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April 2013
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Let's All Go To The Movies
Art goes cinematic at the CUAC

The word cinematic most commonly makes reference to a relationship with, a suggestion of or being suitable for motion pictures. Yet, the diversity of media in CUAC’s most recent exhibition Cinematic makes evident that filmic culture has far reaching effects that spill well beyond its original parameters: it informs and influences photography (of course), like Matt Glass’ haunting depictions of suburban life and Rosi Hayes’ interactive digital footage; but the cinematic also has presence in surprisingly more traditional media like painting, as in the case of Justin Nelson-Carruth, Jeff Larsen, and John Bell, and even drawing, as with UMOCA artist-in-residence Mary Toscano.

In her article, “Idea of Genre in American Cinema,” Nancy Bascombe writes, “Constant exposure to a previous succession of film genres has led the audience to recognize certain formal elements as charged with an accretion of meaning.” These repetitive formal elements not only cue the viewer to quickly recognize a western or film noir device by simply appropriating certain stylized conventions, but also serve to endow a work with a specific heritage. As such, the style is a foil or, perhaps better stated, a clue that what one is about to see is informed by the conventions that have gone before it.

This framing is particularly useful when thinking about Matt Glass’s photographs “Laundry” and “Dinner,” both completed in 2010. For instance, in “Dinner,” a man ironically offers a toast with a champagne glass full of (virtuous) milk, while his female companion is slumped over, seemingly lifeless, in her chair.|1| Did he cause the harm to her? Why is he so seemingly disconnected? So isolated? So unaware? Functioning as a filmic snapshot, the man’s smug pleasure at the moment of horror reads like a stereotypical narrative that makes reference to the absurdly mysterious and disturbingly uncanny David Lynch. That Glass’s “horror film” only exists in a single frame doesn’t negate the narrative, because as Bascombe explains, by referencing genre conventions, meaning is made within the style itself.

Indeed, the cheap suburban 1980s frames that encase Glass’s photographs mirror the genre they reference and continue the idea of the suburban made strange, made scary. In these pieces appropriation is not only limited to film, as Glass’s photographs directly quote Gregory Crewdson, whose significantly large-scale, staged photographs reference both film and suburban terror in similar, if not, grander ways. In fact, referencing Crewdson’s Twilight series, Jeff Dietch calls Crewdson’s suburbia “a bad horror movie about itself.”

But horror film quotations are certainly not what is at stake in Rosi’s Hayes’s “House,” 2012, which is five small screens of digital footage playing in separate windows open on a Mac computer.|2| These moving images can be stopped and started individually by the viewer, allowing the audience to alter the narrative, to stop, to start, to edit, and to become a co-creator in the process. As such, the work feels informed by pop culture main-stays such as American Idol, where the context is rhizomatic and determined by outside forces rather than directorial pronouncements.

While Hayes’s media is a moving picture, pictorially the images read like loose paintings in motion. They aren’t so much about a linear narrative as about the form in general. As such, her work mirrors the well-known words of director Josef von Sternberg who, according to Laura Mulvey, once said, he would “welcome his films being projected upside down so that story and character involvement would not interfere with the spectator's undiluted appreciation of the screen image.”

Painting seems to be the meta-narrative of the exhibition because it dominates the show in terms of media. In some ways, it’s absurd to use such a traditional medium to index the cinematic because technologically speaking, it’s moving backwards. In fact, in the 19th century, it was the invention of the camera and other more slick modes of documenting life that really started to break down the centrality of narrative painting. And yet, here is narrative painting in the 21st century being used to index film. It’s an interesting and beautiful looking back, looking forward, with the two mediums continuing a long and complicated conversation.

Take Justin Nelson-Carruth’s “Space for Time,” which is a film still vis-a-vis a large-scale painting. Traditionally, large-scale canvases were reserved for only for what was then considered the most important subjects: biblical, mythological or historical.|3|

But Carruth’s painting is inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, a film celebrated for its emphasis on cinematography and the pictorial. And yet, the scene isn’t an exact replication of the film. Rather, Carruth took filmic and narrative elements harvested from Stalker and created an environment beyond the film that exists outside of the camera lens. His practice not only pays tribute to the film itself but enacts the practice of stalking by voyeuristically watching the film over and over again, and then reinterpreting what is seen by taking parts and pieces and reordering them.

John Bell’s “JMB” makes reference to the famed neo-expressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. But rather than using historic photographs of the artist as source material, Bell pulled from images of the actor Jeffery Wright, who performed the role of Basquiat in Julian Schnabal’s 1996 film. Such a slip makes manifest the constant fetishization of both art celebrities and Hollywood stars, where cult figure identities exist only in the form of the simulacra.

Jeff Larsen’s mostly black paintings from his series Insomnia function as strange filmic cross cuts.|4| One faintly makes out, posturing in the shadows, fragments of things: of people, feet, a necktie. But these paintings deny the viewer what one really enjoys about film, and that is the ability to look, or what Laura Mulvey describes as the visual pleasure in the narrative cinema. Not only can one not quite make out forms because of the overwhelming blackness but also crafting a narrative is made impossible for the viewer. Thus, Larsen’s paintings seem less cinematic (that is, quoting motion pictures) and more like the film reel of dreams, anxiously flipping through images that are fractured, disconnected and muddled in the subconscious.

But perhaps the strongest cinematic work of the show is Mary Toscano’s “5/16/1981,” a nostalgic (both in material and subject matter) animated drawing. In minimal form, Toscano depicts an isolated and stagnant father sitting in a fixed position, sketched out on cream-colored paper and mounted on the wall. Yet projected onto the drawing via a slide projector is the image of a ghost-like child whose faint figure moves restlessly around picture plane. With each click of the projector, the father’s immobility, distraction and inattention is glaring in relationship to the child; her constant movements are activated by the viewer who advances each new slide, creating each new movement, all of which yields, ever so painfully, no reaction.|5-8|

In an age of special-effects saturation, Toscano’s use of such outdated technology reminds us that what makes a great movie is not always high production but rather what the film mirrors in ourselves.

What in the end, are all of these works saying? Some seem to be invoking film, but by giving it ironic and subversive twists, like Bell, Carruth and Larsen. While others seem to be investigating the power of telling a story and the magic of narrative and how minimally you can do it, as with Toscano and Glass, reminding us, whether in still or moving images, it is great story telling that matters.


Reel Bytes: Salt Lake City
Somebody's Watching You
Louise Åkebrand and the art of surveillance

The government may be watching you. So may Louise Åkebrand. But she's also got her eye on the government.

A German native who came to the states when she was a teen, as an artist Åkebrand has been exploring surveillance. In her native country, she says, privacy issues are understandably acute. Germans are less inclined to post personal information on social networking sites and Google Earth has been the subject of numerous lawsuits there: stroll the country through Google's Street View and you'll find many of the houses are blurred out.

Åkebrand herself has been drawn to Google Earth, fascinated by its ability to take the user all over the world and allow the comfortable couch cruiser to travel ground they would fear to tread in normal life. In a selected group of works now on exhibit at Finch Lane Gallery as part of Artists of Utah's 35x35 exhibition, Åkebrand virtually explores the violent border town of Juarez, Mexico. Inspired originally by Roberto Bolano's fictionalization of the unsolved murders in the town in his posthumous 2066, and then by the surge of violence in Juarez in the late aughts, she says she spent hours virtually traveling through the streets of what has been called "the most dangerous city in the world."

After hours of passively watching people through the safety of an LCD screen, Åkebrand decided to experience the shiver of surveillance first hand. With camera in hand, she visited public spaces and clandestinely photographed the people she found there. The experience was obviously unsettling for an individual who is careful about her own privacy and who admits she doesn't enjoy being on the other side of the lens.

In her most recent project, part of which is on exhibit this month at Weber State's Shaw Gallery as part of their Spring BFA Thesis Exhibition, Åkebrand made a pilgrimage to the Utah Data Center, the giant surveillance data storage center being built by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah. Treating the data processing center as a new kind of "Book of Life," she built a prayer kneeler, made a 10-mile pilgrimage to the center with the kneeler on her back, and, as the sun set, worshipped at an improvised altar to the all-seeing eye.

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Painted Faces
The Native American in Art at the UMFA

Individual works in Bierstadt to Warhol: American Indians in the West at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) may include western scenery, desert skies, colorful iconography, ethnic clothing and possessions, horses, and assorted mythic activities, alone or in various combinations. Some contain none of these. But the one thing they all have in common is faces. Proud, stern, rugged, full of weather-carved character or mysterious, even inscrutable, these noble visages return our alienating gazes, search the horizon for things we never see, or just go about tasks as mundane to them as they are mysterious or evocative to us. Only a few--perhaps as few as three--withhold their faces from view, and they do so to make a point. Two sculpted women, covered from head to foot in flowing garments that might swaddle Muslim women, balance pots of water on their heads. In effect, the pots become their heads, making an uncertain point about their identification with this humble task. Two figures riding in the back of a pickup truck are wrapped so tightly in their blankets they lose all identifying characteristics, becoming mere cargo. And in the one shocking image here, a naked maiden's binoculars and bandana-blindfold render her anonymous while empowering her with something like the sense of threat the pioneers must have felt whenever they encountered her free-ranging ancestors.

There are no early self-portraits of native Americans here, though such images do exist and can be seen in museums in Los Angeles, Tucson, and elsewhere: museums more interested in ethnography than art, perhaps. For the first century of this chronological display, the Indians are the objects of artistic concerns they don't share. Later in the 20th century, perhaps in response to pervasive depictions in moving pictures, indigenous artists with various motivations begin to paint and sculpt their self-images. Here the collection takes a rhetorical position for the first time, ignoring artists who only seek to reinvigorate their own tribal artistic tradition, focusing instead on those who deliberately challenge convention and cliché in order to assert their own identities. In the third era, Pop artists add irony to the mix, using deliberately heavy-handed visuals to foreground the sentimentality of the earlier mainstream depiction, even as they decline appropriately to try to correct whatever distortions those sympathetic, but questionable, outsiders brought about.

Bierstadt to Warhol: American Indians in the West includes multiple canvases by each of several artists. This gives viewers a chance to explore not only the subject matter, but the range of skills, techniques, and purposes each artist brought. The collection is viewer friendly, with nothing technically challenging to get in the way of enjoying its contents. The names of unfamiliar artists will give those who want to follow up some good places to start looking. As always, UMFA staff have done a sensitive job of grouping works helpfully, without crowding. The signs suggest useful ways into each work, and if they are universally straightforward and ignore the controversies swirling around this art—as they do about so many cultural boundary issues these days—the opportunity to see the work through ones own eyes is both a valid and pleasurable option.


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