Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Fool Me Twice. Please.
The Gallery at Library Square
Edie Roberson is the sort of painter who would rather not settle for one accomplishment when she can manage three, or six, or so many that viewers may never spot them all, let alone count them, even as she makes an audience feel that far from showing off, she just wants to share the fun she gets from looking closely at things and seeing how they fit together. Contemplate, for example, the postcard announcing her expansive show of current and past work in the Main Library’s gallery. Titled “Little Women at the Stream,”|0| it looks on first viewing like a nature study, a close-up color photograph of water flowing over gravel and driftwood, bordered by stones and green plants, to which the artist has apparently glued four figures cut from art magazines. Three of them are Japanese woodblock fisherwomen, printed with black outlines delineating drapery across otherwise flat areas of color and pattern. Sharing the stream with them is Rembrandt’s wife Hendrickje, her shift hiked up to the point of compromising her modesty, painted realistically according to the style of her time—1654—but clearly made of oil. The scale matches perfectly, with the tiny reproductions just the right size to fit convincingly into the miniature landscape. But as the eye and mind come to an agreement that they will admire such accomplished collaging of three teasingly mismatched historical eras, each with its own appropriate medium and style, just then some dilatory mental organ chimes in with the belated realization that not only is none of this real in the conventional sense—that is, that it’s a picture—but the theorizing eye and brain were fooled twice. The entire scene was painted, convincingly enough to fool even professionals, by Edie Roberson.
The first level of Roberson’s art is her pure skill in rendering, where she shows how discipline frees the artist’s imagination, and a convincing likeness delivers a kind of power that mere suggestions cannot approach. The hand-addressed envelope pinned to a fragment of raw siding in “To Whom It May Concern” |1| may initially come off as a tour-de-force display of trompe-l’oeil rendering, but as the eye attempts to unravel the magic, crucial details like the price on the embossed stamp, the number of thumbtack holes, and extensive weathering penetrate one's awareness. This isn’t just a story the viewer doesn’t know: it’s a mystery. Resisting being seen as a picture while maintaining a feeling of restraint gives this and several larger works, including “Doors,” “The Dress,” and “Through the Window Into the Past,” an emotional charge, and for some a spiritual feeling, that such mundane and anonymous subjects wouldn’t ordinarily have.
There is a theory that humor comes about when frames of reference play each other for fools, and for every somber mood Roberson depicts she offers nine more lively vistas. In case we don’t comprehend her visual advice that we “Lighten Up,” she puts it in just so many words on the most intimidating of local symbols.|2| Her version of the Temple is a printed sheet-metal toy, complete with “STOP-GO” switch and a hand crank for turning out assembly-line weddings. All the details, from tourists with their cameras to birds nesting in the crenelations, are toys, with mold lines or joints emphasizing their bilateral symmetry, many sporting keys to wind them up. Anyone tempted to castigate the artist is likely to be flummoxed by the realism of the depiction: surely someone somewhere is making, or at least once manufactured during a Golden Age of Play, the original travesty that she has only copied.
The closer some things come to their boundaries, the more obvious those limits become. Realism, at least in Edie Roberson’s hands, is not one of them. Her imitation of three-dimensional reality becomes so real in places that when it crosses over one can’t be sure just what is what. Who hasn’t looked into a mirror or a glass paperweight and ached with the desire to penetrate those illusory spaces? For Roberson, one response was to craft her images in the round, creating scale models of the open road that she saves from qualifying for the natural history museum's collection of dusty dioramas by invoking the brush of Vincent Van Gogh. The most optically challenging, “A Woodland Ballad,” |3| actually wraps around a corner from one wall to another, and with its mix of illusionistic painting and actual trees presents such frustration to the eye that it ends up agreeing not to care whether the space is round or flat if it will just make a choice.
The composition of Roberson’s figures are just as important as their identities; there is more than one joke waiting for those who can tell a fragile celluloid doll, like the anxious Betty Boop in “Betty’s Jungle Walk,” |4| from the quartet of lead sportsmen (those thin rifle barrels would always get bent) who inhabit “Hunter’s Bad Dream.”|5| Searching the more densely populated scenes, like the two dozen or so characters riding the carousel in “And Around She Goes,” reveals delights hidden like Easter eggs: Harry Lime from the movie “The Third Man” riding the carousel, no doubt contemplating the Renaissance and the Cuckoo Clock.|6| Over at the Temple, Humpty-Dumpty sits on the surrounding wall. Meanwhile, the disparate sources of the women in “The Ladies’ Club” |7| and the men in “The Men’s Club” |8| transcend their differing features to give a sense of the way our individuality feels so much greater on the inside than it looks on the outside.
In addition to 35 paintings and painted models, there are four automata—mechanical models that come comically to life when a crank is turned. Each uses the necessarily repetitious action in some clever way to good effect: in a child’s nightmare, a doctor repeatedly stabs a needle into a boy’s arm.|9| A fledgling bird teeters on the edge of the nest and flaps its wings without ever taking the plunge. In the nearest thing to a self-portrait a painter limns a lad who punctuates her brush strokes by sticking out his tongue. Automata, like trompe l’oeil painting, possess an irreplaceable magic that, in spite of professional advances like the audio animatronic wonders to be seen at theme parks, is discovered anew by each generation and retains a status somewhere between folk art and the dispensation granted the fool in medieval courts.
Speaking of privileged status, the chance to see what amounts to a retrospective of a popular artist whose works are mostly in private hands, combined with new works that display an undiminished vigor and wit, makes a visit to the Main Library’s fourth floor gallery an opportunity not to be missed. Not only are there nearly forty significant examples of Edie Roberson’s wide-ranging skills, styles, and moods, but on June 26th the artist will appear in person to talk to the public. July 9th may sound like plenty of time, but things get waylaid in summer—or will if it ever arrives—and while the games she plays and the toys she plays with are more permanent than our own, even Edie Roberson can’t make them last forever.
Eclectic Paintings and Automata
Al Denyer . . . from page 1
Her coffee is brewed and Denyer now sits across from me where she relaxes with an easy sense of poise and begins to discuss her work in her charming English accent. Born in Bath, she spent most of her life in the south of England, earning a B.A in painting and drawing from the Winchester School of Art after which she worked for three years as an independent artist in Bristol. Then she began to consider graduate work and found exactly what she wanted from a program at Southern Illinois University. What finally brought her to Utah was an opportunity to teach (she is an Assistant Professor of art at the University of Utah) and focus on her career.
When Denyer begins to discuss her work it’s quite clear that she is passionate about her art, but her conversation is comfortable and inviting. Unlike some people, who can be overly dramatic when talking about their interests, becoming so animated they can overwhelm their listener, Denyer’s love for what she does feels like a very natural extension of who she is: grounded, articulate and approachable. She wants to have a conversation with her audience, one that will take place through her art, and like any good discussion it starts with an introduction.
At first glance her work may look like simple black squares. Denyer explains this is intentional and she hopes the viewer will catch sight of a shadow, a reflection or another detail that will compel them to look closer. It’s an invitation to continue the conversation at a deeper level. Upon closer examination the viewer is treated to an experience similar to the one I had when I first came in to the office. Complex details come in to focus and the eye travels over serpentine lines, taking a journey further in to the work. It’s almost hypnotic.
Denyer likes her work to communicate with the viewer on even more subtle levels. Another reason for the black paper is its reflective quality. To demonstrate this she goes over to her work table, picks up a red swatch, and holds it next to a work in progress. Next to where she holds the red swatch the paper has taken on a pink hue. Deliberate use of black paper allows the work to change depending on what angle it’s viewed from, or how it’s lit, and so the picture takes on a new look depending on who is viewing it and what she’s wearing. This adds to the potential for the viewer to have personal interaction with Denyer's work.
Another layer of Denyer’s art is interpreting the work. It doesn’t need to be literal because, true to the idea of a discussion, one's impression of the work is simply an answer or a response to what the artist has “said.” Denyer says people see a range of things in her work: a microscopic view of the organic lines found on skin, the fine textures of the bark on a tree, an aerial landscape.
“I’m creating this intricate dialogue of having an image that could be anything and challenging the viewer to understand. Primarily it is the aesthetic idea of how a visual language can make people think,” she says. “Everybody looks at art in different ways and I respect that from the viewer. For me there is obviously some subject matter, but they’re abstract pieces.”
In part that subject matter is drawn from a long-time interest in mapping, geography, and environmental issues. For some of her work Denyer references images of the earth’s surface taken from above: this includes everything from photographs she has snapped from airplane windows to pictures she finds through Google Earth, and she’s particularly drawn to weather patterns and landscapes. In some ways the Flow series, which is part of her upcoming show, is an artistic culmination of these interests, combined with the courses of rivers and how they create their own landscapes through erosion.
“To look at how a river changes is really quite fascinating, the twists and turns, how it interacts with different features in the land,” she says.
Denyer is also keenly aware of environmental issues as well as questions of ownership when it comes to rivers. She notes that by the time the Colorado River reaches Mexico it’s nearly gone and she questions who has the right to take it and what an enormous impact people have had on the flow of the river. This observation, she adds, can be applied to most rivers around the world.
The “Flow” series has given way to a new project that will debut at her next show. This time, instead of focusing on rivers as a broad subject, Denyer decided to zero in on one river in particular: the mighty Mississippi. The series follows the course of the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. She was drawn to it because of “the vastness of it, the sheer volume of water it carries.” She says this with a certain amount of reverence, which explains the disappointed tone in her voice when she adds, “the Mississippi is getting polluted because of human intervention and it’s not in a good place.” There is a quiet pause in our conversation while I consider this and with perfect timing she offers another insight in to her work. “They’re contemplative pieces in their nature.”
Indeed, there are multiple layers in Denyer’s work and the dialogue she wants to have through her art, which she describes as “quiet mysteries” that are yours to solve.