 1,” oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.


Formal Elements, Modern West, Salt Lake City, through May 5

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