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December 2012
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Utah artist Gentry Blackburn on the porch of her Salt Lake City home. Photo by Zoë Rodriguez.

Art Organization Spotlight: Moab
Art, Science and the Land
Rio Mesa Center encourages artists, including Christine Baczek

Science and the humanities are often viewed as completely separate disciplines. Our culture sees them as being at opposite ends of a spectrum, but the world’s greatest minds understand the two fields are actually intertwined and inseparable. Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Study the science of art and the art of science.” This piece of wisdom may be on the verge of a renaissance. The evidence of a rebirth can be found in several different places, like our own science and technology arts museum, The Leonardo, and in emerging academic ventures like the University of Utah’s Rio Mesa Center.

The center, started in 2006, is located near Moab, along the Dolores River.|0-1| The Rio Mesa Center has been designed to serve as “a modern, multi-disciplinary, outdoor laboratory where science, architecture, engineering and art come together to question our notion of what it means to live on the Colorado Plateau.” Manager of the center and Associate Instructor in the Department of Geography at the University of Utah, Zach Lundeen elaborates on the center’s unique goals, “To maximize the audience within the University, they chose to try and make it a broader, multi-disciplinary research center.” An example of their efforts is a course held at the center that combined landscape ecology and painting. Kim Martinez, an Associate Professor in the Art and Art History Department collaborated with Sylvia Torti, a biology professor who now heads the Honors Program at the University of Utah, to create an educational experience that explored science and art. For half the day, students received instruction on landscape painting, and the other half of the day consisted of lessons on landscape ecology. “They would try and look at how artists and scientists maybe go about things differently,” says Lundeen, “but also how they approach things with similar kinds of questions.”

Courses and student projects at the Rio Mesa Center range from entomology to creative writing, but the opportunity to use the center is not limited to the University of Utah community. Writers and artists can apply to use the space for a residency. “We’re facilitating inspiration and solitude,” says Lundeen. “This area is totally removed. If you go out there it’s amazing. You look at the night sky and there is no light pollution and no traffic. To just go hang out there, you’ve got an amazing, diverse landscape. It presents a nice environment where a lot of different activities that can be done. It’s set aside for academic pursuits, whatever they may be.”

Christine Baczek, Collections Photographer, Archivist, and Digital Media Producer for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), was inspired to take advantage of the pristine landscape at the Rio Mesa Center, where she is currently an artist-in-residence. “I have applied for a lot of residencies, so I’ve read a lot about many of them,” the artist says. “What strikes me as unique about this residency is the location. There is nothing like this in Southern Utah. And it’s also unique because it has this interdisciplinary approach. I feel like I haven’t seen that a lot at all in residencies.”

Over the next year or two Baczek will make periodic trips to the center where she will collect plant samples that she will press and use to make photograms. “Photograms are when you take something and put it directly on your light sensitive paper -- in this case glass -- and expose it to light and then you get the outline of the object. And if it’s translucent in any places you’ll have different effects.”

She makes the photograms with a cyanotype, a blue chemical, and then houses the pieces in a custom wooden frame that has a motion sensor-activated light behind it. When a person walks past the frame, the image lights up. “The idea is that, just like when you’re out walking or on a hike and you don’t really notice things until you notice them, that there’s this thing going on around you that you have to interact with in order to recognize it and in order for it to appear to you,” Baczek says.

The project got underway this October, and Baczek is building toward creating a larger piece. “The culmination of this will be a grouping of light boxes. I’m hoping to partner with a biologist at some point, who I’ll find through the Rio Mesa Center, who can give me some information about the plants and if they’re native to that part of the state, or, if they’ve been brought in, what the plant’s history is. And that will determine where it goes in the installation and if I use a colored or stained glass,” she says. Baczek’s goals for her residency extend beyond wanting to complete a project and into a desire to give something back to the Rio Mesa Center. “This place has so much potential that I want to help it meet its potential. So I also feel really motivated to do something great down there,” she says.

As she works at the center and strives to create something wonderful, Baczek encounters some of the other people who are utilizing the space and finds inspiration to experiment with her work. “When I was down there about a month ago, there were some people doing bird research. They had nets up by the river. They were catching birds and banding them just to study what birds were down there. So I photographed them with their birds and whenever feathers would fall off from when they were catching the birds, I collected those and we were doing some photograms with them.”

This kind of collaboration is what Lundeen is hoping to foster through the center. “You’re in this very inviting environment where any of those perceived walls or divisions between sciences and humanities are down because it’s a much more casual atmosphere, it takes you out of the more traditional university setting,” he says. “Hopefully that promotes more interaction.”

The barriers between art and science are crumbling at the Rio Mesa Center. As the center grows, perhaps people will begin to realize the two disciplines are not at odds with each other. The reality is that art and science are more powerful when they’re combined.


Roland Thompson . . . from page 1

To use the canvas itself to play a role in the aesthetics of the painting is a very Modernist strategy and some of Thompson’s most esteemed painter role-models were those who did just that: Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Bryce Marden. Rather than being an illusion of or referent to an outside reality, the painting becomes an autonomous entity, possessing its own objecthood. The idea of canvas functioning as art for art sake, says Thompson, “forces the viewer to experience the work as the object rather than the window. Presenting an object rather than a window to another reality.”

Roland's objects have taken the form of the traditional square or rectangle (though, as they are without centers, subverted ones) as well as more complex, multi-sided polygons. The painted patterns within these can be dense and complicated, calling to mind the designs of intricate mandalas.

In other works geometry gives way to gesture, as Thompson's sculpted painting surfaces describe loops and whorls. The commanding presence of a piece like "Daywalker," which forms a rough figure eight, comes from the flowing line of the work itself as much as from any painting going on in the painting.|1| There is plenty of interior painting as well, swirls of dark red and then blue woven through by a mesh of lighter lines, giving the work its own, self-contained language. The painting is its own alpha and omega.

These works are not doors to meaning, but meaning itself. All evocation is literal and exacting, all inspiration is a reflection and not contrived but symbolically rendered through semiotic association, a reading of signifier and signified.

“I discover a lot while I am making [these paintings]," says Thompson. "I discover my artwork along the way. I have the sheet of metal, 5 x 8 feet, and a sheet of paper, 4x 6 inches, and I go after it. They are gradually refined and gradually discovered.”|2|

The works may require a similar slow process of discovery for the viewer. Thompson says his paintings are not paintings to be consumed at once, "but through a rate of gradual discovery.”

Referring to a piece like "All Worlds Come to Us,” a tilted half-circle-shaped aluminum sheet consisting of thousands of painted fragments, he says, “I want the piece to look machine made, but the same time I want it to look hand-painted, but for it to take a lot of perception to recognize this.”|3|

Talking about his works, Thompson speaks of “Minimalism, the object as a unit, all at once . . .to apprehend the object, to apprehend the object and space all at once . . . these are made to be understood more slowly.” Thompson wants this process to be explicit. So, he says, “every brush stroke is present and visible, not hidden. Each layer is presented with all of the information looking back at you, all at once."|4|

by Scott Blaser. Courtesy the artist.
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In his latest works Thompson pushes the emphasis on structure even further.|5| While earlier shapes were odd and non-traditional, they still served as a surface to be painted on. In the newest work, every swirl or line is itself an autonomous structure, a piece of a whole, locked or woven together to form an object. There is no frame, no surface, only components. In Thompson's description, there is no "format," only the line, as if floating in space. |6|

With pieces like “BW-T5” Thompson has brought his own work to a new level of objectivity, an exciting step for neo-Modernist abstraction.|7| Without “format” each object is its own pure structure of unadorned and unframed semiotics. Thinking of the works, prepositions like "of" and "on" (a painting "of" something, or painted "on" something) give way to the simple verb is.|8|

“BW-T5,” with its interconnecting lines, unique shape and distinctive pallet assumes its own objective identity without recourse for any kind of other relative “being.” Its autonomy is the kind of Modernist aesthetic that excludes the sort of conceptualism the contemporary viewer would feel tempted to ascribe to it; rather, it asserts its own pure ontological reality. The work's color, line, and texture, its shape and interconnectivity reflect only the being of the object. Any kind of conceptual meaning only supports the objective reality of the piece as art for the pure sense of being.

With this progression, from shaped canvas to a canvas that is “pure structure,” Thompson creates works that are both lighter and airier in appearance, and yet weightier in accrued presence and composition. This is surely exciting territory for someone like Thompson, someone who has been interested in the physics of painting his whole life -- he has achieved a level of purity that allows him to stake his own claim amongst the Modernists.

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