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September 2014
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 4    

InCiteful Clay . . . from page 1

There are two dozen artists here, each with a major object or, in one case, a body of work commenting on issues that particularly bedevil us today. The works are divided among five categories: Environment, Popular & Material Culture, Social & Human Conditions, War & Politics, and Gender. The last, perhaps because of its controversial nature, or simply because it’s so new to broad recognition, is represented by a single work. In "Ignorance is Bliss," Carol Milne projects a naive, almost clumsy quality perfectly suited to the reality of gender: that there are no clear precedents, no stable absolutes, but each person—especially when young—creates an identity without recourse to objective categories. While making thousands of largely clueless choices that add up to a unique identity, each of us must also function within other, far less nuanced roles. Compared to a similar pose carved, say, by Canova, and primarily concerned with the erotic response it creates in the viewer, this distinctly hand-made figure speaks volumes about a conflicted interior life spent in an intimidating world. Sensitive placement, alone in a large, otherwise empty gallery, emphasizes the isolation and, too often, the accompanying alienation.

The problem of solitude isn’t reserved for adolescents, however. Richard Shaw’s "Great Divide Jar" adapts the conventions of wedding cake for a witty comment on the too-frequent reality of adapting a compound connection to a one-size-fits-all institution. Here bravura manipulation of porcelain serves up the bride and groom figures as well as the cut sections of cake on which they stand, only to find themselves drifting apart like castaways on flotsam, or like newlyweds who find that hard work, not just romance, follows their happy event.

In addition to the exhibit’s thematic categories, several works share references in common to functional form. University of Utah art professor Maryann Webster was inspired by Renaissance basins, decorative works that invoked the forms of dinnerware to present idealized views of nature, in her exquisitely detailed "Dioxin Sea," in which meticulously rendered undersea life surrounds a fish with a chicken-foot fin. Michelle Erickson’s "Paradise Lost" similarly starts with the model of a 16th-century French fecundity dish, which would have featured a reclining venus and putti as symbols of fertility. Only Erickson’s skeleton woman and her retinue all wear gas masks, while their surroundings refer to weapons of war, death’s heads, and various symbols of nationalism and religious intolerance. Both works, in addition to their shocking details, contain underlying visual puns, references that add weight to their corrosive judgments.

Webster’s basin and Erickson’s dish pay homage to the subdued, realistic colors of both their ceramic models and their updated subject matter. Not so Patti Warashina, whose "Drunken Power Series" invokes sentiments understandably—if mistakenly—ascribed to Mark Twain, though they were actually expressed by Laurence Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: ‘Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.’ Warashina criticizes the disappointing incompetence with which humanity continually confronts its challenges; her "Seeing Red" sake set metaphorically indicts those who, drunk with power, afflict the future with erroneous political, social, and environmental choices and actions. The five bright red-orange cups (Japanese sets inevitably contain an odd number of vessels), shaped like rockets, surround a pitcher shaped like an intoxicated plutocrat, who wears a nosecone for a hat and cradles a bomb while he smokes a chimney-like cigar. Ehren Tool also works with functional wares, but he evidently wants those who receive his cups to actually use them. Into the malleable clay sides of these practical vessels he stamps the logos of today’s major economic corporations, alongside images of the consequences he believes their actions produce. Even while he disseminates his recriminations in practical, useful forms that may spread far and wide, he gambles on something more; archeologists have shown that clay vessels are the most durable of human products to date, surviving effectively forever, even when broken. Tool trusts that, should pride or greedy deeds destroy our society as it has so many others, his art will remain among the ruins to identify the culprits as he sees them.

Ehren Tool’s explicit references, including petitioning President Obama through his art, which elicited a disappointingly political response from the White House, bring viewers up against fundamental questions about the role of art in society: in particular, whether the artist properly manipulates the visual world in pursuit of specific reactions from, or even actions by, the viewer. In centuries past, influential writers like Thomas Aquinas argued that the proper role of art should be limited to helping viewers apprehend creation’s beauty, not to moving them to emotional or political action. Yet today’s critics could reply that such scholars didn’t really object to advocacy in the arts, so long as they agreed with what was advocated. Think of all those artworks depicting saints and sinners: can there by any question they were meant to influence their audience? Every artist then, here and elsewhere, could presumably make an argument for his or her work based on the principle of religious freedom, for each of these aesthetic statements also makes an ethical claim that dates from the origin point of spiritual identity. They urge their audience to behold creation under assault and challenge those responsible: even ourselves. The universal notion of human responsibility for the husbanding of living things and resources lies at the core of our cultural, social, political, and religious traditions.

There is still a role in art for self-expression, if only in an artists choice of tone, or voice. While Judith Schwartz, the NYU art professor who initially curated InCiteFul Clay, includes "caricature, parody, satire, obscenity, erotica, and the grotesque" among an artist’s options, she reserves the more extreme voices for her book, Confrontational Ceramics. In this exhibit, meanwhile, she offers a gentler, what might be called a "user-friendly" introduction to the potential for art to stimulate understanding, reflection, and philosophical mindfulness. Like the creamy hand grenades in Adrianne Crane’s "Artillery Field," artworks are less likely to explode than to open into multicolored lotus blossoms, the international symbol for peace.

Ellice Taylor, a UVU student who was invited to contribute to what is primarily a traveling exhibition, celebrates the beauty of sunsets in her "Night Skies," a set of tiles across which bold arabesques alternately rise and fall like dawn and dusk. While her statement recalls that rich colors in the sky sometimes result from pollution, her work leaves this fact for consideration by viewers. In his "Cows," Chad Curtis admits the increasingly artificial pressures on nature: his neon-colored animals live in an inverted space, where artificial illumination underlies natural light, yet his assemblage holds forth the hope that their original splendor may as well be enhanced as destroyed. And a few feet from Patti Warashina’s cartoon outrage, the figures of two men stand calmly, side by side. Akio Takamori’s "General and Emperor" distills the outcome of a century of conflict in the Pacific down to two familiar visages and an increasingly familiar image. Here the winner, tall in his casually efficient fatigues, dwarfs the loser, whose mistakenly adopted costume suits him poorly. Like those meetings between former belligerents that have become a staple of formalized recollection, animosity is here replaced by inevitable resolution.

InCiteFul Clay is, first and foremost, an exhibition of the state of ceramic art, and in addition to the high caliber of works discussed so far, there are several which might have been chosen as much for their supreme artistry as for their comparatively subtle content. First among equals is Bonnie Seeman’s "Untitled Bowl," which uses human and marine anatomy to plunge us deep into the beauty and struggle that characterize life. Arthur Gonzalez’s "What Tool Must I Use to Separate the Earth from the Sky" uses some of the most accomplished, bravura craft to lend an appropriately realistic quality to a story about a story-teller’s preparations to tell the tale of Pinocchio, a nineteenth century fable that has provided one of the most popular metaphorical images of the twenty-first century.

Earnest intentions alone can’t make a work of art good: craft and content must connect well and, if possible, powerfully. "Schwitz" ("Sweat" in German) suggests that Verne Funk, the sculptor, hasn’t yet made up his mind where he’s going, an impression his statement confirms. There is more to ambiguity than not having thought a project through. Linda Cordell’s "Choke the Chicken" is also technically competent, but feels tepid in addressing its likely topic—industrial farming—and bears as title a rude phrase she fails to connect to the work. Charles Kraft’s "Spone Forgiveness Beauty Bar" suffers from the bane of so-called Contemporary Art: without the accompanying text, it fails to say what the artist means it to.

In "Gods and Designers," Reinaldo Sanguino raises a host of issues that, again, fail to make the leap from statement to art work. When Tom Wolfe argued, in The Painted Word, that art was increasingly the illustration to critical texts, he failed to foresee that those texts might one day be provided by the artists themselves. By comparison, I found J.J. McCracken’s "Deformation is Permanent" compelling, but unlikely in this context to draw viewers in far enough to appreciate its science-fiction frisson. Then again, if there is to be something for everyone, a dense, challenging work like McCracken’s belongs alongside "Debt Monster" in which Cheryl Tall recaptures the playfulness of childhood, when clay was the powerful, protean toy that could provide both the castle and its inhabitants.

It’s at this point your writer discovers he may have saved the best for last—if ‘best’ means anything in art so layered in subjectivity of both form and content. What looks like a second Buddha turns out to be Tip Toland’s "Avadhut," which belongs among the truly remarkable achievements in clay. An approximately life-sized human figure, he is covered everywhere except his teeth and the soles of his feet with gold leaf. His open mouth is not the first clue that this is no ordinary Buddha. As for the soles of his feet, where the ground he walks on has worn the gold away, one sees the texture of his soles meticulously captured in clay.

And in case one final proof is needed that clay can do anything, the Woodbury staff invited a second ceramic student to participate in this show. Not long ago, disturbing photographs appeared in the environmental press, showing baby albatrosses—close relatives of the sea gulls considered nearly sacred in Utah—that had starved to death. Their decaying carcasses had broken open to reveal the cause: gullets full of plastic trash the parents had mistaken for food. UVU student Larry Revoir has re-envisioned this nightmare in "Monster," in which the same horrid fate has befallen an iconic children’s celebrity figure: a furry friend stuffed with deadly delights. Contemplating this horror, I felt an unexpected gratitude to its maker, and remembered why art matters.

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Scale and Spectrum
Matthew Allred's Clinamen at UMOCA

, the 2013 solo exhibition at Finch Lane Gallery that introduced Matthew Allred to a wide Utah audience, was both revealing and limiting: it revealed an engaged mind with the ability to physically encapsulate abstract spatial and temporal concerns; but that single exhibit could not possibly begin to contain the ideas that are present in the mind and sensible perception of the artist. Clinamen, a current installation of the artist’s work at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) is more comprehensive and thorough, although not complete. It is a demonstration of the cognitive conceptualizations of the artist, as he grapples with subjects that create his reality and introduce to his realization ideas of scale and measurement and how we, and he, might understand reality through tactile contemplation. His work is incredibly nuanced, yet vastly infinite in its implications, and is an important and valuable contribution to the critical understanding and artistic dialogue that it perpetuates.

So much of art history cogitates temporality by capturing immediacy and the moment. Allred’s single point perspectives in Heliography — photographic images exposed for days, weeks, and months — are the polar opposite to this viewpoint, yet they document reality as much as the immediacy of time. The artist says it explores in a temporal scale what is normally the purview of cinematography —  time lapsed — and condenses it into a single image. Instead of a fragment of time, he says, “this is the mass inclusion of time, 24 hours, six months. What you are seeing is the motion of the earth’s rotation.”

There is an element of the ephemeral to this mass condensation of the 4th dimension, and this is the “mark of decay as these images are recorded, these large gestures of time,” states Allred.  For example, “Heliograph 12-0612-009” (2012), has a trace image of a mountain to the distance and an industrial railing running through the fore silently, but in fact one can see the resonation of six months: the deep indentations of the many courses of sunlight passing through at so many degrees, the marks of weather that leave a palette of color, and the chill of the atmosphere that leaves the piece beautifully hushed.  By contrast, “Heliograph 11071602” (2011) is but one day.  The landscape looks alien, with tall forms and abstract space, but critical is the clarity of the clear blue sky, the darkening of the horizons, and one bold beam of light streaking its way through.  One day in the life of the sun.

Clinamen at UMOCA revisits Allred’s Heliography series and expands the dialogue from where that series left off. Had one only seen Heliography, one might think temporality was the extent of Allred’s fascination with universal elements. This is the essential reason of the importance of the comprehensibility of the installation. Exoplanets, the second series on display at UMOCA, has nothing to do with temporality, but there is a distinct commonality between the two series, with regard to play of scale and proportion — in the case of Heliography with time, in the case of Exoplanets, size and distance.

In Exoplanets, each of the small circular photographs (of what look to be planets of various sizes and elements) appear, at first glance, to be quite genuine; but after further perception makes a bold statement, the viewer finds that these are instead Allred’s representations of planets —  actual planets, outside our solar system, discovered through visual detection, but whose actual appearance is unknown. “We know something exists,” Allred says, “but we really don’t know what we’ve only glimpsed.”

Instead of examining the universe on a temporal scale, in Exoplanets Allred is intrigued by our understanding of physical scale. Since the planet exists light years away, we can only know it through an instrument, and then only vaguely. So Allred has used another instrument, the microscope, an inversion of the telescope, to create what can only exist for us in the imagination. Using the most elemental reductions of textures, pattern, contour, rhythm and color he finds in everyday objects, he creates a credible representation of a massive, though distant, object. But, according to Allred, his experimentation is not fragmented from the truth, and his use of scale is not a simple play of form. The artist brings up the notion of fractal geometry and that, as he says, “molecules are created in a similar fashion as universes. I am looking down towards the minutia and up towards the grandeur. It is a question of microcosmic vs. macrocosmic.”

Finally, in a scale that is all encompassing and entirely universal, Allred’s last series, Atlatl, explores destruction and creation, their essential relation to all conceivable order, and the state of flux in reality. The primary piece, “Eta Carinae” (2014), is the first in a cycle of analogue photography — light sensitive materials  exposed to fire or explosions. “This piece is named after a famous nebula, the birthing ground for stars, matter, and elements,” he says. “There is a sensitivity here that is being surpassed and abused. I really like that ‘Idea’ on a grand scale. I wanted to mimic the ideas of stars exploding, kind of destroying space and then recombining through chemical processes. The entire thing is alive.  The piece is alive since the paper is still sensitive to light. It’s still in flux as well.”

Allred’s fascination with the elemental basics of photography has led him to an expansive exploration of time, space and understanding. The tools of his trade allow him to explore universal ideas, to bring the expansive nature of the universe into the four walls of a gallery or museum. These ideas are powerful and they are real and they are genuinely discovered organically in the mind and through the method of the artist as he works from phase to phase. One can only admire his integrity, learn from his understanding, and look forward to the fruits of his future, which, at 30, has just begun to reveal the deeper colors of life, and manifest the palette of what lies ahead.  

Also at UMOCA this month:

Unearthing the Ruins of an Unbuilt Future: Hotel Palenque, a slideshow of Robert Smithson’s photographs, reveals an unfinished hotel on the Mayan architectural site of Palenque, Mexico.Taken in 1969 during his travels to northern Yucatán, these photographs reveal spatial and architectural uncertainties, transitioning between temporal boundaries of the past and present. This “non-site”, a place lacking purpose, is evidence of a vision not realized and a man-made intervention entropically falling back into the earth.

Glimpse: Inspired by UMOCA’s exhibition Bikuben, Danish choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen from NOW-ID captures themes of home, belonging and identity in this one night performance. Experience captivating movement performed to the eclectic sound of Figura, a Danish music collective. "Identity plays a crucial part in my work,” says Boye-Christensen. “I moved away from Copenhagen at a very young age and formed my understanding of myself as an artist through my travels but I am still Danish – this exhibition inspired me to look at what that actually means.”

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