Exhibition Review: Ogden
Abstraction and the Open Road
Driven to Abstraction at Whitespace Contemporary
Despite the obviously punning reference in its title, a first glance around Driven to Abstraction suggests a third layer of meaning: the impact of the open road on art. Here are three prominent canvases by Jean Arnold, her familiar perspective from her mobile studio—a public bus—condensing transport into a constellation of distilled impressions. Among what surrounds them, prolific inventions typify the way geometry can invoke urban landscapes. Then there’s the tendency of post-Cubist paintings and sculptures to put motion and change ahead of permanence. Or maybe the suggestion of a road trip is always there in the gallery, lying just below the sensual threshold as viewers travel in sequence past artworks resembling so many windshield vistas, billboards, and buildings.
Art has a way of turning put-downs into boasts. “Impression,” not careful study, and “Fauve,” a wild animal, are familiar examples. It was Matisse who called Braque’s inventions “little cubes.” Or there’s the film in which Jackson Pollock demonstrates his drip painting technique and then, after a dealer has chosen which works to buy, throws those that didn’t sell into the sea outside his studio. One canard about abstract paintings—that you can’t even tell which side goes up—motivates a couple of painters here. Of course many artists, including some representational ones, hold as an article of faith that a good composition should work as well upside-down, but Andrew Arthur and Chris Trueman make good on the theory by producing works that exhibitors may hang however they prefer. Arthur’s large, square canvas includes a small number and letter that viewers may choose to show as a mysterious code or as pure shapes. On another hand, Trueman’s ambivalence to orientation is arguably part of his universalist project: abstraction has spawned numerous local schools, hot and cool, geometric and organic, deep and flat, the outdated sectarian origins of and rigid distinctions between which he strives to dissolve into a grand, all-inclusive way of painting. Consequently, he’s brought a number of delicious flavors of eye candy back and set them up in animated conversation. Seeing the meticulously cool, masked and layered, spray-painted grid of “BC” cut diagonally by a jagged assortment of expressive brushstrokes, from which drips and rivulets, powered by gravity, run in all four directions at once, is one way to reconnect with the pure joy of color applied on two dimensions that the mind multiplies into three—or is it four?
Twenty-first century sculpture seems to take its cue from Man Ray: each time out, the artist must strive to completely reinvent the art. Given the overwhelming range of the results, the work of Fred Hunger, who appears to work within a tradition that developed organically over several decades through the sequential curiosity of apparently like-minded sculptors, feels a bit conventional. However, the paternity of these brightly powder-coated steel boxes belongs to a comparatively brutal tradition: enormous piles of industrial steel that dwarf viewers while competing with their environment. Having them scaled back to human size allows intimacy to develop, or—for those well acquainted with David Smith or Lee Kelly—they offer a chance to feel like a Titan in the gallery.
Sean Moyer’s crystalline forms also require some patience to see properly. From some points of view, their highly reflective surfaces look like conventional polished brass, in which angular surfaces reflect each other elaborately. Stare long enough, or walk around them, though, and spooky things begin to happen. What appears solid and convex suddenly melts and inverts, seeming hollow instead. Eventually, eye and mind must join forces to figure out that they are ever-so-slightly translucent. In fact, these compound rhomboids are fashioned from meticulously-joined, metallic sheets of plastic, a material that responds to ambient light in both conventional and unexpected ways.
Whitespace Contemporary often presents group shows, wherein they select works that display a range of approaches. Compared to Chris Trueman’s smooth surfaces, with their variously implied depth, Darrell Roberts’ thick impastos, paint taken straight from the tube and energetically-troweled, extend the work outward, into the viewer’s space. Knowing that these paintings record his response to living in Chicago makes this intrusion as logical as it is sensual, while comparing his vision to Jean Arnold’s brings forward the distinction between encountering a city from the street, as we almost always do in the West, versus the experience of Chicago, New York, or any of many Eastern (or European) cities best experienced on foot.
Something of a revelation here is Madeleine Wories, originally from the Netherlands and currently living in Southern California, hotbed of both abstraction and road art. Her four relatively small works—they average around 24” tall—demonstrate the instant gratification and total pleasure available from painting free of subject matter needing to be deciphered. Although the scale is very different, Wories’ physical gestures are as immediate as those much larger brushstrokes created by Utah treasure Hyunmee Lee: deeply felt and moving expressions that coincidentally reveal the error made by those who resist the immediate access that comes with abstraction, usually in favor of naive preference for representational images, even when what is represented needs external explanation. In ”Cascade,“ for instance, not only is the torrent that falls across the dark scene and explodes in the foreground instantly identifiable, but its weight is palpable as well. Yet even the implication that this is water is only a suggestion; the two-dimensional marks are amenable to a multitude of readings that arise in the viewer’s body as much as the mind.
Generally, we find such visual grappling with emotional content more accessible than cognitive abstractions. Nobody really likes Analytic Cubism, as national reviews of the big show going on right now in New York remind us. Yet BYU art professor Sunny Belliston Taylor can make it not only approachable, but enchanting, as she proves especially in the five “Cityscapes” shown here. These captivating miniatures, measuring about 50 square inches each, are the latest in this artist’s completely original inventions, which have included geometric fantasias in multimedia on plywood, like the pair from the “Entropic” series across the gallery that test the expressive capacity of mathematics. From these two-dimensional constructions, about as flat as paper prints, she moved to genuine assemblies, box-like works in which what had been illusions of separate elements created by color and shape became actually separate elements, joined by her craft like so many stones in a wall. Evident independence within the assembly made them rich in metaphor. In the “Cityscapes,” she forgoes fitting the parts together permanently, choosing instead to hang them in front of one another like so much theatrical scenery. Suspending them from brackets—not only functional parts of architecture, but one of the most popular ornamental accessories—completes the conceit of city as backdrop or scenic setting, even as the small parts utterly intrigue the creatively curious. Although they actually do have a proper order to the parts, the promise seems to be that here, for once, viewers can interactively challenge the artist by reconstructing the view into distance, eventually affirming she got it right.
Cute as it may be, the title Driven to Abstraction eventually reveals its flaw. Nothing forces these artists, or their appreciative audience, anywhere. These artists and their works move along paths through matters and materials inaccessible to their more literal-minded peers, and abstraction is a carrot, not a stick.
Culture Conversations: Dance
Partnering with a Space
Molly Heller at The Ladies' Literary Club
Dance and education are linked out of compatibility and necessity. It makes sense for choreographers to have a regular space as well as a group of dancers to work with. And in an ever-shifting landscape of presenters and funding, it is also one of the few financially stable ways to stay in the form. An academic environment can allow choreographers to bridge teaching and the production of public creative works (Repertory Dance Theater and Ririe-Woodbury, for example, commission professors). At other times, it insulates choreographers as academic requirements overshadow the concept of a working artist. This dynamic extends, at the University of Utah, to MFA candidates, who make up a portion of course instructors. Each fall, MFA candidates typically present their creative research in a concert at the Marriott Center for Dance at the University of Utah and then, in the spring, most leave Utah. So other than a dedicated few, dance patrons see little of what emerging creative voices are up to. Molly Heller hopes to change that with an upcoming performance in downtown Salt Lake City.
After completing her BFA at the University of Utah, Heller stayed in Salt Lake City, creating work at start-up venues like Sugar Space, where she and Juan Aldape were the 2009 co-recipients of an “Audiences Award Artists” production grant. Work in New York followed, but soon she returned to Utah for graduate work.
Heller’s reasons for completing an MFA were varied: a personal matter necessitated re-location but she also felt the pressure of many young artists for securing a future in teaching. Her expectations about the program itself were equally complicated: she believed in artists teaching on campus but wanted to meet the requirements on her own terms.
In past years, a handful of students have moved their thesis works to alternative sites on campus but Heller set out to further shift the paradigm. In addition to designing a special topics course in “Viewing Dance,” Heller sought to change the way her thesis research itself could be viewed. After using the university’s Hayes Christensen Theatre last year, she felt the venue limited her work, since portions weren’t visible to the audience and the vitality in her dance-making comes, she says, “from seeing the face, the tension in the hands, even where the eyebrows are placed.” In addition to designs on how an audience might see physical bodies, Heller also wanted the audience to experience a “building with a lot of history, something old and lived in that can create an immersive experience. In my work, I’m interested in partnering with a space.”
The Ladies’ Literary Club was that space. When she discovered it in 2013, when another MFA student, visual artist Mary Sinner, used it for an interdisciplinary project (see our article), Heller was drawn instantly to the colors, textures and the duality of its reading as both a theatrical space and domestic interior. She also saw its possibility to attract a larger audience. Even though working off-campus means limited institutional support (the campus theater comes fully subsidized, with a tech crew, and marketing), Heller insisted on having a broader reach for her work. She wanted, she says, to “have a voice in the community because I’ve always believed artists can’t just isolate [themselves], although it’s easy to do.”
Together with fellow MFA student Sara Parker, she is preparing to set her new work at the club for a weekend of performances later this month. The excitement of a setting to feed creative ideas seems to have overshadowed the difficulty of locating resources and finding alternative funding for her project. Heller excitedly describes how with the large windows she’s been able to create lighting from outside and also, that she can use LEDs to give life to generally unnoticed spots, like the storage doors beneath the stage.
Part of the process of unfolding the interior has been collaborating with Gretchen Reynolds, a puppeteer:
It was interesting for my research but also a way to meet people working with similar ideas and different mediums. It’s awesome working with Gretchen because her energy in watching my piece has been vital in creating it. She doesn’t give me direct feedback but watching her face respond to my dance gives me information. She helps me make the space come alive. With the puppet, it’s like something else is present, something else in the space is awakening through the dance.
Reynolds has been on board with Heller’s ideas from the beginning, especially her idea that the puppet be an entity with a gold core while remaining malleable in a surface of wax. Because the pair use the puppet in a “way you might not expect,” Heller remains vague about its exact use, but suggests that it awakens through the dance while also commenting on the question, “Who are we performing for?” and what other things can blossom in a performance space.
In this vein, the piece utilizes a lot of popular music from the 1960s — a genre which influenced Heller when she was younger. Like the puppet, the music raises questions about what can be conjured up throughout a performance and also what unexpected topics might be explored through the backdrop of the familiar.
In the end, the dance is a research-in-process, and audiences are encouraged to stay after for tea (provided by the Tea Grotto, a business run by Heller and her husband Brad) and to keep discussing it as well as companion pieces on the program. Artists can also see a work by Sara Parker and a second piece where Heller collaborates with New Yorker and recent Guggenheim Fellow Netta Yerushalmy. Heller hopes the concert at large will “be a bridge to think about continually making work outside of school” and influence her current inspiration, curating a series where undergraduates can share their work in sites off-campus. All of it seems a piece of a puzzle where an artist tackles possibilities rather than meeting structural expectations.