Exhibition Review: Ephraim
Peter Finnemore @ CUAC
by Geoff Wichert
The camera looks out through a small, square window set high in a wall overlooking some trees and what might be a garden run wild. Through it we see an odd figure shamble into view, walking away from us. His shapeless clothing and bucket-like hat hide any sense of what he looks like, nor can we see the object he carries before him in both hands. His movements are clumsy, and in no way prepare us for what happens next. Pivoting sideways, he drops what he is carrying and boots it backwards towards us with surgical precision. It’s what the kicker and his Welsh schoolmates call a football, but it might as well be a bomb as it comes straight towards us and ricochets around the window’s and the camera’s congruent frames. The scene goes dark, or we go blind. It’s as visceral a moment as I’ve ever experienced in a video, but once the shock passes my response is equally cerebral. Video, a medium that usually relies on the conventions of theatrical narrative, becomes something new in the hands of Peter Finnemore: something that can make you laugh or make you wonder if it’s for real. Then it gets under your skin, but by then it’s too late.
In the 1980s, when Painting was declared dead (the funeral was reported to have been held in New York), the leading candidate for its replacement was probably Video. It wasn’t just that videos came closest to directly updating paintings, bringing one of the oldest arts into the modern age by the addition of motion, sound, and the apparatus of cinematic narrative that had become central to cultural consciousness. Video also displayed fewer of the limitations and had less prejudice to overcome than any of its apparent competitors. Photography beckoned, but western art hadn’t spent centuries learning to make imaginary pictures look real in order to accept dictation from a mechanism. Installation, meant to reunite the space inside the art with that outside and eliminate the frame, showed instead that the frame protects the art from the world, not the other way around. Performance is too ephemeral: if you can’t be there, it may as well not have happened. The same limitations apply to works erected in remote places or of intangible materials. Duchamp was right about commerce being the secret vice of art, but just because the engine is flawed doesn’t mean you can get along without it.
The advent of iMovie and the Internet have only strengthened the position of video, opening up a whole gamut of approaches to a wider audience while bringing the circumstances of art making ever closer to the moment of presentation. Two internationally recognized video artists currently on view in Utah showcase a range of results in this rising medium. Bill Viola, whose Ascension can be seen at the Salt Lake Art Center, will be discussed here next month, after another installation by the artist, The Quintet of Remembrance, opens at the University of Utah on March 2. For this month, we look at Peter Finnemore, a Welsh nationalist and photographer whose collection of videos, while not much more substantial than so many home movies, made a noise at the Venice Biennale last year, and who has taken over the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim through February 22.
Finnemore createsinstalls in the galleryspaces wherein to show his films. This space outside the films is made up of the same thematic material he presents inside them. His characters all dress entirely in matching military surplus uniforms: camouflage fatigues (formless shirts and trousers) and matching hats with wide, pulled-down brims. The gallery is divided by swaths of camouflage netting into a variety of theatershere a cave, there a tent with no doorwherein at least four of his apparently unrehearsed and supremely droll films run simultaneously, visually separate but with their soundtracks mixing in continuously shifting auditory chaos. It’s like the sound of the battle in the next auditorium that percolates through the walls of the multiplex during the love story you chose to watch instead. Some films are projected on a large screen or the gallery wall, while others are seen on a computer monitor or TV set. Between them, at random intervals, the walls are ornamented with silhouettes of Finnemore and his cat as they appear in the videos, these cut from the same cloth as the uniforms.
The cat steals the show. This is part of Finnemore’s point. As the artist explained during the inaugural lecture of Snow College’s new Visiting Artist program,* he finds in camouflage a kind of penetrating synchronicity: the alignment of the image of the Green Man, the ancient European avatar of Nature, with the human propensity for organized violence. Finnemore stalks the cat behind sheets hung to dry, shooting it with fingers held in the manner of a movie spy. The cat stands with elaborate disinterest and walks away. The artist and his actors, the seven or so members of his extended family, are human beings trying to act naturally. As such, they are inept amateurs. The cat is the pro.
Wrong choices are a running gag that emerges as a theme. Finnemore says he freely allows, even deliberately pursues, dumb ideas. He tries not to second-guess himself or, as he put it, to think about his work. Improvisation and the withholding of explicit direction from him are important techniques. A portable greenhouse appears in several films. In one, his entire cast squeezes into the space, dancing in uniform to disco music in the confined space while ignoring the open green space just beyond the glass, their entire individuality channeled into the known repertoire of current dance steps. In another, children take stones from their pockets and throw them at the glass house until all the glass is shattered, then just walk away.
Finnemore has a sharp sense of humor that he applies liberally, with an ambiguity that might be compared to the multiple layers of transparent glaze painters use. The longer you look, the deeper you see. Superficially these brief films, which one viewer compared unfavorablyaccurately soto America’s Funniest Home Videos, have an affinity with the Jackass movies and other guilty, end-of-civilization pleasures. Peer a little deeper and you may find some scorching social satire, covering the same topics as most of Hollywood’s recent comediesrock stars, mass recreation, our fantasy livesbut doing so in broader, less specific ways and with more memorable images. Then there are the artist’s hints about the Green Man, a figure that represents the merger of nature and humanity. The most beautiful moment Fennimore captures, the one that achieves the combination of awe and terror that the Romantics called the sublime, takes place when he lights his shed on fire and it burns to the ground in a maelstrom of wind and light. This might be the bitterest joke of all. To paraphrase Walt Kelly, We have met the enemy and it is us.
I originally thought to end this meditation on Peter Finnemore not by quoting a cartoonist, but with the words of Hannah Arendt, who reframed so much with her eloquent phrase: the banality of evil. But just as a joke can only take so much explanation before the humor is gone, so Finnemore’s art has a fragile whimsy and good will that can’t bear too much heavy-handed explication. An attempt to elicit from the artist some commentary on his invocation of van Gogh, in a video called "The Potato Eaters (the Musical)," foundered when the bridge proved both too obvious and too fey to carry the weight. It would be mean-spirited to point out too many flaws in what was never meant to be monumental in the first place. Like any florescence of spontaneitylike improvisational theater or sketch comedyFinnemore’s ideas are often thin and carrying them out often runs too long. In the future it will all be passé, last year’s thing. But right now it captures much that makes the present moment, and if you miss it, it will be too late. I wish I knew the Welsh equivalent of this, but I don’t, so: Be there, or be square.
* The Visiting Artist Program at Snow meets every Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in room 122 of the College’s Humanities and Arts building and is open to the public. For schedule information consult the school’s website at http://www.snow.edu/~art/ or contact the director, Amy Jorgensen, at (435) 283-7408.||
Curtis Olson @ Phoenix Gallery
by Shawn Rossiter
Multi-media artist Curtis Olson has returned this month to Park City’s Phoenix Gallery with an eagerly anticipated exhibit entitled Earth and Sky. Olson has become a forceful draw for the gallery since he began showing there in 2003 as collectors have become fascinated with his contemporary evocations of the western landscape.
Though Olson has spent time on both coasts he studied architecture at the University of North Carolina and pursued his career in that field in San Francisco it is the West that is at the heart of his work. He grew up in the West -- in Idaho and Montana -- and it is to the West -- in his current residence outside of Jackson, Wyoming -- that he has returned. Olson moved to Wyoming over a decade ago, and it was there that his successful and award-winning career as an architect began, slowly, to give way to his life-long passion and current vocation as an artist. Since devoting himself fulltime to painting in 2002, Olson has been represented in numerous shows in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, and he has garnered a number of awards, including a Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship in 2004. Most recently, he was selected as the official artist for the 2006 Jackson Hole Film Festival.
Olson’s experience of the West is central to his work; but that doesn’t mean you’ll see traditional “western art” at the Phoenix Gallery exhibition. “I try to avoid playing up the Myth of the West,” Olson says, “though the art market really pushes one in that direction.” Olson’s hometown of Jackson is full of galleries propping up a myth of the West full of cowboys, Indians and majestic vistas. Olson, however, is interested in exploring and evoking in his paintings the West he has come to know in his many travels. “’The Landscape Memory’ pieces are based on my photographs of actual places,” Olson says of his group of works that feature quiet black and white images embedded in textured, abstract grounds. “I see this as much different than what traditional Western Landscape and Wildlife painters have done for hundreds of years, which is to create a fantasy world that does not exist.”
Olson’s photographs, taken from hours of scouring the landscape, are the visual anchors for his abstracted visual explorations. In his travels, he takes photographs of iconographic images of the West. Often these are lonely views: old barns, a lonely tree, abandoned farming equipment. While he is on location, Olson takes notes on color and mood, and uses these to develop his works when he returns to the studio. The starkness of his lonely, monotone photographs is dramatically set off by the thickly textured and vibrantly hued fields of color that constitute the majority of his works’ space. Here Olson is able to fully vent his artistic expertise in an attempt to evoke the experience of the landscape rather than merely give the viewer an image of it. He does so with a variety of materials, including metal, plaster, dyes and wax, as well as objects found on location.
The found objects in Olson’s work, often rusted metal scraps, are a manifestation of the artist’s thematic interest in “Wabi-Sabi,” the Japanese aesthetic worldview that finds beauty in the natural processes of life, impermanence, imperfection and the unpretentiousness of a rustic existence. "My intention is to capture an essence or a feeling of a specific place,” the artist explains. “I think of the ‘lonleyness’ of the western landscape. I am drawn to the solitary objects sitting in the land - a tree, an old shack etc.” The result in Olson’s work are pieces that use the western landscape not as a place of theatrical awe but as a source of meditation, creating a sense of melancholy and longing that turns the viewer inward.
Olson’s first solo show in Utah was at the Phoenix Gallery in December 2004, where he introduced his “Landscape Memories.” He returned last year with another successful exhibit, “Faults, Sins and Dirt,” and the gallery looks forward to displaying his new work. Judi Grenney, owner of Phoenix Gallery, notes that Olson’s works have resonated strongly with their clients. Olson’s work, she says, has “a rare combination of contemporary and rustic qualities that has wide appeal.” This appeal has frequently outmatched Olson’s ability to provide the gallery with his labor-intensive paintings. “That's part of what makes his shows so exciting,” Grenney says. “Many of his collectors have been waiting since the last show to add to their collection."
In Earth and Sky these collectors will find plenty of what they have enjoyed in Olson’s work in the past, but they will also be treated to a new series of paintings. “I am tending to use my photos less and less,” the artist says of his newest body of work. “This liberates me to concentrate on the pure unreferenced abstraction.” Though he is concentrating more on the abstracted qualities of his work, Olson’s pieces are still inspired by the West. From the images of the land Olson has turned his gaze skyward. In Earth and Sky, Olson will be debuting a new series of works inspired by maps of the stars. “I reference the horizon in each piece,” Olson says, “and then play off an abstracted ‘star map.’” In addition, four of the artist’s “Prayer of the Sun and Moon” pieces will be on display.||
Earth and Sky is at Phoenix Gallery through February 13th.