Weber State Faculty Biennial . . . from page 1
A second impression concerns the challenge of large groups. This single, cubical room proffers over 30 artists, requiring individual works to rise above their surroundings. Finding breathing room for individual artworks conventionally involves a cellular arrangement that leaves most of them isolated, if not asphyxiated to the point where all but the strongest blend into the grid and disappear. This exhibition marks the debut of gallery director Lydia Gravis, who has broken the spell by breaking the first rule. In most galleries, pylons—moveable wall-like units—are used to divide a big, square space into smaller, still square, room-like spaces. In too many galleries, keeping the pylons parallel to the walls seems like the 11th Commandment. Gravis’s choice to arrange them on the diagonal here gives the two-dimensional works hung on them a reasonable approximation of the power and autonomy of the sculptures standing among them on their own feet, like Kathryn Bradshaw’s “Kmb,” a life-sized human figure made of invisible tape that solidifies the boundary between where the figure was and where she’s never been. Maybe getting painting off the wall is a necessary step on the way to giving it the sovereignty of “Kmb” and its contemporaries. In any event, a higher percentage of the works in this show speak clearly, in their own voices, than might otherwise be expected.
Of course, no artist wants her curatorial efforts to distract from her studio work. Lydia Gravis and K Stevenson are both represented here by medium-sized drawings akin to those they showed, alongside Al Denyer’s, at the Alice Gallery in March, where they demonstrated a coherent, while still free-swinging approach to the newly elevated art of drawing. Recalling that occasion, it suddenly strikes me that there may be a third lesson on display here. Academic custom separates drawing from printmaking, and both from graphic design, each its own discipline with its own avatars here. And yet every successful work of visual art must first succeed on the abstract level. Set aside content, narrative, whatever: if the viewer doesn’t feel confident that the artist is in control of the design, the work starts out at a disadvantage. And if, in the end, unity and coherence do not emerge, then the work fails on the most essential level and falls back into the primordial, visual soup from which all art emerges. Here we see Weber State grounding artists in crucial design skills. Alongside Gravis and Stevenson, Gretchen Reynolds’ “Indelible Nature of Unconditional Love” series in Sumi ink recalls Alexander Calder, the celebrated inventor of the mobile and the less-well-known master of drawing in 3-D, with wire in place of graphite. Emily King’s “Horses for Days”—as in, I drew horses for days on end—begins in a stunt: how many square yards of paper can she fill without making a mistake? But as well ask, How many variations can a drawing subject undergo before something unprecedented emerges? Computers come into play in Mark Biddle’s “Everything Half Off,” Joshua Winegar’s untitled photo of light in water, and especially in Molly Morin’s magnetic “North, South, East, West: Mosquitos Like Asteroids” and “Sine Wave: Through Laboring Lips.” In these geometric essays, as densely built up as the hundred layers of hand-rubbed lacquer on a hotrod builder’s labor of love, the perfection of a mere line becoming a two-dimensional skeleton of an eventual three-dimensional illusion contrasts with the hand-made, deliberately imperfect paper on which it is imprinted.
Jeremy Stott’s logos and Larry Clarkson’s heraldic emblems might generate less excitement than do more philosophic musings, even as Clarkson’s sheer size and aggressive bravura may win some fans not moved by Stott’s reticence. Yet their designs, like the product packaging shown here in other years, complete the circle begun by Jason Manley’s scaffold. We need to pay more attention to our surroundings, on every level, if we’re not willing to live in an ugly and degrading world. It’s a point also delivered poignantly by Angelica Pagel, in “Feeding the Soluble Fish,” or Kent Ripplinger’s “Monument Vallery Sunset”: two slideshows that speak in today’s digital language about time passing and timelessness.
Two extraordinary artists who are also professors stand out in this august group. Susan Makov and Jim Jacobs are retiring this year, a loss to the Weber community but a potential gain for the gallery audience. Artists who teach compromise their focus and energy, even as they may gain immeasurably from daily conversation with a community of artists. Makov has achieved mastery in the old sense, the way artists were expected to in past centuries. Her command of graphic imagery, both technically and aesthetically, appears to be encyclopedic, as witness her range of work, including paintings, book bindings, and printed works: broadsides, texts, and illustrations. Her former students have become influential teachers in turn, who will continue to teach the high standards evident in her definitive, energetic lines and sharp embossings, especially in graphically complex images of animals and their anatomies. In the five images here, she transforms potentially conventional ecological statements into piercing lessons viewers may try to turn away from, but which once seen are unlikely to be shaken off. Their power comes in part from her close association of pollution, here represented by trash, and birds not normally associated with humans, and so immune to the self-loathing that causes humans to denigrate pigeons, seagulls, and other overly familiar species. More to the point, the trash also suggests homes destroyed by natural disasters like hurricanes, putting viewers in the same predicament: victims of recoiling nature.
One exception demonstrates the effectiveness of Makov’s deep skill set. In the bird-less painting “Pile,”light-colored glyphs on a black ground generate a mountain of trash. Down into the middle of this cuts an area of stark white, giving a sense of depth to the massive heap, but suggestive also of an architectural interior, as if the point was that we dwell in just such a pile or our own trash. Here again, “Nest,” in which baby birds peer out into another trashed landscape, makes the point that in the sealed terrarium we share, we cannot escape the fate we create for others.
Jim Jacobs is also interested in what happens when humanity comes in contact with things non-human. But rather than working comfortably within a technical domain he has mastered, he restlessly challenges theoretical boundaries, as if eager to find out what he can do with his skills that no one has done before. Those who follow him have watched as he successively built up bas-relief details on his canvases, then punched out the negative spaces between, leading to remarkably rich compositions-in-depth: abstractions in which the material elements have their own voices instead of representing something else. The results can be seen either as paintings in which depth becomes real, or sculptures in which space is an illusion the artist controls, recalling Rosalind Krauss’s assertion that realistic sculpture climaxed, during the 19th century, in bas relief. At the risk of hyperbole, Jacobs might just be doing the most exciting art in Utah at this moment, and the idea that he will be spending more time in the studio is as thrilling to the critic as it may be anxiety-productive for him.
In the three sculptures here, Jacobs crystallizes a longtime theme: the erroneous notion that there exists a clear divide between the human and the natural. As Darwin showed convincingly, and Jacobs has demonstrated aesthetically, human beings fit within nature and do not require any separate act of creation. In the three works here, the evidence takes an almost literal turn. Employing skills sufficient to fool the eye, he vividly envisions continuity between wildly growing, free-form trees and manmade lumber. These transitions can be traversed in either direction, from one end that celebrates the organic growth of branch, leaf, and annual rings, or from the other end that glorifies grain patterns and the elegance of geometry in action. But art is never just a theology lesson, and as Jacobs’ branches turn into sprays, flexible fountains of wood that curve through space, or rise up from the floor on parabolic roots, they express the fact, and sometimes also the joy, of a mind and heart at one with nature.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Finding Reality in the Middle of a Forest
Jason Manley at CUAC
From his MFA thesis experience at the University of Arizona, Jason Manley says he learned the distinction between what can be represented physically and what remains ineffable — what transcends the structure, the material, and, in the most literal sense, the concrete. Over the period of several months, Manley documented his day-to-day experiences in writing while adding a layer of paint to represent each. Over the course of the month, the layer of paint was thick, purely substance, one layer lost to the last, while the reality of the memories in writing remained.
Ten years later, his current show at CUAC is aptly titled “Paved Forest,” and in it Manley draws a metaphorical parallel between the literal realms of an actual forest and the cognitive forest that is the consciousness of the mind. Parallels are being drawn here between what can be defined in literal, absolute terms, and what transcends that to the more abstract, intangible states of being.
When the visitor to CUAC enters the physicality of the gallery space, encroaching upon the artificial world created by the artist, they become the mythical figure lost in the wood, a cognitive forest that generates thought and hopefully leads to truth. There are conundrums along the way, but these are a good thing, leading to the exercising and illumination of the mind.
“Double Gulp Light” lights the way into this paved forest of the mind. Perched upon some rock-like formation made out of concrete, a plastic “Double Big Gulp” cup purchased from a 7-Eleven convenience store, has been turned upside down, painted white, and lit from within. This rock, at least six feet in the air, is held by five strong and straight rods of iron that only at the bottom begin to take turns and irregular curls and shoot off into unpredictable and various directions. What is the forest traveler to make of this? Plastic. Consumerism. Throw-away culture? The most elemental fabric of the capitalist western world might be the “Double Big Gulp.” It stands upon the foundation of our consumerist society… from Walmart to Gucci, from Costco to Whole Foods, from AT&T to Rocky Mountain Power. One rod might stand for money, the other power, the next greed, the other lust, the last desire. That is the physical and the tangible, or oneway of seeing it clearly. What we don’t see is reality. We don’t see the underpaid mother of four doing a double shift at Walmart, we don’t see the leather worker working with his hands for 12 hours without rest for Gucci, or the monopolistic box stores crushing small businesses. That is reality that cannot be seen and transcends physicality.
Around the bend on a large drywall is what at first appears to be a gargantuan record label made out of stone lettering and identifying a Schumann symphony “Schumann (record label).” And indeed it is a gargantuan record label made out of stone lettering identifying a Schumann symphony. And with exacting precision, the stone-concrete has replicated every detail, except there is no label, and no record, only wall. Here, the visitor is found awestruck. Thinking to that very symphony. Thinking of the very full emotional resonant sounds that would be heard that take the mind on emotional journeys experienced cognitively. Nothing but pure sound and each time listened to, another emotional, cognitive journey. But here is stone, concrete: bold, rough, ugly even, dry and raw rock, made out of concrete, with crevices and imperfections. This is the tangible remnant left of the loved symphony and all there is to be found of it. Is this reality? Is this bitter pill that will soon crumble and decay reality, or is the emotional, cognitive experience, albeit different every time, enchanting and pure, is that which transcends this rubble, reality?
The visitor almost stumbles over a rock in the path. But this is no ordinary rock, but the like-material of stone-concrete, made into a structure of letters, and these letters spell out words, and these words spell out a phrase, repeated over and over again: “Out of Sight. Out of Mind” Out of sight, out of mind, out of sight, out of mind. The letters are carefully stacked into a thin wall. Often they are turned upside down. This seems puzzling: a phrase so nebulous — out of sight, out of mind — repeated over and over, often haphazardly, in this wall of ugly raw rock-cement. What is the point to it all? Here, robbed of any meaning it might have, the visitor suspects this wall represents the basest materiality of this already banal phrase. With its crude rendering and crude assemblage, the visitor is reassured, and is sure that this, even though it seems it could weather the sands of time, is no reality, that this is purely substance, and any traces of reality are to be found in language, in the utility of “out of sight, out of mind,” the meanings transported, and not this stasis, this state of semi-permanent decay that will ultimately see its end. The reality is in the language. That is where the truth is to be found.
Now in the heart of the forest, the visitor is obscured by an assemblage of word compilations, made out of the same essential stone-concrete. But there seems to be some rhyme or reason here, even if the assemblages are disparate and detached from the other… somehow the visitor feels attached by the reason and logic to be discovered by meaning alone, the very reality of it, even if their stone prison is only an avatar to their display, holding them captive in the heart of this cognitive forest. The first of the “Paved Forest (sculpture series)” reads “The tangle of the forest in his hair. The silence of the woodland.” To the visitor, even on what looks like a crumbling slab of pumice, this evokes poetic thought. The next reads, “To flee full speed through the forest across fields to house windows.” This is very transporting to the visitor, who can feel the reality of the meaning transcending the ugliness of the stone-concrete shell that holds its beauty. The next is astonishing and makes the visitor gasp for air: “An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest the air was warm thick heavy sluggish.” These words resonate with such a real power within the visitor; here in the density of the forest, that no stone-concrete could compete with… that is only ephemera… this is reality. Further: “lays open before the mind terrified depths trembles before the gaze like a dizzy forest and in which one hears the crackling of dead branches…” Now a terror is beginning to seize the visitor so real has this reality begun to close in on the mind in this cognitive forest. Finally, “that wild heathen Nature of the forest never subjugated by human law nor illuminated by higher truth.” Now the visitor feels the apex of the journey has been reached. That the truth of the language of the reality of the forest has been learned and the visitor is calmed.
But before the visitor can leave there is one more assemblage. It reads: “colossal thicket that is to say something solitary as a tomb as impenetrable as a forest as peopled as a city quivering like a nest somber like a cathedral fragrant like a bouquet.” The visitor has learned the reality beyond the seemingly immutable stone-concrete substances that are only there to serve the purpose of reality. And that reality is universality, all consuming, all truthful.
In the clearing in the wood, the visitor comes upon a large red box. “Forest (Interior)” is where there is to be found reality. It seems unprepossessing, like a Coca-Cola machine with no signage, completely quotidian and the like-substance of “Double Gulp Light.” Yet the visitor is compelled by a light from behind to look inside. The visitor looks up, looks down, looks from side to side and from every angle, and all that can be seen is eternity, eternity everywhere. Here lies the truth, and that is the secret of the reality of the forest that transcends all, even the forest itself.