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February 2013
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 6    

Exhibition Preview: West Valley City
A Spoonful of Sugar
Mary Meigs Atwater Weavers Guild’s Wild About Fiber Arts

The Contemporary art world advertises itself as suspicious of beauty, which it rejects as a goal or even a strategy. Sometimes, though, it feels as though not just beauty, but any natural pleasure is on their taboo list. Political or sociological statements, the reason-for-being of so much new art, come with portentous weight; if there is any pleasure to be had beyond that of agreeing with like-minded prejudices . . . and let’s be clear that liberal bias isn’t any better than conservative assumption . . . it’s the delight or desperation that comes from feeling one is right. If nothing else, this distortion of art’s traditional rewards underscores the value, from time to time, of abandoning the gallery devoted to hard-to-watch videos and data arrays, along with those reserved for sentimental, escapist landscapes and other reactionary matter, and giving ones attention to art that isn’t meant to lie uselessly in the gallery, or hang on its walls collecting dust. The notion that art cannot be an integral part of useful, otherwise functional objects is neither universal nor helpful. In fact, the right word for performing a task while using something beautiful to the eye and pleasant to the touch is ‘joy.’

From now until February 26, the Utah Cultural Celebration Center will be hosting the Mary Meigs Atwater Weavers Guild’s Wild About Fiber Arts. Those who make the short journey to West Valley will find a large assortment of quietly dignified, hand made textiles that promise to become more beautiful the longer ones looks at them. While these are arguably high-end products of the manual arts, they make two worthwhile—and politically and sociologically valid—arguments. One is that, contrary to the advertisements of industrialization, more material junk does not make us richer. A table set with Lori Webb’s hand-loomed placemats could not only make up for sitting down to simple fare, but make a point about the virtues of sharing food in a scattered, noisy world: the setting is part of the nourishment.|2| The other is that just as a good pair of socks will do more than a showy hat to keep your head warm, so the strength we derive from living amidst quality is more durable than what we get by surrounding ourselves with representations of a lost world. It’s not that the mimetic pieces—woven paintings and sculptures of felt or wire—are not interesting. Indeed, Sandra Sandberg’s brass and copper wire “Weaving the Woods” is both intellectually and kinesthetically compelling.|3| But there is a sense that comes from comparing Beverly Hart’s quilted wall hanging, “A Walk in the Woods” to the two bas-reliefs of Dana Perez—“Black Hole” and “Solar Flare”|4|—that as striking as all three mimetic images are, the former makes good use of the virtues of its non-mimetic, component fabrics, while the latter obscure their materials in pursuit of effects not really different from what could be achieved with gesso and paint.

For a practiced critic, finding metaphors and ideology is child’s play, whether in marble and paint, photographs, or dyed-and-knotted yarns. More fundamental than ideas, and harder to fool, are feelings. Consider, then, Kathleen McMaster’s “Mairi’s Blessing Dress.” Nothing we do on earth is more significant than replacing ourselves. We make our children with love, not the industry seen on farms. But we also do it invisibly, swaddled in mystery. Even a mother can feel a bit like a spectator when contemplating gestation. So what better way to spend months of expectation, or years of basic care, than in preparing properly for the ritual that weaves offspring into community? McMaster’s blessing dress isn’t fancy or frilly—it would never do at a royal coronation—but it is hand woven, equal to the most scrupulous examination. It says, softly but firmly, “This is the best I can do, and it is good enough.” Made over many hours of labor, but invoking the centuries of handicraft that went before, it came into being for a single use. Standing like a hand grenade in its glass case, but ready to explode in creation instead of destruction, it makes present the genius of understatement.

Other feelings are equally accessible here. While marveling at the range of contrasting textures displayed by Maureen Wilson, Karna Petuskey, and Jeanette Tregeagle, think about pride in ones skill; if an artist reveals himself in a self-portrait, what does a fiber artist mean by such a glorious shawl, or Brigitta Gornik by her bobbin-lace purse? Can stained glass windows evoke more awareness than hand-woven curtains? The truth is, again and again in this room, the eye plunges into the interior of a rug, a runner, a knotted rag, and finds riches for the mind as well. Here otherwise humble bits of human industry receive their due. An assemblage by Susan Timmy Burton, celebrating the machine-woven tapestries lying unseen on the backs of neckties, gives pause to wonder: how many of the men who have worn such ornaments knew these labels were engineered to hold the tie’s tail end, equally out of sight?

A kind of shrine at the center of Wild About Fiber Arts redresses a gross oversight. How is it that we celebrate the anonymous men and women who crossed an ocean and a desert to come here, but not Mary Meigs Atwater, who fought to preserve the Highland weaving tradition in the face of the Industrial Revolution’s machine looms? Faced with the choice between joining the futile destruction of the Luddites, or knitting together a positive force of resistance, she found her way here. To meet her halfway, and to see how much better some things were before the improvements of modern life, all that we need do is make a short trip across town.

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
The Idiosyncratic Gaze
The photographs of Mike Disfarmer at the UMFA

Though over time art museums tend to systematize and homogenize their holdings, most of our public art collections began with the idiosyncrasies of individual collectors. This is why, for instance, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) has a surprisingly strong collection of Egyptian artifacts (Natacha Rambova, a wealthy heiress, onetime wife of Rudolph Valentino, and great-granddaughter of a Mormon apostle, donated part of her collection to her native state of Utah (see here)). Or why the institution is currently mounting an exhibition of small, timeworn images by a photographer from Arkansas.

The UMFA has a very well-respected photography collection, due in large part to collectors James & Debra Pearle, and the close circle of friends that have joined them in donating works to the museum. Among these are Daniel and Melanie Mattis, whose son, Michael Mattis, began been amassing a large collection of original photographs by "penny portrait" photographer Michael Disfarmer in 2004.

As UMFA curator Donna Poulton tells it, Mike Disfarmer was the town recluse of Heber Springs Arkansas, the odd type of character that everyone in town liked to talk about but whom few knew; the eccentric curmudgeon who bucked social norms and instilled fear in the hearts of youngsters. Oddly enough, he was also the local photographer. Out of a simple live-work space he built himself, he took photographers of just about everyone in the area, from the well-to-do mother showing off her children, to the dirt farmer in his best overalls. When Disfarmer died in 1958, he was unknown outside the small Ozark town. His anonymity changed in the 1970s, however, when Disfarmer's original glass negatives were discovered, cleaned, and published in a book – Disfarmer: The Heber Springs Portraits, 1939–1946. These portraits of the full range of characters from rural America, taken in unadorned settings and frequently capturing unguarded moments, caught the attention of an art world in the full flush of Minimalism and Disfarmer soon became a posthumous art star. His star blazed even brighter after 2004, when original prints by the photographer were discovered and purchased by Michael Mattis. Today, Disfarmer's portraits of young children, departing soldiers, and awkwardly arranged families are increasingly sought after; and thanks to the donations of the Pearles and Mattises, as well as Dr. Donald L. and Alice A. Lappé, scores of them are now on exhibit at the UMFA in the museum's newest exhibit Mike Disfarmer: Cleburne County Portraits.

Over the more than three decades Disfarmer took portraits of the residents of Cleburne County, Arkansas, he never upgraded his technology, continuing to shoot with glass negatives long after the mainstream had given them up for more advanced and lightweight setups. As we see in the photographs, however, his studio was transformed over the years. Early photographs from the '20s show traditional backdrops of romantic landscapes. Over time, these give way to plain monochrome backdrops, and in his final years Disfarmer placed his subjects in a room almost completely white save for a simple black table and a mysterious dark line that extends from floor to ceiling. The locals that came into his studio in these years ended up looking like Grant Wood's farmer stuck in a Mondrian.

In Disfarmer's compositions the vertical stripe frequently breaks one of the most basic rules of portrait photography, splicing the subjects in half. Its purpose – was it used for placement? "Stand in front of this line and don't move." Did it join two sheets of wall surfaces? – will likely remain a mystery. And Disfarmer might have liked it that way. He remained a mystery to the people he lived with for more than 50 years. His patrons were likely as drawn by the thrill of seeing the odd recluse as by any desire for a keepsake image. He turned his back on his roots, claiming at one time to have been torn from his real family by a tornado and placed with the Meyers – a rural Arkansas family whose surname means "dairy farmer" in German. His choice of a replacement name – Dis-farmer – is as antagonistic as it is unmelodious.

Disfarmer's eccentric behavior extended to the studio. His lighting adjustments were said to take up to an hour. When he was ready to shoot, he would place his subjects in a room, give them detailed instructions about what to do and not do, then disappear behind a wall, where he waited until he thought the moment was right to take the shot. Frequently tired and not knowing exactly what was happening behind the wall, Disfarmer's subjects were caught in unguarded moments. His sitters smile infrequently. More often they are caught in a moment of pause, not really sure when the photo will actually happen (there was no "say cheese" clue). Sometimes, as in the case of a portrait capturing two small children, they are visibly scared. The resulting portraits are frequently awkward and oddly intimate. They are unlike the famous photographs of the Depression era, ones by artists like Dorothea Lange, seen through the filter of politics and surrounded by the aura of History. They are the manifestation of an idiosyncratic gaze, of a man who cannot stop looking at the world from which he feels himself removed.

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