Sourcing the New at Finch Lane . . . from page 1
The infinitesimal adjustments of facial muscles that Donovan captures hint at a more essential story than would her subjects' choice of clothing or pose, had those choices been available. "Karen’s" self-assertion gradually distinguishes itself from "Lillian’s" caution, while "Rachel’s" angst could have more to do with her adolescence, since the much younger "Young Boy" asserts himself as positively as anyone here. The rainbow of races, ages, and types, however, mostly serves to make the familiar point that universal traits are common property, not means to individual discernment.
The real breakthrough here has to do with the very nature of photography. It’s generally understood that most of the time, upon seeing a photographic image, viewers ignore the medium and immediately engage its subject. This is so true that even when the technique is hugely intrusive, most of the audience will respond by doubling down: increasing the mental effort to penetrate it. We have become experts at seeing through the lack of color in early photos, the blur and poor detail in snapshots, and—if more proof were needed—the almost total lack of any visual virtue whatsoever in today’s cell-phone and video images. What Donovan achieves here, then, is to turn her subject into something other than itself: to capture the returning gaze as if it were a mirror, and, by so doing, to put us in her place, making us become as close as possible to being the photographer who confronts these vulnerable persons, and in turn is confronted by them. As we look upon their images, they seem to come alive and to engage us in the delicate negotiations that all successful photography requires. Forget the mumbo-jumbo about photography showing us some unchangeable, personal essence—the very existence of which recent studies have increasingly called into question. The notion that today’s art is doing something new has a lot to do with its unmistakeable didactic quality, and Morgan Donovan’s contribution is to make clear what is always true—even of photographs: perceived truth is always momentary, instantaneous. Eternal verities, if they exist, require another approach.
Another approach is one way of describing Nancy Vorm’s use of rust, paper, and beeswax. The twentieth century saw contemporary breakthroughs in the mixing of media, in the revival of the long-lost medium of encaustic, and in the entry of abstract ornament into the gallery. Vorm has taken what is common to all three and built her own world from those elements. With help from Finch Lane’s discerning curators, she’s filled an entire room with a range of wall-mounted and hanging variations on the encounter between her three materials and three approaches, presenting just the right range and number of examples in sufficient density to overwhelm the notion that the combination has been seen before.
Vorm’s basic building block is a delightful oxymoron: rusted paper. There’s an enigma here, and evidence that the encounter of iron oxide and vegetable leaf is often preceded by some unspecified processing of one or the other. At times it looks like printmaking, with various steel surfaces standing in for zinc or copper plates and rust playing the part of ink. At other times, especially when she uses a translucent paper like unyru, the mottling of orange pigment seems more organic and mysterious. Add to the mix that the result is invariably subjected to further manipulation, ranging from simple crumpling to the most elaborate collaging, layering, and mounting. Paintings, hanging curtains, scrolls, plaques, and wall paneling are among the references her objects suggest, along with the implication that any pre-existing visual or decorative language could be translated, so to speak, into her new means of expressing them.
Hanging in the center of the gallery, six "Rusted Scrolls" demonstrate how an installation could acquit itself against the demands of architecture as well as can any comparable textile. While the fundamental color range is narrow, running from yellow to oranges and browns, a row of "Mandalas" on one wall display not only the compatibility of rust with other colors, but its ability to hold its own in strong contrast with blue and green. A trio labeled "Restoration" inserts rust into conventional encaustic paintings—if one can call anything in that reborn medium ‘conventional.’ "Dangling Permutations," juxtaposed against other treatments throughout the room, show off the cohesion of the materials across different effects. Climaxing the exhibit, "Hoosier 9-patch," which covers the end wall and invokes tile more than wallpaper, is comprised of 77 panels, slightly less than one square foot apiece, demonstrating the infinite versatility of a single grid—the 3 x 3 squares referred to in the title—colliding with a handful of textures in a context of free accidents and good judgment.
Throughout, the translucency of the paper, the transparency of wax, and the palpable way the sense of touch responds to Vorm’s visible textures bring to life the suggestive resources and evocative power of abstraction at its purest and most welcome: concrete sensual facts that seem almost to assemble themselves into a universe of pleasure to be explored.
Exploration is also a way to summarize John Mack’s efforts ‘to make connections between what is known and what we have yet to discover,’ as he describes the impulse that produces his organically suggestive wood-and-metal objects. It’s worth noting that he begins with real world references—to actual vessels like boats and imaginative ones like space ships—but that he also strives to delay the viewer from becoming acclimated to them. To slow that process and keep them estranged, he first gives his objects, in place of titles, names that mimic the binomial nomenclature, or two-name system of classification, that scientists use to identify species. "Atolla wyvillei navis," for example, is a vertical steel fin with a swelling in the center that gives it a resemblance to a upright manta ray, equipped with interactive features that allow it to interact with gallery visitors. Here, though, Mack twists one of the emerging clichés of techno-art: the sensors that make it interactive with the audience are located on the opposite face from the light they control. Thus the dance viewers so commonly perform in an effort to make such a work ‘do its thing’ ends up frustrated, since it’s actually being controlled not by the person in front of it, but by whoever happens to walk behind it while looking at something else. The effect is a little more like interacting with an actual living being: something with alien motives and, to us, baffling ways of reacting to its surroundings.
"Pomacanthidae navis," a hassock-sized steel donut supported on six sinuous copper legs, flashes lights within its glass center like lightning within a cloud, but only in response to vibrations on the floor. Again, the ‘motives’ of the other’s behavior require some effort to decode. Yet a case can be made that the most moving objects here forego such reactive mechanics in favor of a more old-fashioned reticence, which in the past has moved humans to reach out in a more tenuous, cautious, and alert fashion. "Dactylobatus clarkia navis," made of wood strips that overlap like they might on the hull of a truly fine boat, caresses the senses as if it had been freeze-framed in the act of swimming by, concerned with its own mysterious purposes, its eyeless and earless progress guided by senses we lack. And looking like a fossil left over from a previous great extinction, "Bassozetus Compressus navis" preserves the recognition that living things achieve many contrasting forms. Looking like a giant marlin spike or an even more enlarged seashell, it evokes the formative influences that shape tools and living beings alike.
Scholarly observers seek in vain for the sources of human invention. Where did we get our elaborate languages, when close study only shows them constantly breaking down? Where does art come from: fully formed from the outset, yet capable of so much elaboration? In seeking to simplify and focus her task, Morgan Donovan has rekindled the emotional immediacy missing from so much contemporary art. Choosing a single pigment and support let Nancy Vorm uncover not only the breadth of technique, but the depth of the eye’s appetite. By using his mind to challenge what his hands can do, John Mack finds common elements in disparate narratives. Each of these artists has taken a familiar subject matter and found an elevated presentation suitable to it, in the process transforming both.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Walking in Beauty
Denae Shanidiin at Mestizo Arts
Emerging artist Denae Shanidiin, 21, wishes the emphasis wasn’t so much on “Navajo” for her show currently at Mestizo Gallery. “Because you call someone a Navajo artist and people expect traditional. I wish I were traditional, but I’m not,” she says with a smile.
"I just don’t think that’s realistic in this day and age."
Tribal elders, she adds, urge traditional ways, “but if I were a traditional artist I wouldn’t be able to make these photographs. . . . I don’t do traditional pottery. I want to be myself first.”
Still, observes Hikmet Sidney Loe, who taught Shanidiin in several art history classes at Westminster College where the artist is currently a student, “Denae showed a deep interest in the materials of art and their historical use (particularly in photography and ceramics) and developed creative projects rooted in her great compassion towards people and their unique origins.”
This small but engaging exhibition contains 19 photographs, a group of superb hand-built and smoke-fired sculptures and a mixed-media board describing the healing peyote ceremony that was conducted for her beloved grandfather following a heart attack and stroke. It may be many viewers’ first opportunity to see a rare eagle feather, a ritual fan, photos of the teepee and the “before and after” of an all-night Good Way Ceremony, though images of the actual Native American Church meeting are, of course, not presented.
The artist has five siblings, all sisters. Only one, Priscilla, will willingly model and the most compelling photographs in the exhibition are a series in color of her in her various perceived roles as a woman warrior, as herself and as a sister. Shanidiin used a TLR, Yashica Mat medium format camera, an artist’s eye and a photojournalist’s straightforward composition for these and many of the other images presented. (Her other camera is a Voightlander Bessa-R3A Rangefinder.) “I really like the classic photo,” says Shanidiin. “A lot of my photographs are classically composed: there is the subject right in front of you, there’s hardly any abstractness to the composition. It’s just very literal, very readable.” Besides working digitally, she prints traditionally in the darkroom on silver gelatin and the majority of the photographs in the show are black and white portraiture of family members (her grandparents, taken in front of the hogan; her sister curled up in the pickup bed with a load of cedar).
She based her exhibition, titled Ho'zho'ogo naasha'a doo (I Will Walk in Beauty), around a Navajo prayer, that she made a few changes to, asking one to do all things in beauty.
On the trail blessed with pollen may I walk;
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk;
With dew around my feet may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk
With beauty behind me may I walk
With beauty above me may I walk
With beauty all around me,
may I walk.
She points out that while there’s a lot of context behind her images, “I like to take photos for the actual beauty of the photo.”
Born in Fort Defiance near the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, AZ, Shanidiin (who is also a quarter Korean and a quarter white) moved with her mother to Sandy as a small child but frequently visits her grandparents on the reservation. She attended Jordan High School where she studied art under Leah Smith and ceramics with Jared Ward.
Her hand-built sculpture here is a showstopper. Five elegant, abstracted women, some adorned with jewelry created by the artist and all with traditional Navajo buns, accompany a photo of a puberty ceremony. After these pieces were bisque fired, the artist put them in a barrel outside with “all this debris: wood chips, weeds, anything” – and then “just torched it,” creating wonderful patterns on the figures.
It was when she started college that Shanidiin began to resent not knowing Navajo or much about her culture. “My mother lost the language when she went to college, so I never learned it,” she says, and that is something she is trying to remedy, though finding it very difficult. (She says her generation, for the most part, never learned Navajo, but that the generation growing up now is being taught the language.) She is studying her clans and learning all the many stories that make up her heritage and that is what her artwork has been about: “You have such a connection to home, such a connection to land. I’m learning new things that I never even knew about the Navajo. And it’s just clicked. It’s already in me. So I think making art is my way of processing all of that, my way of fulfilling that need – that little part of me that’s missing,” she says.
Shanidiin works as the artist for Harmon’s in Draper and does a lot of sign painting and chalk art. She enjoys her job, but sometimes thinks about her traditional great grandmother, who wove beautiful rugs. “I wish I had that as a Navajo woman. Maybe a little bit later in life,” she says. “There’s time.”