Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
All That Is Tasty and of Good Report
Kent Christensen retrospective at the Woodbury Museum of Art
One culture’s culinary pleasure is another culture’s entrenched taboo. Which can come in handy if, say, you’re a young maritime Republic looking for divine protection and a little tourist industry: legend has it the Venetians swiped the relics of St. Mark, their patron saint, by layering them in pork — taboo for the Muslim customs agents in Alexandria who were supposed to inspect the cargo. Those custom agents were also forbidden alcohol, a restriction we may have to thank for our cappuccinos and lattes: the teetotaling Arabs compensated for their lack of liquor by giving the world coffee. To the Venetians, the Muslim habits likely seemed silly, and the successful thieves, once returned to their shimmering lagoon, probably enjoyed recounting their exploits on a Friday night, over a plate of fish.
Utah has its fair share of dietary oddities. Though Mormons would have had no qualms about digging through a layer of pork, they are restricted from both coffee and alcohol, as well as tea and cigarettes (fish, on Fridays or otherwise, is just fine). And like the Arabs, they make up for their abstinence from one stimulant with overindulgence in another: sugar.
As a lifelong Mormon, Kent Christensen knows this, and when, as a Masters student at the University of Utah he began to explore the conflux of food and culture he knew he had rich source material in his native culture’s use of food as ritual and symbol. A decade later he is still painting the sweet stuff: milkshakes, Oreos, caramels, and ice cream cones fill his paintings. These confectionary compositions are currently on exhibit in a mid-career retrospective at the Woodbury Museum of Art in Orem.
The retrospective stretches back to the artist’s student days at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California with a couple of paintings that show his early interest in abstracted design and a palette that already showed a preference for cotton candy hues. Christensen’s ultimate path to sucrose took a detour, though, via a successful career in illustration. From the mid-eighties until the time he began his Master's at the University of Utah in 2003, Christensen worked as an illustrator in New York. This period is amply illustrated in the exhibit by scores of illustrations created for publications like Rolling Stone, TIME and Business Week.|3| Christensen became known for his penchant for transforming the human head to fill the picture plane and illustrate the story. In his illustrations, often completed in a matter of a day or two, a mouth might stretch to become a computer screen or a skull pop open on a hinge to provide easy access for scientific experimentation. In a foreshadowing of Christensen’s later interests, an illustration for Juvenile Diabetes Foundation on exhibit shows the large forehead of a worried-looking female transformed into a canvas displaying her sugary cravings.|4|
With Christensen’s graduate work, these cravings started filling his canvases. They began simply enough, with a number of small still-lifes: of a Coke bottle,|5| a circle of candy corn, six small caramels. This experimentation matured into works that glorify, and almost deify the sweet stuff. The canvases were enlarged, so that a stack of glistening caramels now stands as tall as a young child.|6| And Christensen began exploiting the symbolic and metaphorical qualities of his subjects: cakes could make political statements,|7| and chocolates examine spiritual grace. In Christensen’s recent paintings, confectioned ice cream cones and milkshakes hover above the landscape like divine manifestations. These objects, floating above Hollywood,|8| New York, San Francisco, as well as Deer Valley|9| and Sundance,|10| are frequently tilted slightly in comparison to the landscape, making them appear as offerings. The paintings are cute, and there are plenty of jokes embedded in them, but they are also entrenched in the artist’s extensive understanding of art history. He points out that Caravaggio used to tilt his perspective as well, causing the objects in his paintings, hung high above on a church wall, to appear to protrude into the viewer’s space. While you have your art history book open to check that, you might also revisit Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” where a painted skull only appears when looked at from an oblique angle. Christensen says a number of his recent paintings do something similar. In his “Map of Utah 1870,” where an Oreo and glass of milk hover above the landscape of Salt Lake City in 1870, careful examination reveals a pair of dinosaurs in the landscape, as well as an anachronistic Spiral Jetty in the distance.|11| Christensen’s reference to dinosaurs may be another friendly jab at his own culture: Utah is home to some of the best dinosaur sites in the world but also a healthy number of people who date the earth to a few thousand years ago.
What can leave outsiders scratching their heads may be fodder for serious table conversation for insiders. With the LDS church’s official ban on coffee and tea, many Mormons have debated the consumption of any form of caffeine. Eager theologians would point to BYU, the church-sponsored University, where caffeinated drink are unavailable at campus vending machines and food courts, and include Coke and Pepsi on the list of taboo treats. So when the LDS Church came out with an official statement earlier this year that consumption of caffeinated colas does not bar members from full participation, it caused a stir in some circles. Those outside the circle probably found the whole thing silly. As did some within the circle, Christensen among them. His most recent piece, the one that crowns this exhibition, is an installation of Coke bottles (delightedly emptied by Christensen himself – straight Coke, no diet, he says, and Mexican Coke, which contains cane sugar instead of corn syrup). The bottles, each emblazoned with “Celestial” in gold lettering and set against a very reflective grid of shiny aluminum, are arranged so that they form the silhouette of the Salt Lake Temple.|12-13|
You may not find your favorite Coke product in the Temple’s cafeteria anytime soon (yup, a cafeteria, it’s in the basement), but spend some time at this exhibit and you'll find yourself imagining a perspiring bottle of the caramel colored stuff floating angelically above its spires.
Exhibition Spotlight: Provo
The Objecthood of Painting
Sunny Taylor at BYU's Auditorium Gallery
BYU professor of art Sunny Belliston Taylor likes shapes. For the past decade she has built an increasingly sophisticated body of work that explores the "objecthood" of painting. Her abstracted paintings make overt references to their own structure, to the boundaries of the panel's dimensions, the geometric building blocks of her compositions.
Boundaries, her exhibition at the BYU Harold B. Lee Library Auditorium Gallery in Provo, features a number of her current explorations. In this video piece, filmmaker Chris Cutri visits Taylor in her Provo home to discuss life, art and the nature of form. You can watch all of Cutri's movies on Utah artists at RakeTelevision.
Work to Do at BYU . . . from page 1
Yet, the religious and cultural idiosyncrasies of those debates and the specific identities they address are set aside in exchange for a broader lens regarding the variety of lived experiences that make up the diverse cultural landscape of the collective artists. For each artist is quite different from the others. Not only in their diverse artistic practices but also the topics in which they engage and as such, the show conjures a sense of multiplicity rather than a false construction of a shared unity.
To be clear, I think it would be a misstep to narrowly label this specifically a feminist show. In part, because feminist art can often slide into didacticism, championing activism over aesthetics (and this show does not). Additionally, each artist understands and perceives what exactly is the “work to be done” varies. Artist Jann Haworth explains, “I don't take the view [that] we as female artists have 'work to do' for feminism. If we chose that subtext , we do so out of a sense . . . of injustice. It is not our day job. What I mean is that one is not holding the job of feminist looking for topics to crusade about. It is not the central subject. Creative thought is the central drive.”
Creative she is. One of the leading figures of the British Pop Art movement, Haworth is by far the most successful of the four artists on exhibit. Former UMFA curator Jill Dawsey described her as “the most important artist living in Utah today” — strong words, not parsed along gendered lines. Her beautiful and strange sculptures, like “Charm Bracelet” and “Old Lady” disfigures the confines of the flat rectangular canvas. Rather, Haworth sews it, stuffs it and molds it into soft sculptural canvas forms whose shapes often expose gendered tropes or poke fun at the art historical canon. Such gestures flatten hierarchical boundaries of high and low subject matter and materials, with all of the strength of Pop art’s trademark tongue in cheek irony.
In the neighboring gallery, one encounters 1,000 partially eaten pink marshmallows lined up neatly on a shelf that wraps across three walls. Some are half-eaten, others nearly consumed, and some bear only bite-marks. Above this sugary sweet wasteland, are 1,000 pigment prints of Amy Jorgensen in the process of eating, hesitating, considering. They read as mug shots documenting the various expressions and emotions of having eaten when one should have abstained.
The work references the well-known Stanford University study called “Marshmallow Test,” which measured delayed gratification in children as an indicator for more successful lives. But on a deeper level, Jorgensen’s work grapples with ideas of food guilt and body image, an issue especially gendered. It is well documented that our American culture has a near clinical obsession with being thin and yet, our society chronically overeats, indulges, refusing to delay, to wait. As such, junk food is often (and absurdly) equated with sin.
One need only drive down I-15 to see that this is especially the case in Utah. As Lambson explains, “Utah is often called one of the happiest (often an indicator of success) in the nation,” he said, “but we live in a state that has some of the highest rates in the nation of plastic surgery, suicide, depression, stress, and prescription drug abuse.” Utah then, is wrapped in paradox and Jorgensen’s piece painfully reveals these tensions and pressures for perfection that exist, here, and elsewhere.
Then there’s Trent Alvey’s “The Very Large Bride’s Dress,” made almost entirely of bubble wrap, outfitted with plastic chains for the straps and train. On one hand, it is a massive and ironic tribute to Bridezilla, focused on the ephemeral, the superficial, the fleeting. Yet, one can also see it as a shielding material designed for the protection of something fragile, something sacred. And there’s always the idea of marriage as the old ball and chain.
For Terry Tempest Williams, who wrote about the exhibition for its catalog, it is a sign of the end of the world, where our environments are covered in waste, in materials that won’t decompose, that wrap us and warp us away from the organic. So Alvey makes messy work, in the sense that the meaning is not fixed, in the sense that it causes a disruption. For it is not simply about dressmaking (although that is there too) but about the various ways we project meaning onto others and onto ourselves.
Finally, at the entrance of the exhibition, is Pam Bowman’s breathtaking sculpture “Becoming.” At first sight, the viewer is met with a free-standing wall from which a series of straggly strings hang, seemingly haphazard and insignificant, almost like an Eva Hesse sculpture. Yet, walk to the side and to the back, and what emerges is tons of beautiful taut rope pulled in a dramatic diagonal, all leading to a massive and magnificent basket weaved spool of nautical rope.
Collectively each small strand builds the nest, builds the (art) work. For Bowman, the piece reflects the chaos and messiness of everyday domestic experience that when pulled together collectively builds something meaningful. It is a celebration of domesticity and an homage to the heritage of the so-called feminine arts like basket weaving, embroidery, sewing. Work that can be picked up, stopped, squeezed in. In fact, for Bowman the exhibition’s title is somewhat of a mission statement and a rigorous and serious reclamation of the marginalized and dismissed domestic life of so many women.
In this regard, she differs from Haworth, Jorgensen, and Alvey. And it should be clear that these four women do not constitute a homogenous perspective. They each come from different backgrounds, are involved in different life experiences. Their work is different, distinct, all its own. Yet, when seen as a collective, certain themes emerge. One is a emphasis on softness: marshmallows, bubble wrap, fabric, rope. The other perhaps more closely echoes Kelly’s Women and Work: that is, a desire to document and to make a record of one’s self, one’s work.