Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Collaborations by Cassandra Barney and Brian Kershisnik at Kayo
For some time now I’ve been thinking about something that, in the privacy of my mind, I call “the Utah School.” This assortment of local artists—their precise number varies—display common concerns and make similar choices in their works: sufficiently so that a curious critic might look for some shared influence beyond the obvious. Unlike the Cubists, but like the Impressionists and Fauves, these artists have in no way unilaterally identified themselves as sharing particular tastes or strategies. They remain, so far, a phenomenon that primarily exists only in a critic’s eyes. So when rumors of collaboration between two of the primary candidates for Utah School membership—Cassandra Barney and Brian Kershisnik—reached my ears, they pricked up. On the one hand, this could be the first signs of something emerging. On the other hand, it could be just two artists who know each other’s work and are looking for a new outlet; art, after all, is also a business. I felt I needed to get over to the Kayo Gallery’s new space (next door to their old digs near the corner of East Second and Broadway), where Drawing Together, twenty-five of their collaborative, mixed-media drawings, is on display through August 11. The title alone is provocative: it could be a literal description of what took place, or it could be a gentle pun. Either way, it opens possibilities for the future.
Dates for the onset of Modernism run all the way from 1200 to 1940. Modern visual arts arguably begin to take shape around 1850, contemporary with the invention of photography. The bath water of elaborately hand-made, extreme realism that was thrown out then has been followed since by many babies, including beauty, skill, discernment, and good taste. Another of the victims was collaboration between artists. It’s ironic to hear critics talk about how ‘huge’ today’s artworks are, as if St. Peter’s in Rome hadn’t been the world’s largest building, or Angkor Wat didn’t occupy over 200 acres. If anything, the slow growth in size of today’s art is testimony to the gradual disappearance of the shibboleth against collaboration. But of all the art media, the last ones to permit artists to work together are the most intimate, including of course drawing.
There were some negative comments about what finally showed up on the walls at Kayo: comments focusing on the fact that what’s here are ‘just drawings.’ While it’s true that as finished works of art, drawings are perceived as lesser works than the paintings they may turn into, there are several qualities that make these more compelling. First of all, because of their ‘skeletal’ condition, the contribution of each artist shows up more clearly, and viewers who know them individually can gain insight into how each proceeds from a given stage to a necessary next step. For another, even a professional who views their works regularly can be fooled into seeing more similarity than actually exists. Seeing Barney and Kershisnik in the same frame makes it impossible to overlook their differences. And studying just how they found a way to work together says something about how their works normally take shape.
Apparently, there was little conversation and no overt planning between the two artists. Rather than hammer out an idea that they then executed, each began by drawing on a blank sheet of paper. At some point, those sheets were exchanged. Sometimes one left a space in the composition for the other to fill. At others, a sketch centered on the page was handed off, possibly for the addition of a background or other details. In any case, differences remain that would almost certainly have been smoothed over during the many hours it takes to take a painting to a finished state.
Among the most popular prints of M.C. Escher is one of two elaborately-rendered, illusionistic hands poised side by side, each holding a stylus with which it is adding the line-drawn, preliminary version of the other’s wrist. Escher’s version takes its cue from the yin-yang figure: both hands are identical but reversed with respect to each other. Barney and Kershisnik, perhaps inevitably, made several drawings on the same theme, but with each drawing the other’s figure. While the idea may seem obvious, a philosopher could have a field day with the possibilities: one artist could draw both, combining a self-portrait and a portrait; each artist could draw a self-portrait; each artist could draw a portrait of the other. Since the subject could be the way I would draw it, or it could be the way I think my collaborator would, the number of possibilities is at least doubled. To me, it appears that the large drawing contains two self-portraits; in the smaller one, I think we have Barney by Kershisnik and vice-versa. Anyone else care to venture a guess?
This is one case where familiarity with the artists’ biographies can help see their differences. Cassandra Barney comes from an arts background. During childhood she was regularly exposed to art museums. Her trajectory was from child of artist to an artist in her own right. Her work reveals a trained hand in the way the varying weight of her sinuous line renders three-dimensional information, or the Leonardo-like angles she likes for posing a head. Brian Kershisnik’s background, comparatively speaking, was that of a layman. Although he did turn to the formal study of art in college, his trajectory since has been opposite to the academic tradition that Barney may not actively pursue, but cannot entirely expunge. In other words, while one of the characteristics of the Utah School might be an affinity for Byzantine-style and weightless figures, Barney’s figures rest lightly on the ground, while Kershisnik’s tend to float, as though indifferent to gravity. His line is also far more architectonic than hers.
Once these cues are sorted out, it’s almost irresistible to imagine narratives of how the final images came about. In point of fact, both these artists seem to enjoy hinting in their artworks that there are stories the images escaped from. In one large drawing, titled "Mom Is In a Hole," Dad—a Kershisnik male—and Mom—a Barney woman—both eye an infant, he cautiously and she with rapture. The really interesting thing is that while he sits on a vague ground, she appears to be naked and buried up to her armpits. The remarkable thing is that the parts work so well together, as if a single mind had been in charge from the outset. Furthermore, if the precise visual reasoning is open ended, it’s no more so than might be expected from either artist working alone.
The difference between illustration and art is that, in the latter, the final goal isn’t known until it’s reached. This show might have proved the futility of artist’s collaborating, but in works like this, where the first mark has been followed by another, and another, until the unified, irresistible image appeared to first one, then the other artist, and now to anyone who cares enough to look, there is proof that collaboration, like collage, prepared ground, Exquisite Corpse, or any of a host of other techniques, is a valid way of making art.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Limits of Imagination
Gia Whitlock at 15th Street Gallery
How does one harness the imagination to the point where it traverses the divide between a free flow of excessive creativity and provocative fine art?
Gia Whitlock’s canvases currently on exhibit at Salt Lake’s 15th Street Gallery suggest an answer.
A multi-media artist who experiments with materials and media, Whitlock likes the idea of working by what she calls “impulse.” With paint, glue and wax she responds to different visual scenes, moving materials across her surfaces until they find the right place. In her previous encaustic works her impulse led her to adhere to the borders of a map filling in zonal regions with crude wax of delicate color juxtaposed with line drawings of landscape of the most abstract kind. She featured one, or combined the two, for a dual approach to the land that was playful, with a deeply organic visceral resonation.
Currently, Whitlock’s “impulse” is focused on structures, whether the natural structure and function of a plant or the artificial construct and mechanism of architecture. These two confines provide loose reins to keep her bounteous imagination within the limits of aesthetically pleasing compositions. The resulting images are as fun and free as the nature they reflect, and as layered and modulated as the architecture they respond to.
Through an array of materials, primarily cut-outs, Whitlock’s images evoke a theme rather than represent a scene. Her subject might be an individual structure or a building block, a seaside scene or an arboreal image, all played with freely by Whitlock’s bountiful imagination.
While these multi-media images are totally abstract and nonrepresentational, their expressive choices and use of symbols provide a radiant appeal to the imagination so that the viewer gets the sense that one work might be an ocean scene, one might be an urban scene, and yet another a verdant garden. For instance, the flowing line and the variety of cool hues of blue and green in “Ocean” evoke the abstract sense of a seascape without depicting any specific locale.|0|
Whitlock’s ménages of map segments, ticket stubs, newspaper remnants and letter scraps may appear to be arbitrary formalist exercises. But the artist actually follows her models very carefully, working from a reference image and replicating it through her paper cutouts. An excellent example of this is “Shift,”
a work inspired by the mix of trees and architectural ruins in Rome’s Forum.|1| The palette is more naturalistic than most works, with patches of dark earth, a band of vegetal green, and light shades of tan and cream. Although one will find here no reference to Corinthian columns or entablatures, one will find an overall expressiveness of a specific locale, fueled by structure and imagination.
This free-flow of imagination is a paramount factor in the creation of Whitlock’s images. As an artist, she is also interested in the mingling and the expression of the natural -- represented by the botanical -- and the artificial -- the architectural -- and ways this might be expressed. In many of her images chooses to unify both themes.
A painting like “Protea” is inspired by the naturalism of a flower, infused with lucid color and the vivid shapes of it.|2| “Spinner,” a bright and cheery scene has a sense of the manufactured and is in fact inspired by an aerial view of the Alaska State Fair. The lines are particularly angular and the colors unnaturally bright.|3| “Swish” is inspired by both the natural and the artificial; a beachfront scene provoking ideas of umbrellas and buildings, a charming image with warmer tones, and softer curves juxtaposed against strong lines.|4|
Here, as in most of Whitlock’s new works, the structures of the natural and the artificial are synthesized in her mind and on the canvas to create marvelously appealing abstract multi-media works. They are more than enough reason to refresh yourself at 15th Street Gallery this hot summer month.