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March 2013
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Review: Park City
Knowledge Objects
New works by Curtis Olson at J GO Gallery

Park City's J GO Gallery recently revealed a new body of work by Curtis Olson — three years in the making. The exhibit’s title, Antikythera: Knowledge Objects, is a reference to an ancient Greek relic discovered in a shipwreck at the turn of the twentieth century that only became fully understood in the past decade. We now know that the complicated and multi-layered gear mechanism from the second century B.C. was a sophisticated analog calculator used to predict the position of celestial bodies.

The Antikythera Mechanism is now only time-worn fragments, but modern reconstructions reveal a beautiful and fascinating object that seems as futuristic as it is ancient. Olson’s new works explore similar terrain: appearing thick and heavy, like the worn stone of an Aztec calendar, they are also engraved with lattices and other markings that suggest the sophistication of an extraterrestrial civilization.

The works are flat-backed, meant to hang or sit on a flat surface. Styrofoam gives them an inches-thick relief structure that is then layered with gesso and other materials to create a surface that resembles polished stone. Olson’s palette here is reduced, almost monochromatic, and highlighted with touches of primary colors. The “knowledge objects” come in a variety of shapes — pointed arches that feel like portals, round wheels that call to mind early calendars, and even a couple of semi-spheres that look like geodes split open to reveal surprising insides.

The thick, textured quality of these works will be familiar to those who have followed Olson’s art over the past decade. In earlier works, like the Landscape Memories series, the former architect embedded black and white photographs of old barns, lonely trees, and abandoned farm equipment, as well as rusted objects found on the trail, into slabs of colorfully textured surfaces. In those works, the textured elements frequently appeared as frames for the focal point of the photograph or rusty nail, or at best as abstract counterpoints to the representational elements.

In these newest works, however, the sculptural aspect has become self-sufficient. While the pieces remain reliefs — gratifying approaches from different angles though not meant to be experienced in the round — they stress their autonomous objecthood. They seem less like “artwork” to be peered at and more like artifacts whose presence resounds beyond the direct view.

Olson’s works have always yearned for a type of poetry, wanting to evoke a sense of history and loss. With his pieces on the American West, he was careful to avoid the pull of mythic nostalgia. He photographed non-majestic locales in a matter-of-fact manner, skirting what he described in 2007 as the western artist’s tendency “to create a fantasy world that does not exist.” His Knowledge Objects can’t help but be coated in a veneer of fantasy. They are meant to call to mind, as he says, “lost knowledge and objects which we may not yet fully comprehend.” As such, they are treading ground that is as mythically loaded in our popular consciousness as the West of cowboys and Indians: the attraction of lost civilizations goes back at least as far as the stories of Atlantis, and the blend of the ancient and the futuristic has proven popular enough that the 1994 film Stargate has become an entire franchise.

We aren’t likely to discover a Stargate-esque planet-hopping event horizon anytime soon. But as the Antikythera Mechanism reminds us, sophisticated objects of ancient provenance do become lost. They can lay buried beneath the sea and the sands. They can also be rediscovered, puzzled over and wondered at. Curtis Olson’s new works are poetic evocations of this fact. Their ability to remain in one’s consciousness long after viewing attests both to the skill of this craftsman and to the continuing wonder inside all of us that his works call to mind.

Exhibition Preview: Salt Lake City
Structures of Space
Stephanie Leitch's Untitled Congregation at Nox Contemporary

“When I look back as a child, I was always making big 3-dimentional projects, although I did not see it as art,” says Stephanie Leitch, a Salt Lake City artist preparing for an upcoming exhibit at Nox Contemporary. While studying for her art degree at the University of Utah, Leitch was not interested in the conventional. “I never got a piece of clay and sculpted it or I never chiseled marble.” She says process is what propels an artist. “You are satisfied in the process of something and that something pushes you forward.”

Exploring space, and its evolution through time, is the “something” that has driven Leitch’s work formally and thematically. In “Strata,” a site-specific work using a vacant retail space in Sugarhouse, Leitch considered the Salt Lake environs and the impact of time and physical change on its ecosystem. A graphic pattern of inverted pyramids was created by suspending distinctly shaped fabric units. Each form represented natural processes of nonlinear water systems that collected and eventually released water onto mounds of earth below the form -- measurable change in a controlled space. Similarly, in “The Dark Shy Pupil,” molasses and peanut oil were mixed in tubes anchored to the ceiling, and the mixture traveled to the ground along thin fibers, creating pools on the tiles below.

This past month, Leitch has been preparing for a new installation at Nox Contemporary. “Untitled Congregation” will be a massive installation that takes over the entire gallery space and examines another sort of local ecosystem. Like earlier works, it is a time-dependent system, and will play out over a two-hour period on March 15th. In the installation, a skeletal form of 180 “appendages” (made up of a total of 6000 plastic sacrament cups normally used for LDS church services) will hang from a grid structure along the gallery’s ceiling. A flow of water will pass through the grid, and, traveling from one cup to the next through a process of accretion, will unify the entire work in an animation of sight and sound.

But Leitch is fascinated less by any grandiosity, and more by a process that “takes the minute and pushes it to its utmost extent.” This minutia is the source for a unique blend of space and structure. “The water droplets undergo a series of collection, containment and release,” says the artist, and this creates a unique effect on the membrane the artist has created for each receptacle. Given the most fragmented of elemental allowances, the cohesion and play of water will be variable. This might be seen as a microcosm to the spatial structure of the whole. Water is contained and then released into channels whereby its course is entirely unique and variable. With total randomness and the absolutely unpredictable, the only constant here is beauty in a unique and fantastical structure of space.

“Every form is the evidence of action,” says the artist, who describes her massive self-generated work as “a structure which gravity acts upon.” Leitch’s self-generated installations may be considered organic in nature, suggesting metaphorical links to the spatial structures of any number of systems. These might be natural, like the reproductive systems of flora and fauna or the biological systems and subsystems of the human body. Or they might be more abstract, like the development of an ideological system, or the spiritual ecosystem of a collective group. Leitch’s ideology gives form to these complicated systems, creating environments that explore what Leitch calls the “phenomenology of space,” or the influence of space on perception. Ultimately, Leitch addresses the fundamental realities of space, as the site’s source for each installation and as an essential element of each work in her expansive oeuvre. She treats space more as the kind of physical structure it is, albeit hard to define, and less as arbitrary emptiness, easy to ignore.

The form of “Untitled Congregation” -- without the animating power of the water flow -- will remain at Nox Contemporary through April 19th and a video loop will provide visitors with a simulacrum of the original experience. But since, as Leitch says, the installation is a “process living itself out in front of the viewer,” to appreciate the fullness of the beauty of the spectacle and to perceive the structure of the space and its animated transformation, you probably have to be there.

Exhibition Review: Park City
The Occasion of Hybrid Art
Michael Kessler at Gallery MAR

During the twentieth century, someone was always looking around and calling what he saw “the death of art.” Yet those years saw the creation of more original and innovative ways of art-making than in any other comparable era. Following the lead of painting, most of those newer approaches (collage, assemblage, serigraphy, installation, performance, video, encaustic, etc.) were viewed by their creators as more that just superficial novelties: the abstract expressionists saw their technical breakthroughs as formal replacements for traditional content (theme, subject matter, point of view). Even those artists who continued to draw and paint from life generally recognized that the style of presentation had become more important than the choice of what to present. For a pop artist, a ketchup bottle and a movie star were equal subjects, provided they were presented in a manner that looked appropriate to the time and place of their representation.

So painting entered the twenty-first century offering an unprecedented range of material choices. Such variety, however, does not equal complete freedom; after all, if the look of the work contributes materially to its content—indeed may BE its content—then that look has to be appropriate to the work’s purpose. Every art student learns to capture the superficial style of cubism—never mind that her work may not share the reasons why cubist art looked the way it did. Works making arbitrary approaches may have decorative virtue, but they clearly would not contribute anything original and legitimate to art. They would not, to use a phrase popularized by the contemporary art movement, “be part of the discourse.”

This history is necessary prelude to an experience that has become common in the gallery. On scanning a room full of art, it’s often the case that new works recall otherwise unconnected ones. Not that they are copies, or even influenced by the earlier work, but it seems as though a look from another time and place has percolated into them, creating a kind of hybrid. The result can be very exciting, as was the case last week, when I came across the paintings of Michael Kessler at MAR Gallery in Park City. Kessler was born in Pennsylvania in 1954, but has lived and worked in New Mexico for some time, so he may be thought a local artist. And although his work initially appears absolutely abstract, closer study reveals it to be rooted in nature —specifically in the emergence from plant architecture of its characteristic surface textures and forms. Finding an image that delivers such a powerful, purely aesthetic rush—the pleasure of rich color and strong line, working together to create a complex-but-unified experience within the frame—and discovering on further examination that it evokes and imports inferences about the world into which it emerges, is the kind of discovery one expects to make in the museum, among the old masters, not something today’s art often delivers.

Tidepools by Michael Kesslery

A few further observations are worth making. As is generally true since the departure of the abstract expressionist “giants,” Kessler’s works run from small to middle size. Their surfaces are hard and glass-like, qualities that go well with their frequent suggestion of stained glass windows. They call to mind European post-WW2 stained glass, with its strong graphic quality: lead lines used to draw freely over an expansive background of colored geometry that is characterized by hand-made textures. In addition to printmaking, the glassy surface encourages a feeling of peering into a shallow space full of scratched, raked, or sprinkled patterns. Lines, varying in weight but usually accompanied by shadows or auras (as if backlit) wind and weave before these grounds, sometimes freely and at other times seeming to be contained in tubes or passageways that crisscross the panel. In addition to botanical details, topological impressions often suggest charts and maps.

It would be sufficient for many in the audience that these are beautiful, captivating, and hypnotic paintings that the eye will never exhaust. They will continue to reward careful and even casual study for as long as they are seen. But for those who want to find another truth—one that can be translated into words—there are metaphors to be found in their resemblance to so many natural events. Whether it’s the starry sky, or bubbles rising in a clear vessel, or the overlap of a texture and a line producing a recognizable object like a leaf or branch, a visual argument is being made in these images. The miracle of the language you are reading is that from a large-but-finite number of words and the rules for combining them, infinite variation is possible, and anything can be said. Michael Kessler demonstrates that from a similarly large-but-limited number of colors and two-dimensional shapes, a three-dimensional world of infinite possibility arises.

Sometimes I think I’m getting tired of art, but I could watch this happen all day, and for the rest of my life.

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