Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
The spiritual art of Marci Erspamer
“It is not where I am going to take my work,” says painter Marci Erspamer, “but where is my work going to take me. I want my life to be simple and to find truth and beauty.” Erspamer, |0| who is showing in March at Sugar House’s Patrick Moore Gallery, is a passionate artist devoted to her work. She is also devoted to children (she’s a nanny), animals (she has two cats and two dogs), and above all else, people. Through her painting Erspamer finds herself able to draw closer and connect with what and whom she loves.
Erspamer paints scenes of nature and still life that are utterly distinctive. Her process, one she did not foresee, has developed over time but the raison d’être for her painting has always been a spiritual one. “As I was a kid, “ she says, “I questioned God and existence. I wondered about dying and I wanted an answer. Painting is my answer. My work brings me contentment and peace. I feel like I meditate when I am working. I get objective when I paint and I feel outside of my body and this allows me to pay attention to my thoughts and not be attached to them like I would when I am not working. It’s like painting is my breathing and it just sort of happened that way because I am searching for simplicity.”
This sense of “contentment and peace” brought about through painting scenes of nature in her unique approach has the quality of an artist’s journey, a means towards an end, a path in a progression, and in fact, for Erspamer it is.|1|
The process is apparent in the works themselves as the artist paints countless segments of unmodulated color in tones that she herself has mixed in compositions only loosely thought out in her mind.|2| This is where the journey begins, and the physical act of painting these shapes of color has a meditative element that is part of the joy of painting for Erspamer.|3|
However, this means has a definitive end, this journey has a sure destination. After the segments of color are applied, the artist paints, with the utmost care, in a color called Paynes Gray,|4| an elaborate contour line she calls a “web,” that connects every segment in the painting. In this step, every isolated fragment, once separate and disjointed, is suddenly brought harmoniously and beautifully together into a state of completion and totality. The painting is thus given life and reaches full fruition.
The means of connecting every fragment of the canvas fulfills Erspamer's ultimate aim, which is the fundamental need to feel connected. “Each piece,” she says, “is incomplete and totally unique but together totally complete.” She goes on to say, “I’ve been thinking about my place in the world and how we are all connected. My life is not just my own it affects everyone around me and that’s what this is in the end, I am trying to do that with my work.”
The urge to feel connected is a primal impulse. For the passionate Erspamer, this translates to the love she has for the children she nannies, the love and care of her pets, and her intense desire to draw nearer to people she loves and to love and connect with humanity in general. The primal is also very spiritual.
Drawing from these ideas and looking at specific examples of Erspamer’s work, one can see in them these levels of meaning and truth. In “Here and There,” it is easy to contemplate her spiritual connectivity with children.|5| In the painting, two tall white aspen trees are shown cropped so that neither top nor bottom are shown, each with long, winding sinewy branches that seem to reach together and intertwine in a playful game. They are painted against a cold, clay blue sky with a carefree, joie de vivre manner creating a childlike mood. Then Erspamer's web of Payne’s Gray gives the work deeper levels of symbolic meaning. That every leaf of the tree is connected, by the line, to every other leaf in the painting suggests we are all indeed related, of the same gene pool, that as children we play and dance like these aspens, but as we age and learn we allow difference and otherness to separate and cause fragmentation and disconnect the actual unity that is in truth a reality.
A second piece that is beautifully rendered and can be read for the sake of the element of connectivity is “Stand Alone.”|7| The painting is four gloriously painted trees that each look something like the van Gogh’s cypresses, rendered in exquisite hypnotic shapes of contoured color against a cool turquoise sky on a ground of planes of oranges in differing tones. Although one might not immediately think of animals when looking at this landscape, it is not hard to imagine each form like a proud lion or a tall bird or a wild dog, standing separate yet together -- a den, a flock, a pack -- independent and strong yet ready to hunt, mate or fight together. To consider this painting at a deeper level, that of connectivity, its essential element, it can be understood that these animals share instinct, kinship and common objectives. Take away this connectivity and each animal stands alone at odds with the other, to fight alone, without a mate, and to kill or be killed for what food it can get.
A final image to conclude, with insight into the conceptual and very spiritual nature of these paintings, is the more unusual “Meet Me Here,” which eschews bright colors for neutral tones: black, white, gray and beige.|8| What we see is a coastal shore with a strip of smooth sandy beach and a rocky embankment. This might reflect the connectivity in people in general, and specifically their relationships, calling to mind the proverb that “we are all a grain of sand.” Once again the contour web of Paynes Gray parallels this universality, connecting the individual segments and creating an overall unity. Once that connectivity is taken away between people, once ancestry, relationships, commonality and love are lost, disharmony, destruction and ultimately chaos result.
These are weighty statements to be drawn from scenes of such natural calmness and simplicity, yet they are rudimentary and relevant and can authentically be taken into consideration with Erspamer’s method and aim if profoundly understood. These scenes are bucolic and hypnotic, pastoral and cerebral while objects of meditation for their own sake.
Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake
Peeking Into the Palace of Art
Phillips Gallery, Art Access & Rio Gallery
Gallery group shows recall double bills at the movies: if the contrast between artists contributes to a better understanding of each other’s works, or resonances enrich a common sense of purpose, the group show serves artists and audience alike. For the arts writer, though, they present a challenge. Right now, for some reason, group shows abound, and with five or more artists in one place, what the jargon of our times calls ‘triage’ assumes undue influence.
At the Phillips Gallery, Reminiscing channels the presence of seven successful Utah artists who have passed from the scene, leaving significant bodies of work as their legacies. Lee Deffebach, Irwin Greenberg, Waldo Midgley, Moishe Smith, Doug Snow, Harry Taylor, and Francis Zimbeaux may no longer be household names, but a couple of rooms lined with their works stand as a ringing challenge to today’s artists, as well as a useful barrier against complacency in community standards. For me, Irwin Greenberg came as a complete revelation, and I anticipate spending many pleasurable-if-futile hours alternately pondering and marveling at how his brush was able to seamlessly render both precise architectural detail and smoky urban atmosphere at the same time.|0|
At Art Access, five women fill two rooms with enough variety to put paid to any idea that women’s art must be less universal than men’s. In the back room, Amber DeBirk’s fused glass boldly makes the case for art that doesn’t just preach environmental responsibility, but practices what it preaches.|1| Too many artists act as though their holy mission to talk the talk somehow exempts them from also walking the walk. Eleanor Scholz’s genius for transposing everyday objects into characters is matched by the courage with which she treats her prescription for antidepressants to the same transformation. In Cihuatl, Mujer, Woman in the front room, Ruby Chacon, Veronica Perez, and Maritza Torres romp with energy and humor through what in earlier hands might have been only the grievances of women. Torres makes brilliant use of those familiar, cardboard-framed red and green 3–D glasses and contrasting colors of paint; instead of feeding left- and right-side perspective to the appropriate eye, she feeds light and dark, causing her images to vibrate rapidly as the brain tries to decide which eye to trust.|2| The result is not unlike the cognitive dissonance we live with in a world where all things are polarized by politics.
Through March, Rio Gallery’s Redux demonstrates the kind of results obtainable through public funding of arts on a tiny scale, relative to what we spend on other social priorities. Gary Barton, Jane Catlin, James Charles, Sue Cotter, and Madison Smith each received sufficient funding to allow a brief, precious period of work that didn’t have to pay for itself. All report, and display, positive results. For example, Jane Catlin’s large, colorful, and experimental drawings on both sides of mylar sheets replace the spatial illusion produced by doing this on glass with a softly focused view of nature that feels optically lively and more true to how we actually see, rather than to the freezing influence of the camera.|3|
Sue Cotter’s enchanting bas-reliefs address our current dissatisfaction with the continuing predominance of artistic and literary conventions we no longer trust, exploiting the non-fictional genres of assemblage and memoir in their place. Some model the exteriors of specific examples of indigenous Mexican architecture, which astute viewers can open to reveal an interior tableau in which tiny, meticulously arranged objects gathered during the artist’s travels symbolically recount her experiences, both specifically to her and as universals.|4-5| Within these dollhouse-like treasure troves, the resemblance of tiny, richly symbolic objects to toys combines with their serious presentation—like the somber way children so often play—to create a universal feeling.
Other kinds of hoards appear in other works. “Testament of Beauty” brings together a variety of specialized languages: sheet music, relief maps, samples lined up for comparison. Like many of Cotter’s pieces, it not only invokes books (journals, guides, directories, encyclopedias), but incorporates one made by the artist, which hangs on a chain from a hook and can be held and opened by the viewer.|6| Others are tucked away for safekeeping here and there. On a nearby pedestal, our current absorption in the quarrel over paper vs. digital books gains perspective from a series of ‘rock books,’ including one in which various personal treasures are filed away in a jar with a string through the lid for safe keeping—like the irreplaceable medieval codices that were chained to a reading desk. One senses that it takes time for these replica worlds to unfold and be discovered, just as it took time to live the life they attempt to recapture. In a less literal way, that could be said of every one one of these seventeen artists.