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   October 2008
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Painting by V. Kim Martinez
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V. Kim Martinez . . . continued from page 1

I have frequently argued in 15 Bytes that taste in art is universally retreating from the extreme abstraction of mid- to late-twentieth century formalism and moving towards a new engagement with subject matter. Furthermore, as content is reintroduced to form, Utah artists, thanks to an unbroken regional tradition of representational art, have an advantage over artists elsewhere who have yet to achieve a competent level of craft. Why else would Disney, Pixar, and other leading animators recruit so heavily from Utah art schools? A department like Snow College's, with its emphasis on the twin development of drawing through observation and principles of good design, attracts students who seek the freedom and power that comes with the ability to create their own imagery: in essence to draw or make whatever they can imagine.

That doesn't mean, though, that the art market is preparing to support a reheated version of nineteenth-century academic art, or that blandly realistic illustration of literary subjects is the coming avant-garde. The audience will still hunger for subjects and experiences that haven't been represented before, and artists will still have to make the case, in a visual equivalent of rhetorical argument, for a connection between what they are doing and what preceded it, including not only academic art, but abstraction and the rest of Modernism's legacy.

That's where V. Kim Martinez's combination of traditional and new approaches fits in. First, her technique is absolutely classical, right back to Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the High Renaissance. Where many of today's artists are limited to photographing or downloading a model and modifying that image, Martinez uses her knowledge of anatomy and proportion to create and articulate original figures. She renders them believable through a sequence of drawings that explore the relation of skeleton and musculature to the skin and clothing they support. Then, using well-known genre conventions, she gives her figures the attributes of twenty-first-century fantasy heroes, complete with rippling muscles, exotic costumes, unique accessories, and dynamic poses. Finally, her command of oil painting technique allows her figures to appear as fully-realized, three-dimensional beings surrounded by open space. That they are isolated in that undefined space, curiously lacking either context or narrative predicament, means that while they make an indelible, mythic impression on the viewer's imagination, they remain nervously ambivalent. Poised, ready for battle, they are all dressed up, but in spite of their power unsure where to go.

Three things lift these Mujeres de Colores from the ranks of comic book art and carry them into the gallery. First, there is their scale. They are close to life-sized, which lends their vitality a more palpable impact. Second, their subject matter is women of color. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, it's one small step for someone who was raised by an Hispanic nanny, cared for by a Filipina nurse, or protected by a Black police officer to elevate these women to something like the status and recognition they so rarely receive in our flawed attempt at egalitarian society. And it will be a great leap for mankind when we learn to value each other for the actual contribution we make, rather than rewarding looks and name recognition to the exclusion of actual merit. And third, Martinez manipulates all the elements of her paintings to make a unified statement that is instantly readable in spite of its being completely unfamiliar.

Achieving this effect begins before even a single brushstroke is applied. Martinez has chosen to paint on sheets of aluminum, rather than canvas or wooden panels. The difference may sound subtle, but the visual difference is not. A flat and smooth surface allows her to paint a background that the eye cannot readily locate in space. In this way Martinez reverses one of the key characteristics of most modern painting. Ever since Courbet "invented" Realism around 1850, followed by Impressionism, Expressionism, and most of the other –isms, painters have used the texture produced by paint application to call attention to their presence and their part in the process or to add their own visual commentary to it. Yet many non-canonical arts, including posters, album covers, illustrations, and spray-can graffiti—let alone photographs, films, and computer art—now prosper without such self-conscious reference to their distance from reality, and there is a strong argument here that if texture is a tool in the artist’s box, its lack is just as valid and useful.

Martinez's women, instead of being located in a realistic setting, float in a light-filled space that lacks any specific reference to time or place, thus adding to their mythic status. The artist says she intends their lack of context to portray "repressed cultural memories and the imbalance of social and political power." At the same time, the bodiless background colors are intended to create a sense of anxiety and to promote recognition of the women's "impatience for social power structures to change." Whether these qualities operate on a conscious or an allegorical level, or whether they percolate through to viewers at all, the color choices add to the visual contrast between the appearance of open space and the illusion of heavy, massive bodies to produce an overall effect that exemplifies the popular meaning of "graphic." Within this context, a richly inventive array of decorative details—laces, fringe, stockings, garters, gloves, brassieres and their absence, jewelry, roller skates, eyeglasses, braids, helmets, beads, tattoos—combine with fully realized, individual features assembled out of the faces of women Martinez has known or glimpsed, and who have impressed her in one way or another, to create something like the fully-rounded characters found in literature. In a further act of necessary honesty, she makes them gnarly, lumpy, and aged: beautiful in a spiritual way, perhaps, but definitely not cosmetically. If they were easier to look at they might be easier to admire, but it would be for the wrong reason and a waste of paint.

Finally, there are the poses and actions they appear to undertake. The lack of setting or context works both for and against these warriors. It works for them in that their efforts can be imaginatively projected into any scene the viewer wishes. What works against them is the absence of any particular crisis or enemy to attack or defend against. Anyone who has ever taken on a bureaucratic opponent can sympathize with the difficulty of resisting situational adversity. But what makes them heroic is their universally active poses. These women may not be sure whom they are going to be dealing with, but they are fully engaged. In the adolescent patois of our movies and television, they are locked and they are loaded. They stand (sit, crouch, leap) ready for whatever comes.

If their audience's readiness to accept representation gives local artists an advantage, it comes with a price. In an era of unprecedented openness to representation of minorities and disadvantaged peoples, many Utah artists continue to focus on the stories of those who, while they were historically beset by adversity, are now the dominant culture and have been for over a century. It remains to be seen if this audience can shift its focus away from self-comforting and self-celebrating subjects and toward participation in the wider interests of an increasingly globalized art marketplace. One good indicator may be the reception the Mujeres de Colores of V. Kim Martinez receive. Partaking as they do of the attributes of modern, global, all-but universally popular culture, yet grounded as they are in an older, more specific cultural experience, their acceptance or rejection may tell us a lot about whether Utah's taste is ready to evolve in order to capitalize on its strengths.

Mujeres de Colores, new paintings by V. Kim Martinez, continues at Art Access Gallery through October 10.

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Art Happenings: Salt Lake City
Westside Stories
Bridge Over Barriers & The Urban Gallery
by Sheryl Gillilan

It may take years to finish, but one thing is for sure, BOB will be big – 22,000 square feet, to be precise. When completed, the Bridge Over Barriers, a tile mosaic being created under the 300 North I-15 overpass, will be one of the largest public art projects in Utah.

BOB, which began to emerge last month in the form of two finished pillars, can trace its nascence to the early 70's, when the construction of I-15 sent a concrete behemoth barreling through several Salt Lake westside neighborhoods. For thirty years now, this giant snakelike barrier has bisected this part of the city, especially between the Jackson and Guadalupe areas. A long freeway overpass, located at 300 North between 600 and 700 West, has particularly been a physical and psychological obstacle. Kids going to school must walk through its expansive shadows on a narrow strip of sidewalk, and the overpass looks intimidating even when traveling by car.

NeighborWorks Salt Lake entered the picture about five years ago. NeighborWorks is a non-profit organization that creates opportunities for people to live in affordable homes, improve their lives, and strengthen their communities. Located near the overpass, NeighborWorks discovered through talking to area residents that the viaduct was considered a real blight in the area and a literal and figurative barrier to open communication and interaction between neighborhoods.

Maria Garciaz, executive director of NeighborWorks, started to form the idea of a community art project on the overpass when she heard a presentation made by internationally known artist Lily Yeh, originally from China and now living in Philadelphia. Yeh has worked in Philadelphia for almost two decades to transform blighted neighborhoods through the power of community art projects.

After the presentation, Garciaz approached Yeh with the idea of getting a community-building project started with the overpass. Yeh agreed to provide consultation to the project and has since trained at least 12 local artists now overseeing work on the mosaic, including project coordinator Terry Hurst. Hurst, a writer/filmaker and co-owner of Mestizo Coffeehouse and Gallery, says, "This is not just an art project. This is a neighborhood-building project – the community needs to build it." Hurst estimates that by the time the project is completed, probably 6,000 – 8,000 people will have been involved.

To make sure ideas for the mosaic originated in the community, the artists spent three years going to churches, schools, and other organizations in the area of the overpass to collect ideas about what kinds of visual symbols would be most important to the residents. The concept was to have the different community groups bring in photographs, drawings, or objects that would distill the essence of who they were as an ethnic or collective group. These images were then coalesced by the artists and Yeh into a cohesive mural drawing.

The entire mosaic consists of three components: two rows of eight "bent columns" (pillars), two "bent-caps" (flat horizontal areas that run along the top of the columns on either side of the overpass), and two "concrete slope protection" areas (the angled slabs which stretch from the sidewalk to the underside of the freeway). To date, work is almost finished for seven of the columns and two have |0-1| been installed. The entire project is expected to take at least three years to complete.

The actual work to construct the column mosaics has been painstaking. In fact, the prototype column was rejected by the project coordinators because it wouldn't have survived Utah's extreme climate changes. The prototype was constructed from pieces of broken glass and dishes as a symbol of melding broken parts into a whole, but the artists had to switch to ¾ “ premade glass tiles as a more durable alternative.

The column art is being prepared in a large warehouse space donated to the project by Centro Civico Mexicano. The first step is for one of the artists to draw and then paint a layout design on a 10" x 10" piece of canvas which is duct taped to the floor. Next, myriad groups of volunteers from around the city drift through the warehouse space at different times to lay the tiles on the canvas. (Artist Paul Jakubowski |3| says he never knows what he'll find when he walks into the warehouse each week because of all the people who have worked on the mosaic in his absence, but adds, "I love this kind of community work!")

Once the tile layout is complete, sheets of tacky clear film are placed on top of the tiles to keep them in place. The sheets are cut into one-foot squares, then numbered and placed in a large plastic tub. Finally, the tub is taken to the actual column and glued to the surface row by row with the clear film still in place. After 24 hours, the film is removed, errant tiles are redirected, and grout is applied.

Hurst and Garciaz agree that this is not just a neighborhood art project, but one that is bringing its participants together in a common goal of bridging space between communities. Garciaz says, "We're really excited about this project because the images were designed by the stakeholders --the people who live in the neighborhood."

Funding for the project has been tenuous. NeighborWorks, the Utah Arts Council, the Utah Department of Transportation, and other organizations have donated money, but there's still a long way to go. Estimated hard costs for the project are expected to exceed $275,000. After the seven columns are installed (before frost hits the valley), Hurst says the project coordinators will take a step back to fundraise and plan the next phases of the project.

This Friday, October 3, you'll be able to visit the warehouse (155 South 600 West) where the project is being assembled as part of A Night of Art on the Westside. The Night includes a special opening at Captain Captain Studios, receptions at Mestizo Coffee House and Art Access, and the unveiling of the 337 Project's newest transformation of the urban landscape, the Urban Gallery at Neighborhood House (1050 W. 500 S.). The Gallery consists of eight site-specific paintings (the largest of which is approximately 12 feet high and 20 feet wide) that will be "hung" outside on the inside the frames of the garage doors at Neighborhood House, as well as two sculptural pieces and a wood panel for interior display (read more at the SL Weekly). Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon will unveil the 337 Project's Urban Gallery at 7 p.m.

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View of the northwest pillar of BOB
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