Simpler, Brighter, Stronger . . . from page 1
Anderson has done an excellent job not only in providing a varied panorama of the Southwest during the Modernist era, but in elucidating through didactic panels and exhibition labels the exhibition’s three thematic elements: simpler, brighter, stronger. “Simpler” resulted through the artists’ move away from detailed naturalism towards abstraction, “Brighter” was reflected by the radical depiction of the strong sunlight found across the Southwest, and “Stronger” exemplified the bold use of composition and hues that imparted a sense of a vibrant landscape and its people.
The storied history of nineteenth and early twentieth century American painting provides us with the influences that led traditionalist painters to leave the world of accurate depiction and employ new colors and abstracted modes of representation. American painters emulated the work of their European counterparts to a certain extent and adopted the practice of painting out of doors. Landscape and light were considered in new ways once painting became portable and artists traveled first close to home, then farther afield to realize their subjects in perfect light.
Paul Cézanne was just one artist who used light to its full advantage. His home in the south of France, a region famous for the quality and consistency of sunlight, provided him with endless opportunities to develop his revolutionary, signature painting style. As Cézanne considered the landscape before him, he worked with brighter, stronger colors to depict less delineated shapes, choosing instead to paint the essence of what was before him. His crosshatched application of paint was another move away from traditionalism and towards a new visual expression on canvas.
Cézanne was one of many European artists whose work was displayed in New York City at the historic International Exhibition of Modern Art, known simply as the Armory Show of 1913. Over 300 American and European artists were included in this groundbreaking exhibition, which has been credited with bringing European Modernism to the United States through the works of not only Cézanne but Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh to name just a few artists. One American artist who endorsed the Armory Show was the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He promoted Modernism in his own gallery, called “291,” exhibiting American and European artists. Stieglitz’s initial support of the young artist Georgia O’Keeffe resulted in their marriage and then eventual separation as O’Keeffe found a new passion in her life, which dominated her time and influenced her artistic language for decades: the light and landscape of the American Southwest.
The inclusion of European Modernism at the Armory Show was one way new styles of painting made their way to the American West. It could be her name recognition, but I like to think it’s her connection between East coast and West, between European influence and American adoption that led Anderson to place O’Keeffe’s painting "White Primrose" (1947)|2| front and center to the MOA exhibition. With her signature and singular floral subject — a white flower glowing from an unseen light source — O’Keeffe ushers the viewer into the exhibition and the initial grouping related to “Simpler.” Kathryn W. Leighton’s painting "Wife and Child of Bull Plume" (c. 1925)|3| also exemplifies the idea “Simpler” through its cohesive composition and melding of two figures into one under the bold geometric pattern of a single quilt. No background is needed to distract us from the empathetic portrait before us as “simpler” allows more time to contemplate mood, color, and composition.
Western landscapes of depth and breadth are interspersed with equally compelling portraiture throughout the exhibition. The variety of landscapes range from fantastical forms (see Vance Kirkland’s "Clouds, Mountains and a Lake"|4| for an excellent example) to abstracted vistas of line and form. Paint is applied to canvases in new, gestural ways: modulated transparent hues, thick dabs of impasto, broad bold colors, and energetic slashes. Mabel Pearl Frazer’s "Desert Grandeur" (c. 1940) may be placed with works denoting a “Simpler” style of painting, yet it is bright and strong as well. Her horizontal expanse of the Grand Staircase is rendered in beautiful, bold colors rich in each aspect of sand, sage, rock, and sky. Shape and land take form, connecting us to familiar, often beloved, landscapes.
Birger Sandzén’s "Untitled (Trees in the Desert)" (undated) |5|is an excellent regional example of one of the new European modes of applying oil to canvas. His twisted trees exude life through shape and hues applied in discernible dabs. Sandzén’s sky swirls in evocative patterns, drawing comparison (as Anderson cogently does in his wall label) to the work of van Gogh. Maynard Dixon’s "Colorado Desert" (1926)|6|, provides a lovely contrast in not only paint application, but mood through placement and emphasis. Whereas Sandzén provides us with images in the foreground that hold our immediate attention, Dixon presents a distant view of a seemingly barren landscape. Dixon’s magic was to use color to evoke depth and space, allowing the viewer to feel each landscape under his brush was monumental in nature.
It is a treat to see well-known artists exhibited with those lesser known: it gives us a variety of ways to understand the move towards Modernism in renderings of the Southwest. Harold Joe Waldrum’s painting "La Iglesia en Corrales" (undated) |7| is almost graphic in nature. Clean lines emphasize simplicity while bold shadows provide the depth needed to keep Waldrum’s work away from the cliché of poster art. Utah artist V. Douglas Snow (the subject of Frank McEntire’s two simultaneous exhibitions in Salt Lake City, and 2013 publication) is represented with "Stone Mountain", (1977).|8| It is a gorgeous cacophony of atmosphere rendered in Snow’s virtuoistic manner, where the full force of nature’s sublime is expressionistically expressed.
There are portraits interspersed with landscapes, and in closing, Walter Ufer’s "The Washer Woman" (undated) |9|comes to mind as an exemplar of each theme Anderson presents to the viewer. Simpler, certainly, as the naturalistic scene has been made a little less formal through a broader approach to form. Brighter, definitely, as the desert sun washes away most shadows. Stronger, absolutely, as the weight of the washer woman’s load bears down on her, resulting in a strong shadow below her form. The dignity of the woman, performing a menial task, is reminiscent of the French painter Jean-François Millet’s "The Gleaners" (1857), where unidentified women bend and stoop to perform the final stage of harvest, elevated in stature through their monumental stance and presence.
During the exhibition’s opening Director Mark Magleby said now is a renaissance moment for the Museum of Art’s Southwest collection. Their extensive gallery space includes not only the exhibition Simpler, Brighter, Stronger: Early Modernism and Southwestern American Art (on view at MOA through July 26, 2014) but also People in a Hard Land: Iconic Images of Life in the Southwest, on view through December 28, 2013. Plan to spend a long afternoon at the museum to take in and savor these illuminating views of our land and our many and varied peoples. It will be time well spent, in the company of inspiring and inspirational art.
Exhibition Preview: Salt Lake City
Palomin and the Raven
Alexander Hraefn Morris at Gittins Gallery
Alexander Hraefn Morris says he recognizes a spiritual presence within him, and we can see this expressed in one of the artist’s more direct works of abstraction: “It Takes Note and Attempts to Understand” is a 9 x 3 foot triptych that abstractly maps the Cottonwood Heights area Morris grew up in. A thick blue line across the canvas depicts a route frequently taken by Morris, and along it the artist has described, in verse, his search for a true companion.
The triptych has overtly Taoist implications. The path Morris has chosen has progressed through a numberless series of choices along life’s journey. Fascinatingly apropos of this progression are the piece’s linear fragments, that are not just explicative formal details with acute stylization, but also represent crossroads at which choices must be made, turns taken: the entire Taoist reality is of a sudden utterly and completely altered only to be affected by the next fork in the road.
Morris’s own journey is still relatively fresh — earlier this year he graduated from the University of Utah with a BFA in drawing and painting — and already promising — his long piece “Release” was selected by juror Meri DeCaria as “Best of Show” at the University’s BFA exhibition in April; and, along with Kyle Odland, he was awarded the Howard Clark Scholarship, which provides the two artists with an exhibition at the University of Utah’s Gittins Gallery November 14-December 16.
The works Morris will be exhibiting at the Gittins show are powerfully expressive abstract narratives executed through a spiritual lens, the artist guided in all matters by substances of the spirit documented in paint. They are characterized by a stunningly fine abstract layering of paint, worked and reworked; colors in subtle gradations or tones; generalized areas of demarcated space and texture; line seemingly jutting from nowhere to nowhere. Everything to the most minor detail is used purposefully in an aesthetic that is structurally and spiritually bold and resonant of personal artistic intensity.
Though fully appreciable for their aesthetic qualities of line, color and texture, Morris’s works are also filled with an evocative if sometimes private symbolic quality. Though rough and sometimes barely delineated, these symbols reappear again and again in his pieces. They form a personal mythology that stretches back to Morris’s youth, when friends called him wolf-bird, an ecologist’s term for the raven, the predator that the wolf would follow to its prey. The image of a slightly anthropomorphic bird appears and reappears in Morris’s paintings, sometimes as multiples, other times transformed to hazy lines or blotches of paint.
This raven figure joins another recurrent element, an “empathetic guardian” the artist identifies as Palomin, and which is a pastiche of ancient Egyptian and Judeo-Christian deities. It is a spiritual other to the artist’s figure of the Raven, representing both a protective or guiding spirit, as well as the figure of the artist’s wife, his true companion.
A prime example of these elemental, conceptual and symbolic qualities can be found forming a majestic symbiosis in “Hoarse Cries.” The 4.5 x 3 foot work at first seems entirely cryptic and all that may be detected is the crude and rough form that looks as if it may or may not be referential — this is a pervasive quality of Morris’ work, as the deepest secrets are found from within. As these are discovered and as one finds oneself talking with Morris, there is fantastically no limit to the depth of meaning these crude elements can reach.
Familiarity with Morris’s work helps one detect the form of the Raven at the left with its upper body and neck taking the base of the canvas while the neck arches upwards with just the tip of the left wing visible, marking the difference between the static and the violent. This is no calm and stoic raven but one with its beak gaping wide, a stream issuing forth from this immense beak like a funnel of fire.
In the ferocity of this mass, ferocious enough to make a raven’s throat coarse, is not fire but language, the language of the Raven, the language of Morris’s “other,” a language of a different space and place only known by the Raven. But! His cries are stopped short. A rough wall delineating a void of the lightest gray infused with the subtlest tint of blue stops his coarse cries. Is it, though, a void or is it the space of Palomin, the space of purity that fuses with the Raven’s cries making them pure?
Here is a narrative of such refinement as to counter the roughness of the surface material and make manifest the traversed distance and life attainment on the Raven’s experiential journey as it binds with Palomin. The rawness is an oblique symbolism as it is a means to an ends, beginning with the blotched and sketchy raven with spills and spoils covering it, the universe that surrounds it, one that is densely opaque yet allowing for the dissolution of masses. The language that issues forth from the gaping mouth is just this and Morris has symbol by symbol inscribed an impromptu language of his own, which is at once the Raven’s also.
Structurally, Alexander Hraefn Morris’s paintings are finely executed works full of wonderful abstract qualities like form, line, texture and color. In addition, fused with elements of his unique symbolic mythology, they become multi-layered multi-dimensional narratives full of spiritual elements. The stories told may be inspired by the artist’s own life journey, but they resonate to include broader issues of human experience, making them both very personal and broadly universal.