Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Oh the Places...
Darryl Erdmann, Mark Knudsen and Paul Vincent Bernard explore the spirit of place at Phillips Gallery
Place is not a thing, it is not even a space, it is an experience. An experience that, through the artist’s hand, can be shared. This is the concept that drives “Spirit of Place,” featuring works by Darryl Erdmann, Mark Knudsen and Paul Vincent Bernard, currently up at Phillips’ Dibble Gallery. These artists are tied to the landscape of the west, though in varying degrees of literalness, and for the exhibit, each artist chose two locales, for a total of six locations, which each artist set about exploring to provide their individual interpretation of place.
Seen out of this context, Darryl Erdmann’s paintings would be the least likely to be identified with specific place. In his work, Erdmann takes us on metaphorical abstract journeys, showing to the viewer the truth that “place” need not be a thing or even a space. For Erdmann, place is something so metaphysical, so specific to the individual that that state of mind, the elemental foundation, simply cannot be described and for Erdmann, the result is a range of abstractions, from the most boldly explosive in “Outer Marker” to the more resolutely controlled in “Defining Moment.”
“This whole show for me was a composite,” Erdmann says of the idea of exploring place. “I stayed true to this throughout. For example, Alpine Loop was my choice. Every time I have been up there it has been proportionately in my mind green to black. I wanted to stay true to this subjectivity. It always seemed so contemplative and vast.” Interestingly, Bernard’s painting for the same subject shares Erdmann’s palette of greens and yellows — though his forms more directly suggest the mountain peaks of the Alpine Loop, peaks rendered in crisp detail in Knudsen’s view of the backside of Mt. Timpanogos. Interestingly, Erdmann’s “Defining Moment,” is also very structural and geometric, suggesting that he sees harmony in nature not as unbridled elements thrown to the wind but as a cognitive sensibility that can be grasped by the rational mind and contemplated, pondered.
By contrast, his “What’s Mined is Yours” is a response to another kind of inner sensibility that reacts to the natural environment in a way that is entirely different than the orderly structure Erdmann found in Alpine Loop. “When I visited Kennecott I wanted to show the textures of the shovels and the mining and the process, a very different kind of painting, a man-made painting, wrought with digging and mining,” says the artist. Kennecott has presented Erdmann with unnatural upheaval of the land, in fact just after a massive landslide, so the chaos and debris is immense. The inner sensibilities are most certainly not at ease with this sense of place and this is reflected in the canvas, where disorder and artificial use of the natural are in conflict with what it no longer is and the sensibilities struggle with this canvas. It is an inner frame of mind that makes this reality of “place.” This feeling of the place, imbued with elements that are not always visible, is contrasted by the linear emphasis of the mine’s characteristic strata that are apparent in Bernard’s and Knudsen’s works.
To say, though, that the work of Bernard, and certainly Knudsen, is more ‘literal’ than Erdmann’s is not to suggest that they are remote or devoid of sensibility. Looking first at “Moab Rim in Winter,” one might get the idea that Mark Knudsen is another “red rock painter,” and maybe he is, but a singular biographer of the landscape of Utah is a more accurate title for Knudsen and those who know the land of Utah and know the art of Knudsen know that there is a whole lot more to these “red rocks” than meets the eye.
The view in “Moab Rim in Winter” is one Knudsen has seen numerous times, as it sits outside the front door of his second home — a visiting friend once said about the view, “I think I would just rather stay here in Never Never Land” — but one that took Knudsen a long time to paint. “I had never expected that I could ever paint the Rim,” he says, “it looks just too chaotic. I walked out of the door in early morning, the melting snow had revealed the rim in such a way that I realized I could paint it. The particular conditions made it possible to look at this and make a painting out of it.” It is apparent that the magnificence of this land is more than just its physicality for Knudsen, who is awed by its immense splendor; it is also about time, about changing conditions, how light and the elements can transform place from one day to the next.
The Great Salt Lake is another such place. It doesn’t have the grand vistas of the Moab Rim, or the Grand Canyon’s South Rim (also explored in this exhibit) but that’s what intrigues Knudsen about it. “I like to think that I am looking for beauty that is sometimes overlooked,” he says, “and the landscape of the lake is often overlooked.” The Great Salt Lake, according to Knudsen, is an optimal subject, because without the inner artistic vision to transcend physicality and to see the massive presence of beauty, it would simply be salt, mud, and acerbic water where only brine shrimp can live. “Stansbury Jetty” is an ethereal painting seemingly of some unearthly landscape and Knudsen has used his artistic intelligence to project various elements so the viewer might see this. Firstly, there is no human context. The area is broad and flat and appears limitless. The water is rendered as a reflecting mirror, giving it an unearthly quality, and the island seems untouched by time, older than time, resistant to time. It is this transcendent vision of a landscape not too many miles outside of Salt Lake City that qualifies the inner perspective as a factor of “place.”
Paul Vincent Bernard’s representation of the same area shows the artist at his Minimalist best. With a simple — in this case monochromatic — palette, the printmaker-cum-painter, uses his tooler to incise lines, building up texture and form, so that “Ice Bound” is a massive white form that pushes against a black background, creating a delicate haze at the point of collision. The resulting work reads beautifully as both reference to real space and form, and as a matter of built up abstract lines.
With his seemingly simple methods, Bernard is able to create a variety of effects, from the stillness of “Ice Bound” to the glow of “Les Matins.” Bernard’s “Swell Season” is an apparently monumental structure with line that, unlike most of Bernard’s work, has pattern and rhythm. “That’s the first time I used the line to contour,” he says. “It was the San Rafael Swell that pushed me into that mode, to use the line instead of the strata. I wanted to follow the form, becoming more sculptural. It's not a dark looming thing it’s a bright curvaceous thing, the form opens and pulls you in and up.”
By contrast, but appearing almost as a purposeful counterpoint, “Deep End,” Bernard’s response to the Grand Canyon, is a great vacuous void engulfed between two rises and is created of line that is for the most part vertical following the drop in this gulf. In this case, “place” is defined by what it is not. “I was inside looking towards the back wall,” Bernard says of the inspiration for this work, “and you can see more sky but it is the deep end, and instead of the Swell pulling you up, you sink deeper and deeper.” In “Deep End” the focus is on the presence of “place” and in this relationship to absence the viewer feels a sinking sense of being driven deeper, and deeper, not by the void, the absence, but by the bottomless pit that is the presence of “place.”
These three artists, working from inspiration of six chosen locations, have each presented their own artistic visions of their response to that “place” using their own artistic methodology, and in doing so, have each contributed to a sizable exegesis on the comprehensibility of the “Spirit of Place.” Whether states of mind, perception, or fundamentals of being, all artists agree that “place” is not simply a thing, it is not only about space, it is an experience.
On Medium, Narrative and Great Salt Lake . . . from page 1
CLUI (directed by Matthew Coolidge with a dedicated corps of staff and volunteers) trains an objective eye on the land, resulting in photographs, videos, articles, lectures, and regional tours that reflect the myriad ways we use the land. Dean, on the other hand, employs the mediums of painting, drawing, and film to create narrative, fictional interpretations surrounding the idea of landscape. To understand more of each artists’ work, their preferred medium and intents, I had the opportunity to engage Dean and Coolidge in a dialogue (UMFA, January 24th) that took on a life of its own after asking one question:
Hikmet Sidney Loe (HSL): I am interested in the way you both use your creative language to realize very different interpretations of the regional landscape of Great Salt Lake.
Tacita Dean (TD): It’s really important from the onset to use the correct terminology when discussing our various interpretations – I use 35mm film, which is then edited to give the illusion of taking a single shot.
HSL: And, you can do a lot through that editing process?
Matthew Coolidge (MC): A lot, or nothing. In this “landscan” we use digital video to take a single shot of the landscape. The only editing is where and how to begin and end it. And, of course, where to point the camera and where and whether to shoot the thing to begin with. These decisions could be considered “edits” from the physical world, as opposed to the cinematic world. In JG, one thing that struck me is the amount of detail, zooming in on microcosmic processes of movement, information, material, and disintegration that your film features in such detail versus ours, which is a scaled back overview. And how the levels of resolution, meet in a way, the forms are strangely similar even though one is scaled back, the other scaled inward...
TD: …yes, in the circle and the spiral…What we have in common is we’re both attracted to the land. The attraction of the man made intervention in the natural landscape. I don’t know, is yours from an ecological point of view, or is it an aesthetic point of view?
MC: It’s from the helicopter’s point of view…
TD: There’s also an aesthetic relationship. I’m the one who’s imposed a narrative, which makes mine a fiction. And yours is very much the opposite, nonfiction, it’s more objective.
MC: Yes. But it is interesting walking towards the Landscan through those Lambournes, it’s an interesting sort of preamble, one that helps set the stage for something that’s perhaps there, that’s less obvious to some people, including me, a kind of Romanticism, from an early American landscape portraiture school. The landscan is in a way a kind of a high tech luminous painting - not entirely, but one could see it that way, especially when prefaced with Lambourne’s work.
TD: That’s interesting, because I always think my films are closer to depictions rather than documentary. This one is bit different because it has something else imposed upon it, but it comes from a research base, a sort of dialogue. It’s interesting that you say that as well.
MC: Yeah, it’s all kinds of things, while being its own thing, without being one thing or the other. It’s documentation, it’s Romanticism…maybe it’s Romantic Realism!
TD: I’m not sure I see Romanticism in your work…
MC: It’s the kind of Romanticism you have before you fall off the cliff…it’s suspended, precipatory, liminal plunge….
TC: There is a painter, Peter Lanyon, who started to hang glide in order to change the perspective of his paintings. It was a radical thing; he was killed in a hang gliding accident. Suddenly he did what nobody had done, he removed the proscenium arch and started to paint from the sky so he had the perspective of the bird. I suppose he was like the American painter, Richard Diebenkorn. It’s a flattening to make it a two dimensional work.
MC: Yeah, every time we do one of these landscans, different environments have different textures, different dimensionalities. But because of the nature of the landscape of the lake, it’s more flat than any of the others we’ve done. It’s about flatness; it’s so flat, the division between land and sea is almost indistinct because there’s just this continuous, very shallow change from one elevation to another, so it’s the almost the definition of flatness. The idea the sun is just beaming down on this and is interacting with that marginable shoreline, moving the location of the shoreline of the lake so drastically, because of the gradual, flat landscape, like a redesign on paper, erased and redrawn, a margin that is pressed flat and smeared. The difference of land and sea, terra firma and terra aquatica is smushed-out here more than anywhere else in the United States because it’s the biggest, flattest place around.
TD: Even just flying to and from Utah, that view from the airplane is the most extraordinary looking scape: from “God’s view,” from the view of the bird that we have now, which never used to be the case.
MC: The pounding sun, eliminating water, attacking it if you will, trying to get rid of the water, the dessication, I think is that something that is in your film, very much as well. And it’s certainly in Smithson’s language and his reason for being here, it’s that kind of the relentless sun creating a disintegration of existence that causes a salinification of soils. The land of the flats is not arable. Salt causes the landscape to be uninhabitable in a sense, it causes all systems of life to break down, like a disintegrative flux. And yet, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s not bad it’s just the mechanics of that terrestrial surface.
TD: In the beginning of Ballard’s “The Voices of Time,” he says: “What can I say? Even the sun is growing cooler.” I think that’s just by chance, the character addressed is called Robert.
MC: How long is the Spiral Jetty film, approximately 32 minutes? And yours is 26 and a half minutes? I was looking for structures, overlaps, between the Spiral Jetty film and the way you structured yours with the dinosaurs being animals in the zoo…
TD: The structure that I found in the end, because I didn’t have a presupposed structure for my film, is closer to the five chapters of Ballard’s “The Voices of Time,” where each chapter gets shorter and shorter. The reference of course is to the Spiral Jetty film. The armadillo is connected to Ballard. It’s amazing, like it’s growing armor plating in preparation for the shifting. They were both [Smithson’s work and Ballard’s work] great sources for me and their relationship. There is a character in “The Voices of Time” who is building a mandala in a salt lake. There is an irresistible parallel between the two. I used to write to him often to ask if I could make a film of the relationship and he would always say “no” very nicely, with direct reference to “The Voices of Time”, and in the end he say “don’t attach it to my yarn, make your own film.”
MC: Ballard killed fiction for me. Once I stumbled on his work I had to read everything, just like when I was a kid and I stumbled upon Arthur Conan Doyle, I had to read everything. For me, Ballard made all other fiction seem opaque and all about language, not about the scenarios created. I have read a few narrative novels since then, but not as many as I probably should, and it was his fault. But I think that caused me to get more interested in the depicted environments he created as the endgame. The landscape was where the story was.
TD: Which is coming true, now…
HSL: As in The Drowned World?
TD: Yes. Hello America.
MC: That’s why you can spend all day in a traffic island and find a world there.