Exhibition Preview: Salt Lake
Meet the Palmers
Blake & Cat Palmer carve out their artistic niches
Where Salt Lake's First South terminates beneath the sweep of the I-15 freeway Blake and Cat Palmer are busy in their studio preparing work for a number of upcoming projects. Encouraging and supporting each other, involved at times in overlapping endeavors but determined to stake out individual artistic territory, the two artists are involved in the delicate but rewarding dance that comes when a couple follows the same passion.
Cat's place in the local art scene is already firmly established. In addition to being a successful commercial photographer, Cat has won awards at the Utah Arts Festival and been recognized twice as "Best Photographer" by City Weekly. Known for her carefully orchestrated photo shoots, often featuring large groups of women, she takes on social issues like war and feminism. You'll also recognize one of Cat's photos by the metal they are mounted on. "It makes everything look a little edgier . . . it gives it a more urban look," she says. Often found in recycling yards, the metal is usually a dull gray or beige color, but she talks excitedly about the rare pieces she'll find in blue, green or orange. Her metal fetish began as home decor: in her "industrial" home galvanized pipe is used for curtain rods, and old army trunks serve as coffee tables. When she had to decide how to hang her first gallery show, she looked there for inspiration. Using galvanized pipe to frame all one's pieces can get expensive, though, so now she's content to find whatever scraps will work. Basically, if it's flat and metal, she'll use it as a substrate. And she'll dig through plenty of spider webs and dirt to find unique found objects, like the World War 2-era wing stabilizers that are the basis of a couple of pieces currently at the UMOCA boutique.
Cat describes herself as a type-A personality, with an organized mind adapted to managing businesses. It's part of what has helped her to establish a successful career as a commercial photographer. It can also be seen in how she creates her fine art. "I never do more than two artistic shoots in a year," she says. "It takes me about 6 months to think of the concept, to work it out, to execute the concept . . . It's not something I think about and then go shoot." Her methodical approach is ill-suited for some situations, as she learned when she worked for a time as a photographer for the Salt Lake music magazine SLUG. "My brain had to think instantaneously, to be creative on the spot and my brain just doesn't work that way. I have to think about a concept and study it out for probably months on end."
To say, then, that it's been 18 months since Palmer's last gallery show may not be that surprising. But that hiatus -- in which Cat has been doing a lot of commercial work -- was more a managerial decision than a creative one. It was a conscious decision the couple made to let Blake find his own space in the local arts community.
Blake, Cat says, has always been supportive of her, working hard over the past few years to promote her work, often neglecting his own art. So when Blake considered pursuing his work more aggressively, they felt her hiatus might help him avoid being known as "Cat Palmer's husband."
They point to some recent projects to suggest the strategy is working. Last year Blake was one of ten artists commissioned by City Weekly to paint their street boxes. In March he opened a successful show at the Utah Arts Festival, an exhibit which came about after gallery curator Matthew Jacobsen saw Blake's work online and invited him to apply for a show. The night of the exhibit's opening Palmer also learned he had been selected as an "invited" artist to the Utah Arts Festival.
"I shouldn't be freaking out because I've been helping Cat [do the festival] for the past five years, but I'm still freaking out," says Blake. His trepidation may be in part because while Cat's artistic approach is planned and methodical, his is much more spontaneous. (the couples' individual approach to making art is so different they joke they almost got divorced when they had to do a collaborative exhibit at Art Access in 2009).
"Controlled chaos" is what Blake calls his process. A graphic artist and printer by trade, his pieces are executed in layers, the final result rarely planned. Because he works with his paper facing upside down, towards the surface, all he sees is the white backing. He enjoys discovering things when he peels back the paper, like the negative spaces that get activated when one layer sits on top of another. "I get lost in the process of it," he says. "I'm not sure everyone else sees what's going on, but I get lost in it." And he calls "happy accidents" the moments when, say, the contour of a rock mimics the contour of a figure.
Like his wife's work, Blake's art frequently features women. They are usually just outlines or silhouettes, without a face. This graphic approach, he says, draws attention to the gesture of the body. "Your brain fills in the expression." At first he used Cat's images, but more and more he's been doing shoots of his own. His recent series features women holding chainsaws and axes, inspired, in part, by a recent trip to Oregon, but also by his desire to express the strength he finds in women.
You'll find these works, as well as a number of t-shirts, at his Utah Arts Festival booth. Cat's booth will be nearby, where she'll be premiering a new body of work -- twenty-four women dressed up as superheroes, with Salt Lake City as a backdrop. But just because Blake's been invited and Cat has to pay for her booth, don't think of her as "Blake Palmer's husband."
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
David Baddley at the Gallery at Library Square
Every now and then, the “Decline of the American Empire” rears its ugly head. Whether nationally or regionally, a wide range of experts discuss and generally agree that, at the very least “the times, they are a-changing.” Yet how this phenomenon impacts our daily lives here in Utah remains unclear. What are the symptoms? Where are they to be found? And is it possible to address this phenomenon artistically?
These questions come to the fore in twenty unframed color photographs by David Baddley, on show at the downtown Salt Lake library. Measuring approximately two by three feet, the prints are pinned directly to the wall with thumbtacks. Baddley’s compositions are asymmetrical and oscillate between genuine haphazardness and staged wrecklessness. The subjects too are arbitrary, banal and benign. Depicted are close-ups and vistas that scream of nothing in particular.
Subjects such as abandonment and alienation are dear to artists’ hearts; there is a vast body of work devoted to this subject. The paintings of Edvard Munch or Edward Hopper come to mind. And while some may resent the connection of this subject with the State of Utah, on another level Not Home offers a welcome reprieve from the Land of Positive Thinking. And yet, there are flies in the ointment.
Never, not ever, do we encounter another human being. Baddley’s images are consistently void of people, though traces can be found in residual minutia, such as a peeling picture frame or an overpolished barstool. In “La Casita, Springville” a tobacco-stained wall intersects with a stucco ceiling.|0| In “Arshe’s Cafe, Beaver” a fragment of neon tubing stares out into a nocturnal abyss.|1| To whom do these objects beckon? To a crowd that never arrives, but opts to keep driving to the next exit? Such works ask whether there is anything quite as lonely as small town Utah? The answer, of course, is yes. This kind of bewilderment is universal, and found anywhere from the cornfields of Andrew Wyeth to the beaches of Eric Fischl. If that is indeed so, what then is there to be gleaned from these particular works? That the American dream failed here too? Somehow, I suspect this is not new to American photography.
If Baddley’s interiors are gloomy, you should see his landscapes. Though not landscapes in the traditional sense, they depict the wilds of Utah, out there where the genre no longer exists. In these works, nature is the main subject, though always contaminated by something industrially manufactured. Storms rage and recover against a silhouette of mountains in “Rest Area, I-80, Utah 2011,” yet are pierced by one solitary lamppost whose bulb glows faintly.|2| “Water Tank, Layton, Utah 2010” depicts a spectacular sunset at dusk, with shards of peach light forming what Friedrich might have called the Sublime.|3| Lurking in the foreground is a water tank sporting the hopeful logo ‘Surf ‘n’ Swim.’
While we encounter the sheer desolation of these places, Baddley’s work does not portray antagonistic relations between man and nature, but co-existence in quiet lamentation. Therein, one can’t help noticing the violation, as if a strip mall had been photoshopped into an Alfred Bierstadt painting. “Apple Tree, Susanville, California 2011” shows an apple tree bursting with fruit.|4| Its branches incongruously harbor some kind of lighting contraption, replete with rows of fluorescent bulbs. The gravel of a highway shoulder is depicted in Kiefer-like focus, yet is punctuated by three black-and-yellow warning signs alerting drivers to a sharp turn. While we are aware of these infringements, I can’t help thinking that these scenes hover on the brink of sentimentality. As if we might next discover a headless doll, or a lost shoe. Other works depict small-scale facilities of unknown origin or occupancy. Here, metal siding is king and urban planning has gone the way of the dodo. Once pregnant with purpose, these buildings now lie defunct and lifeless, like the water towers of Bernd and Hilla Becher. As signs of a declining America, they too are over-familiar, and approach the world of the cliché. I fear Baddley will next turn his lens to an untended baseball diamond, or a derelict post office.
Compositionally, Baddley’s works employ several time-honoured devices. Geometric elements are contrasted with scribbly, looser ones. The shadows of a tree are projected onto a wall, mismatched tires pile up at an abandoned garage. As well, many subjects are cropped such that only fragments exist – like SNL’s ‘guy who just wandered in.’ A framed poster of a western couple is bisected at mid-waist. A corner of a billboard invades a cerulean sky. A blue column is amputated at the knee. Such devices betray a fondness for abbreviation, which heightens a sense of disjunction. The viewers are left wondering what lies beyond? Or do they? Maybe they don’t wonder, but just move on. Because such fragments already constitute the fabric of their lives.
The issue of vacuity and desperation in the darker recesses of the American imagination has repercussions for us all. Yet Baddley has rendered this subject in a visual language that is already common currency. This further trivializes his subject, and leaves us wondering whether the works signify anything beyond their own banality? In this way, Baddley’s works do not offer an aesthetics of decline, they are symptomatic of it.