Installation . . . from page 1
Seen today, alone on a gigantic palace wall, only “Mona Lisa’s” glass coffin and public relations aura prevent its physical presence being overwhelmed by excessive space. One of the most clear-cut predicaments produced by our image-soaked era is that nothing can stand up to the expectations brought on by previous or excessive exposure. We’ve already seen too much of “Mona Lisa” to be impressed by her, and the crowds she now draws resemble nothing so much as those along the red carpet at a movie premiere. Even scale falls before modern technology: Stonehenge, the most visited attraction in all Great Britain, shares the same fate as “Mona Lisa”: the comment made most often by visitors to both is the same: "I thought it would be bigger."
Everyone remembers that Marcel Duchamp was sufficiently dis-enthralled by Leonardo’s portrait to draw a mustache on her postcard reproduction. It’s even possible that the triumph and inevitable waning of such portable works helped give him the idea for installation, the attributes of which include scale: installation takes over space, sometimes to extremes. Utah’s current leading installation artist, Stephanie Leitch, showed how it’s done in two recent works. "Untitled Apogee," her meditation on the role assumed by church architecture in the dramatic landscape of the Wasatch Front, filled its alcove (at UMOCA) as fully as Magritte’s green apple does "The Listening Room" and his red rose the "The Wrestler’s Tomb." The result was a rare work of landscape art that feels in the body as much as it looks in the eye and mind.Whether she agrees or not, the artist is at least contemplating, along with Magritte and Wordsworth, whether ‘the world is too much with us.’ Leitch then took a quantum leap into the architecture with "The Mote and the Beam" (at the City Library), where she literally (to use the adverb correctly for once) stitched the room’s walls together with a dense web of yarn suggestive of things tangible and intangible— mathematical plots, atomic bonds, the adhesive threads that form when sticky things or ideas are pulled apart. Central to the enigma of the senses is the paradoxical quality of space, which evaporates when empty and disappears when full. Stephanie Leitch gives form to the invisible mathematics that make it real in the mind.
Until now, Utah’s best-known installations have typically been permanently sited. Ralph Helmick and Stu Schedhter’s "Psyche," the composite head made of 1,500 books and butterflies in the atrium of the City Library, profits from its location adjacent to the open stairs, which allow studying its changing perspective while ascending and descending. Viewers can climb close enough to study the delicate butterflies hovering near, or perched on, the books they seem to be reading, or stroll to the far end of the atrium and study the entire head amidst the elaborately articulated space. Downstairs, meanwhile, two utterly evocative installations fly under the radar, passing themselves off as reading rooms for the children’s library. Karl Schlamminger’s "Crystal Cave," inspired by Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, was crafted of white plastic that simulates ice, while "Attic" invites readers to tuck themselves beneath wooden trusses, amidst simulated lath and plaster, in an isolated aerie actually not only underground, but beneath a lake. Unlike the sculptures mounted on poles in various locations around town, they modify space the viewer shares.
A few blocks away, in a much simpler, far more formal setting, Dale Chihuly’s standing chandelier in the lobby of Abravanel Hall remains from the art that accompanied the Olympics. Chihuly’s lifetime achievement has been to blow open the limits of fragile blown glass in favor of bold, architecturally-scaled ensembles. Some, like the floats inspired by the glass balls that used to detach from fishing nets and drift ashore on the West Coast, can be freely juxtaposed. Others, like the tower at Abravanal, so suggestive of growth and striving, are made of numerous components designed to hang together on structural wire forms. Trained in textile arts, Chihuly makes consummate use of color and form, but in contrast to most contemporary artists, gives his ornaments only abstract content and no guidance to invite or reward contemplation. An element of class intrudes in this case, as well. Access to Abravanal Hall is restricted by its location in a theater lobby, which—unlike museums that have free days or libraries that are open to the public—is usually either closed off or crowded with those attending the events it serves. Most viewers will probably be limited to the view through the window.
Unlike these permanent works, but like Stephanie Leitch’s brief encounters, Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s installations made of salt gain power from his determination that, while his work will consume his lifetime, each separate iteration will last for mere weeks. Any true artist’s work will evolve over time, but where most leave behind a trail of durable images, texts, or scores, artists like Leitch and Yamamoto primarily leave artifacts: historical clues that recall or suggest but cannot fully recapture the substantial moments of their careers. Having spent the last fourteen years touring the world, painstakingly articulating spaces—primarily from the ground up—with intricate and elaborate drawings and sculptures in salt, Yamamoto doubles down on the conceptual nature of works that now exist only in memory and the imagination by collectively titling them with a single name: Return to the Sea. Among the more revelatory qualities of his two recent works in Utah, a state inextricably connected with salt, saltwater, and the (inland) sea, was the way the first, done at Weber State in late February, was created, exhibited, and destroyed in the Art Department building, while the other, at Westminster College in March, followed the same sequence in the Meldrum Science Center. The oft-noted connection between art and science—at least as valid and compelling as that between art and religion—challenges an artist to bring scientific activities and perspectives to the foreground in the viewer’s mind. Yet installation, with its deep connection to context and setting, brings the resonance forward in a way no object or activity alone can accomplish. The unmistakable contrast between the textures and evoked content of the two works—one so like a geometric maze, the other suggesting an ukiyo-e, woodblock-print depiction of a whirlpool—showed one way setting and work can unite in an aesthetic whole. Furthermore, by allowing visitors to watch his labor, Yamamoto brings not only the art object, but the process itself into the site.
Like Yamamoto’s, Annie Kennedy’s decade’s-worth of installations have been unified by her continuing focus. Both emphasize materials: where he draws with salt to commemorate his sister, she assembles personally resonant objects and substances to recall, and reflect on, her family in the context of cultural history. Although she has never broken entirely with the convention of hanging individual works—her survival quilts being perhaps the best known—such recurring motifs as mantlepiece clocks, sego lilies, and sardine tins sealed in wax argue for a self-contained system of iconography that lend her collections the continuity of a traveling event, installed in a particular place and time, never to be precisely repeated.
With the exception of abstraction, most of the last century’s rapidly changing, avant-garde approaches to art making bypassed Utah. In fact, minimalism, installation, performance, appropriation, and intervention (not to mention more recent trends involving food, sex, and other transgressive materials) had only isolated or diffuse impacts anywhere between the two coasts. Media that are only now claiming attention in the local scene have seen their vogues come and go in today’s international market. Arts grounded in craft, like studio glass and sculptural ceramics, have also been added to the mix. Yet with its strong sense of community and shared culture, Utah may provide a far richer medium to promote the deep rooting and rich growth of subordinate, yet demonstrably vital and energetic approaches to this fundamental human activity. To take just one other example, the impulse behind Earth Art, an almost entirely New York gallery driven activity that saw works like Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels dropped into Utah like alien landings, has been absorbed into the almost religious feeling for landscape that has long distinguished local art and set it apart from the mainstream. Throughout human history, would-be invaders have been absorbed by, and have disappeared among, those they sought to displace. Why shouldn’t the best ideas of modern and contemporary art invigorate Utah’s characteristically vigorous, usefully traditional voice?
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Scenes of the Sensible and the Sublime
Anne Albaugh at 15th Street Gallery
Edmund Burke, at the height of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, an era defined by learning and the intellect, began to look at the wonders of nature and considered the value of human sensibilities, not merely as means for scientific or artistic investigation, but for their own sake. In 1757 he wrote a treatise, that along with the writings of Rousseau, Kant, and painters who looked to and saw beauty in the ruinous Rome, launched the fervor of the Romantic era. “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful,” was one of the seminal texts of the 18th century, and introduced into enlightened society the notion of the sublime.
We can arrive at a colloquial but genuine understanding of the sublime in its original Burkean context as we look and see the work of artist Anne Albaugh, currently on display at 15th Street Gallery in Salt Lake City. That sublime is generated by the artist’s passion, intense sensibility to her subject, her process, and her vision of humanity.
In our day, the concept is highly misused and its meaning largely diluted. It has been generally reduced to allude to a greater or more astonishing beauty, something truly awesome, or something of exceptional measure. The dimension that gives the word its gravitas has been lost. Burke elucidated in his treatise, "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”
The storm, or tempest, is a classical sublime subject, and one that attracts Ann Albaugh in canvas after canvas, especially the storms of the deserts of southern Arizona desert. Albaugh makes yearly trips to visit a sister who has lived there for 15 years. “They have monsoons at the end of June, June is the hottest month, so the first of July, that’s when the water comes, that’s when the water ‘happens,’ and the storms and the moisture come out of Mexico and it creates these unbelievable storms,” she says. “That is what I like to paint. I like to paint the changes; they’re beautiful but at the same time they’re scary.”
“Stoner Ranch Road,” whose colors shine from the white walls of the 15th Street Gallery, is an intense evocation of a storm and an intense evocation of the sublime. The bold clashing of icy white and blackened blue creates a sense of grandeur that is awesome in its sense of physical wonderment; the gravity of the colliding of forces, the elements in a battle of dominance over the skies… it is a magnificent sight to behold. But there is something too magnificent, too grave, too wonderful, too awesome, too bold. As “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other,” it cannot take it all in, and there is an uncanny dread of what lies beyond ourselves, and we suddenly feel very small. As looking at the sky, the universe at night, when looked at a bit too intently, can be a bit overwhelming, this is what makes Albaugh’s work sublime, and a little scary.
Another image might be less frightening, but the sublime cannot be contained none-the-less. “Not Scott’s Road” is an equally large canvas that is equally, for the most part, a section of foreground and a large expanse of sky. Says Albaugh, “The foreground, although important, is basically a sense of place. Without the relationship, without each other they would loose their sense of place. They go together. It is important to have scale. Primarily it is about scale. My foregrounds give my storms scale. Without the foreground you have no scale.”
Although “Not Scott’s Road” is less of a tempest than any of the other canvases, its scale is still imperative: the foreground gives the sky the completion of dimension it needs to be read accurately and definitively as a great expanse, sometime around dusk, as the colors are changing and the sky, towards the distant horizon, is ribboned into cottony white, steel blue, violet blue, rose pink, and pale aqua. Even without the presence of a storm, the great expansiveness of natural wonder, made immense by the scaling of the foreground, is enough to fill the mind with wonder to the point that a certain sense of unease might begin to settle, the beginnings of the feeling and awareness of the sublime, ever-present in nature to the perceptive and astute mind’s eye.
More abstract in the sense of the elemental, and more easily redolent of the sublime, is the more reductive and minimal “Arroyo.” Here, a vast unearthly desert reaches up and over the low horizon, as an arroyo carves its way through the land. This vastness is imperative to Albaugh, who says of the stormy clouds above, “Without that, we don’t know where it [the storm] comes from, we don’t know how big it is, what’s going on. They move at such speeds, and they change moment by moment by moment. In one minute you’re going to have a whole different look.”
And all of a sudden, without consideration to storms or to scale or to the purity of the hues she uses, Albaugh introduces another subject and says emphatically; “Think about these people. Think about this desert. They come out into this, and they bring their children, and with two-gallon jugs of water, they set out to walk 100 miles into the desert, and it breaks my heart [speaking of those on the other side of the border trying to reach this side].” And as she says these words Albaugh’s eyes are red and tears stream down her cheeks and I begin to wonder, “What are the origins of the storms Albaugh is so impassioned to paint? What is the reality of the sublime in her work?”
A final masterful composition of color and scale and the sublime, is the immense and conflicted sky of deep arctic blue, pummeling against a counter-balanced force of billowing white in “Mountain Meadows Dunes.” Beneath is a shallow foreground of clay colored sand dunes. With a cleaner horizon line, this might easily be an impressively accomplished work of abstraction, but the subtle sable gray shadows of the dunes, and small patches of gray breaks of sky in the drama overhead, give this painting a distinctive and powerful subject. But what is even more powerful are the sensibilities of the artist who created it, so tied to her art, one wonders how it can it be simply a formal relationship?
It is life’s drama that keeps Anne Albaugh compelled and her art sublime. She sees storms in life where others don’t. Her sensitivity to those that are literal manifests itself on canvas to a level of reality that achieves the sublime, in a realization transcending what can be comprehended. Albaugh faces reality, and she faces the storms, and she does what she can to make the world a better and more beautiful place for those she is able to reach, and those whose sensibilities she is able to touch. She is an example of a visionary and a realist, and an honest artist who feels deeply, but is unafraid.