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 November 2010
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Trevor Southey . . . from page 1

The 1,100 Utahans who pressed into the UMFA for the opening certainly made it feel like a blockbuster. Even more striking was the way they moved almost reverently through the galleries, talking quietly to friends, but then were suddenly moved so strongly that they spoke to complete strangers with confidence, the way one does in church. This artist was so popular with these people that it was difficult to imagine how his pious and skilled images could actually ever have caused offense in person. Accepting uncritically for a moment the restrained, academic character of the paintings, prints, and sculptures that met the eye, it was possible to say that there is, at present, no artist in Utah—and few beyond—who brings to the work the sheer plastic power that Southey has reveled in for decades. The human figure, in which he excels, is thought a truer test of ability than landscape or nature studies, but because Southey’s figures so often display outward signs of inner suffering, his uncanny talent often shows itself more clearly in subjects that are less open to empathy: dogs, plants, even canned fruit.

While today’s art students are encouraged to express their own feelings through muscular release, Southey’s practiced control allows him to reveal truths about the object of his gaze. When a modern artist looks at a thing and sets out to limn its contours, the weight he gives his line and the proportional distortion he permits express his feelings, his values, his responses. In earlier art and that of so-called anachronisms like Southey, those individual gestures encode into the marks made facts not otherwise visible or captured. They fool the eye into seeing space and time. They capture specifics of shape and surface texture that distinguish specific instances from general patterns. They suggest context and connect subjects to it. The result is a certain density of drawing, a web of marks redolent of the effort and energy used in making them that, while part of the drawing, reach out of it in the direction of original incarnation. Putting this into words, we say the image seems to breathe, to live, to have a soul, to be present. It’s not the accuracy of a photograph, but the truth of a mental image.

Thanks to cognitive science, it is no longer a secret that this way of drawing is even more a way of seeing, one that few of us ever learn to use even though we can see it when done by someone else. The evidence suggests that Trevor Southey saw this way from very early in his life, but ironically this ‘evidence’ per se is rare because Southey never developed the intermediate practice of preparatory drawing. Most of his drawing is done directly on the canvas and ends up covered by the brushwork of his paintings. With the exception of a few drawings in the second room, such as a meticulous torso or the uncanny "Skull" from 1976, the clearest sense of his draftsmanship is found in prints like the six nature studies in the third room. About these rooms: they are laid out chronologically, but the sequence is thematic rather than strictly calendrical. The works in the first room, which recollect his childhood in Africa, date from years later. The next room recalls his early preoccupation, as a convert to the L.D.S. faith, with eternal life. The bronzes that begin there display the same thorough working knowledge of anatomy visible throughout career and gallery, along with the reticence that marks the other pole of Southey’s aesthetic vision.|1|

The third room, as befits the realism of maturity, documents Southey’s retreat from immortality to the mundane challenges of living. He acquires a farm and a family. Two of these, "Eden Farm" |2| and "Comfort Waiting," |3| diagram the danger of getting what you want. In "Eden Farm" the wife, child, and cow represent apparent success, while on the opposite wall, one sees the reality. It’s a diptych, split between the family on the left and the artist on the right. In place of the neutral facial expressions he regularly chooses, here he presents himself devastated and more: shocked, his face livid with dread. It’s a portrait of a man who realizes he has committed himself to living a lie. In the fourth room, its theme taken from the painting that names the entire show—"Reconciliation"—Southey finally takes up the question of whether one can lie to his fellow men without also lying to God.|0| Here religious subjects like "Prodigal" |4| and "Samaritan" reappear, but without the conflict posing two male nudes together gave him in the earlier bronze, "Brother’s Keeper."Here, the twin bronze figures of "Sleep and Sleep,"|5| one nude and the other shrouded, hint at biological truths that were left out during a more theological phase.

Viewing these four rooms raises a question. Simply put, why isn’t Southey better known? Did he spend his best years trying to please an audience that wasn’t ready to recognize the universal human condition that lay concealed within his more narrow, personal struggle with his sexuality? Did the distortion in his development, rendered visible here by Dave Christensen’s presentation, do him permanent injury? In the beginning one sees a spiritual vision not unlike William Blake’s, except that unlike Blake, Southey could draw . . . especially anatomy, which he handles with both consummate knowledge and grace. But after some painful rejections, his figures began to withdraw into the paint itself, and while he learned to make a virtue out of drapery, which had rarely been so glorious since the High Gothic, he seems to lose conviction. Lighter colors, in both senses, become veils behind which his figures simultaneously hide while struggling to show their glory.

In the fifth room, the anatomy that had retreated comes forward, in focus and in front of the draperies. One can imagine that the Greek art of painting, lost entirely to us for almost two thousand years, looked like this. The strong sense of having finally become himself, who he really is, has to do with Southey’s eventual acceptance of his homosexuality, but it is nowhere near that simple. Michelangelo was probably homosexual, and his women are brutes. Caravaggio may have been gay, but his men are as far from ideal as his women. The Nikes and Aphrodites that survive in Greek marble, though, are every bit as beautiful as the males. And so are Trevor Southey’s women: closely observed, they are competent, budding, full of promise. But at the same time as he shows them, he protects them. Only "Vyacheslav" seems to step forth from the paint that surrounds him, the intimacy of his first name matched by the casual self-revelation of his pose, the composition directing our attention unmistakably to how, for the first and last time in this exhibit, sexual anatomy is depicted with the candor of optical clarity.

What held Southey back, finally, wasn’t the immodesty of his anatomical candor, nor his sexuality, nor even his un-modishness. I would argue that it was his choice to paint as if the Baroque never happened. His images turn away from theatrical drama set on an elaborate stage set, ultimately not to present a timeless, endless world of static values, but to chart the struggles that roil almost invisibly beneath even the most placid-looking exteriors. While he strongly rejected the slack, dispassionate images passing for religious art that he saw on his arrival in the US in 1965, he remains a close observer of the turmoil within the individual. Rather than events and their consequences, it is expressions and especially postures through which he wants us to read his subjects’ fates in the moment. His great theme, which took him decades to uncover, is not the generous, spiritual instincts that lead people to form communities and undertake efforts on each other’s behalf, but rather the way that such positive impulses are twisted into greed, destruction, suffering, and despair. “Bludgeoned by the beliefs of those who are absolute in their certainty of right,” he has written, “I believe we are first lost unto ourselves, and then gradually unto our fellows.” The oddly calm faces that stare out from even his portraits observe us and are resigned, not disinterested. Encountering them in his art we, with them, simultaneously recognize the human potential to do good and are asked the question—Why do we hurt each other instead.

It’s a question rooted in the atrocities of World War Two and the Apartheid system, both formative experiences of his earliest years, but which he came to see later in places he had admired and hoped to escape to: nature, religion, and in a new homeland. To have begun life in colonial South Africa and lived to see racism and ignorant reaction seemingly follow him to America must have seared his soul. Look closely: it’s all there in black, white, and vivid color swirling across emotionally intense canvases that capture our moment the way great painters have always done.

Gallery Spotlight
The House Has Found a Home
Julie Dunker's gallery comes of age in a new downtown location

What started out as a “Livingroom” in Holladay is now a “House” along 400 South in the former L. Lorenz Knife Shop.

Although the House Gallery has only occupied its current space for a few months, owner Julie Dunker celebrated the gallery's one year anniversary in October. As with other well-known Salt Lake galleries that have barely, yet successfully weathered the recession and managed to stay in business over the years, the House Gallery's future seems to be solid.
“That says a lot about the dedication of the art supporters in Utah,” says Dunker, “I think now is a great time for contemporary art in Salt Lake.”

An artist herself, Dunker’s House Gallery specializes in contemporary art. “My goals with the gallery were to focus on the sale of highly collectable artworks. I am trained as an abstract painter and this is where most of my knowledge base is. However, I do know quite a bit about photography and ceramics and have contacts that can assist me in this regard as well. I would also be happy to help collectors who might want to talk about more classic styles of art and possibly find resources for the expansion of collections- proper storage- re-sales, appraisals, etc.”

Dunker has spent much of her life in school. She has four college degrees having attended Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, the University of New Mexico and Claremont Colleges. She grew up in California in a family of artists and it was after her first college degree when she spent time in Paris, Barcelona and Basel that she became 100% dedicated to the visual arts. As a studio artist, she didn’t necessarily plan on opening a gallery, but she enjoyed the community that surrounds the education system that she continued to pursue that in addition to her personal artwork.

“I lived in Holladay and was looking to be a part of the art community in addition to the long hours I spent painting in my studio. I received a ton of support from artists that I knew who were very interested in coming to Utah and exhibiting in a contemporary space here.”

She opened the Livingroom Gallery in her Holladay home, exhibiting monthly. Earlier this year she moved the gallery to the basement of the Peery Hotel and renamed it House Gallery. But she knew the less-than-ideal space would only be temporary and says her gallery has finally found its home in its 400 South location.

Enter the House Gallery in Salt Lake
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The House Gallery gets a good mix of locals and tourists. 400 South gets a lot of walk-in traffic, being close to restaurants and other hip stops such as the Blond Grizzly and the Green Pig. Immediately through the door is the main exhibition space where the featured artist’s work can be seen. It’s not as big as other galleries you might be familiar with but it is suitable for Dunker’s purposes. She compares the space to the Agnes Martin Chapel in Taos: “Both spaces are small, yet very effective in conveying the concepts behind the work” she explains. “If the gallery were to be any larger I think it would consume all my time and limit my time in the studio making my own work.”

When asked if the smaller size of the gallery affects her curatorial decisions, Dunker says “I limit the size of the work to what will fit through the front door – however, there are ways to bring in large scale work and have it assembled once inside the gallery.”

Dunker’s main motivation behind her curatorial decisions is collectability. She is interested in work that will increase in value over time “I ask myself if I would be happy to have the work in my personal art collection- is the work visually exciting and intellectually challenging. Then I look to see if the work is well constructed- will the art work stand the test of time. Will the work maintain its integrity after many years of hanging on a wall in someone’s home or office? Also, I consider how the artist works with the gallery. Will the artist continue to promote their work and continue to be supportive of what is happening in the SLC contemporary art scene?”

The gallery has a stable of artists including are Matt Jones, Jon Coffelt, Allan Ludwig, Kay Tuttle, Charles Fresques, Lisa Adams, Emilie Duval, Jan Wurm, and Kadar Brock. Dunker schedules shows two years out and has a strategic plan for ensuring the gallery’s success. She has ideas to bring in film and performance and is excited to see how some of her artists can incorporate these ideas into the space.

In October the gallery was filled with the monochromatic abstract works of Matt Jones. Hung closely together so that they seemed to overwhelm the narrow space, the paintings were gatherings of intertwined lines, crosshatched marks and fluid washes. In November the gallery presents Jon Coffelt's Cosmos, a collection of non-objective paintings that radiate outwards from a central mark, creating a sense of motion, in works described as an investigation of time, space, singularity and togetherness.

With any luck and the community’s support, you can count on a similar new exhibit from the House Gallery each month for years to come.

House Gallery's Julie Dunker


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