Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
In their new book of collected essays, which touch on a variety of subjects and artists, Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois explore Georges Batailles’ idea of the “informe” or “formless,” which the French intellectual described as undercutting or subverting traditional ideas of the duality of form and content. The book is an exploration of art that breaks down hierarchies, disrupts interpretation and frustrates search for meaning. In that respect, it is a perfect primer for understanding the work of Salt Lake City artist Oonju Chun, who says, “I relinquish the responsibility to create meaning, however on a certain level, that is the most meaningful aspect of why I paint.”
Magnificent Absence, Profound Silence
Oonju Chun at Phillips Gallery
In 2012, the Korean-born artist stunned us with a powerful exhibition in the front room of Salt Lake’s Finch Lane Gallery. The show featured paintings full of energetic brushstrokes that pulsed across the surface of the canvas like the shimmering light and color of the city at night, leaping flames of a campfire, images dancing on a pond or shadows in a stormy sky. At Phillips Gallery this month she has returned with a number of similar shimmering works, but also new images in which the brushstrokes coalesce into throbbing forms.
This shift, or development, is not a conscious attempt to say something new, since Chun says she is not a conceptual painter, “but a spontaneous, reactionary painter. When I paint, it is a purely spontaneous visual response to lines, colors and composition. I am not thinking on a conceptual level and I love that. It is liberating and exhilarating.” Quite simply put, this is art that is linear and without alternate construct, recognizing only itself, a mirror reflection, art that is for its own sake, purpose and utility.
When Chun paints a canapé that to many may look noisy, aggressive, loud, or vociferous, while at the same time fecund, ripe, full, abundant, lush, rich, and piquant, they are mistaken. Because there is no noise, but silence. There is no fecundity but formlessness and to think otherwise is to misunderstand the essence of Chun’s work.
“My images lack any conceptual consideration, one can say it is less complicated, rather, quite simple in its essence,” says Chun. “I cannot explain the meaning of my work because I do not impose any.” Chun’s work, without conceptual interference, is allowed a formlessness as suggested by Krauss, made demonstrative by looking in a different direction, and there, Chun’s formlessness resounds with more security.
“My paintings are totally devoid of meaning from its creator. I think that is why it works better at striking certain ‘raw’ emotions,” the artist says. “The emotional response is direct and immediate. It goes from my eyes directly to my heart. It does not require mental interpretation. If a viewer feels the similar emotional sensibilities as I do, then, my paintings have spoken to them.”
Only in the silence, only in the formlessness is this kind of relationship possible and thus the formlessness is demonstrated—we have a work of utmost purity, without the hindrance of meaning, that is able to be communicated by its author with its audience on a level that is exact, given this purity, thus demonstrating a fulfillment of the measure of the kind of formlessness Krauss is speaking of in her book. The self-realized essence is discoverable in a relationship with an audience that answers back with the same essence that it expresses, a mirror image of itself.
Further demonstration is found in the lack of any kind of structuralism, which is the designation for meaning. Structuralism allows for semiotics and semiotics creates binaries of meaning that shift from authenticating to a challenging of one to the other. Without any kind of structural implications, without anything read as symbolism, semiotics are disqualified. This does not have to mean literal figural icons, but any form of visual structural signifier such as contrasts of light and dark, balance, tonality shifts, paradigm shifts, binary shifts, tonal rhythm and harmony, texture giving designation, repetition, anything centering the attention such as angularity or a centrifugal area such as a concentration or boldness. Without structural signifiers of any kind, the stuff that abstract work is quite usually replete with, here, no occasion is given for the structure to arise, thus creating no grounds for semiotic relationships and the development of meaning.
In the end the works are not about meaning, or formal elements, but about emotions. “All art forms evoke emotion,” says Chun. “You must feel a certain way when you see my work!” Emotional reactions to abstract images are subjective. They are subjective upon one’s own life experiences, cultural experiences, visual experiences, emotional sensibilities, etc. “My paintings,” Chun says, “become what each viewer gets out of it.”
This is where the intelligence to make great art is found, this is where the mind is required to create understanding from formlessness, thus one-upping a consumerist, mass-produced, over-sized, fuchsia, metal, balloon-bunny art-making mentality.
Making this type of work, without a roadmap, or a conceptual framework as support or crutch is courageous. “I deal with self-doubt as an artist constantly,” Chun says, “asking myself if my works are relevant in the current culture and how my viewers will react to my work and so on.” A show like this at Phillips, then, is a pleasure for us, and for the artist an affirmation — “that is, until I am faced with the next wave of angst and self-doubt.” Which one may assume will come into full fruition as formless wonder in works to come.
Exhibition Spotlights: Ogden & Salt Lake City
An Ocean of Salt
Motoi Yamamoto's saltwork installations in Utah
One crystal of Morton’s salt: uniform in shape with no expiration date. The national company was formed in 1848, offering not only a wide variety of culinary products but salt for pools, melting ice, softening water, and for the bath. Long before commercial companies, about 8,000 years before in fact, humans learned the value of salt. Our bodies need salt to survive; we use salt to preserve foods; in the past, we used salt as currency affecting trade and commerce.
Great Salt Lake’s natural resources were used first by the region’s Native Americans then by settling Euro-Americans and their descendants. After the Mormon pioneers settled next to the lake in 1847, its abundant salt was used first for culinary purposes then for mining and industry. The popular tourist resort The Great Saltair was built on Great Salt Lake’s south shores in 1893, catering to locals and travelers who enjoyed dancing and swimming in the lake’s buoyant and restorative salt waters. Today, the lake’s salt extraction is part of the state’s annual multi-billion dollar economic impact.
Given our region’s abundance of salt and ensuing history, it is no surprise the international artist Motoi Yamamoto would be interested in visiting Utah to create not one, but two installations in his creative signature style using salt. Weber State University (WSU) and Westminster College (WC) have collaborated to bring Yamamoto to Utah to create his signature saltwork installations to both campuses. Each show is titled Return to the Sea: Saltworks, yet individual subtitles present more personalized aspects of his work.
Yamamoto uses salt as his sole artistic medium, a practice he began in 1994 after the death of his sister. Salt heals grief according to Japanese culture: with each work, Yamamoto’s work is equal parts memory and meditation, past and present, mourning and materiality. For those unfamiliar with Yamamoto’s work, an excellent introduction is the short video Saltscapes. The correlation to Yamamoto’s work and the process enacted by Tibetan monks as they create sand paintings is, on first blush, obvious. Both create for the act and the art of contemplation, inviting audience members to watch the art manifest. Yet, according to WSU Department of Visual Arts chair Matthew Choberka there is a palpable difference, as Yamamoto’s work is grander in scale yet more modest than the Tibetan’s world cosmology as it relates more to personal grief and remembrance.
WSU’s installation was created over seventy hours of singular, meditative work. Watching Yamamoto work via the Shaw Gallery’s webcam was a more satisfying experience than I originally imagined: even on camera he appeared thoughtful and meditative. Installed by early March in the Shaw Gallery, this work reflects a more Eastern orientation to Yamamoto’s work in both philosophy and form. “Floating Garden” is this installation’s subtitle, referencing the swirl pattern he sometimes uses. These patterns are drawn ahead of time; at WSU there are three swirls in the work that spans 35 feet in diameter. The matte white salt, drawn on the black granite floor through squeeze bottles, is beautiful. Seen in person, there is a slight profile to the work. Lit from one side of the gallery, lines and swirls move in complex and compelling patterns, evoking organic forms and nature: mountains, the ocean, foam.
Given the variety of available salt crystals it is fascinating to learn Yamamoto uses only Morton Salt’s famous blue-container table salt for his installations. Bonnie Baxter, Director of Westminster College's Great Salt Lake Institute, worked with Morton Salt to secure a gift of salt for each installation, saying: “I talked with Motoi about using local salt (we don't make table salt at the GSL Morton), like Real Salt from Redmond. But he said the crush mining creates an odd grain size and shape, and it doesn't flow well. We had Morton deliver the salt to both locations and are very grateful.”
Yamamoto then moved to the Westminster campus where he will create two “Labyrinth” installations from March 10-15. Each venue has scheduled public events to engage the community in Yamamoto’s work. WSU will host a panel discussion on March 27th including from WSU Paul Crow (Visual Arts), Michelle Culumber (Microbiology), Angelika Pagel (Art History), and Carla Trentleman (Sociology); from Westminster College Bonnie Baxter (Great Salt Lake Institute) and Hikmet Loe (Art History); and Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow, who will speak on culinary salt.
Westminster College will host a public reception on March 17th at 6pm commencing in the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts then proceeding to the Meldrum Science building. On April 10th a discussion between Bonnie Baxter (Great Salt Lake Institute) and Jesse L. Embry (salt historian and Associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU) will ensue in the Gore Business School’s auditorium. Included will be a salt tasting from Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli and a time-lapse video of Yamamoto’s Westminster Installation.
Both institutions close their installations on April 12th through identical processes. The general community is invited to sweep up the artwork from each location, collect the salt into containers, then drive to Robert Smithson’s earthwork the Spiral Jetty where the salt will be released into Great Salt Lake. The Westminster group will leave Salt Lake City at 9am; the WSU group will leave Ogden at 10am. This ritual is one Yamamoto enacts for all installations. Our inland sea is not an ocean per se, but serves the same purpose as Yamamoto stated about his work’s closure: “The salt came from the ocean. I want viewers to help return the salt to the ocean, and the salt then can come back to me” (Katie Lee Koven, “Memory and the Materialities of Salt – A Conversation with Motoi Yamamoto.” Weber: The Contemporary West, Spring/Summer 2014, p. 90).