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April 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 3   

John Vehar . . . from page 1

Vehar grew up in Utah and Wyoming, the great-grandson of immigrants from Slovenia and Bulgaria who worked at coal mines in Rock Springs, Wyo. “My mother and I moved to Utah when I was 6 years old,” he says. “My dad moved to Jackson Hole, so I go back every year, and I feel like I identify with Wyoming.”  An only child, he says he has worked on art all of his life.  “I always felt that this is who I am, rendering, sculpting, this all came naturally to me.  I did everything from technical illustration to portraits of historical figures for history books, but I have always painted. I just didn’t exhibit.”

That began to change when Vehar decided to become a stay-at-home dad. For 20 years he had worked as a graphic designer, and before that as a technical illustrator – “very technical,” he says. But when his children were born — he and wife Meredith have a 7-year old boy and a 3-year old daughter — he decided to stay at home. “During that time, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’  I thought I had been trying to bring my best work to the table, so I thought I would give my painting a shot.”

He does numerous preparatory studies in charcoal before he approaches his canvases. “When you take charcoal [process] and put it onto a canvas, you feel, that moment, you just need to let yourself make the lines, to feel it, and if you don’t think too much about it, you’ll get whatever you want, because you are in feeling mode. You’ve already thought about it, you’ve already drawn it, you’ve already figured it out, it’s the muscle and once you’ve touched it three times on the paper, you only need to touch it once on the canvas because you’ve already made the movements with the muscles in your hands.  It’s a part of your subconscious already.” 

He paints out of the garage of the 1910 gingerbread-style bungalow in the 9th and 9th district he and his wife have lived in for the past 13 years. The array of used brushes stuffed into cans and bowls of mixed paint atop a cacophonous palette belie the crisp clean work Vehar did as a designer and technical draftsman. But it seems perfectly adapted to the large expressive canvases that have found a home at Modern West. 

“I think it was serendipitous or luck of the draw, but I had some friends who pointed me to Modern West, thinking I would be a good fit,” he says. “At the time, there was the ‘Year of the Horse’ show going on at the Natural History Museum, and I happened to walk into the gallery with my promotional material when they were looking for people to show horses, and within a month I had my work in there.”

His solo show that opened in March features some of these horses, as well as bison and bighorn sheep. One might think of it in terms of wildlife art, which would not be surprising from a Wyoming boy, but Vehar’s works are really about painting and expression. His paintings combine both technical expertise and explosive energy.

For any artist, the ability to foreshorten is no easy task, and no matter how many “sketches, sketches, sketches,” it will take a well-schooled, and well-trained artist to capture not only the form, but the inner-energy, the inner-inertia, the intensity, and the spirit of a horse like that in “Trudy-O,” where the animal is taking an almost frontal leap from the canvas into the viewer’s space. Not only has Vehar rendered every muscle with facility and grace, but with a sensibility to this particular horse, as it takes its resplendent and so articulately animated stride. As the expressive line of the artist seems to melt into a fabric of sinewy muscle, the gestalt of the horse is fully felt, as the inner-energy, the inner-inertia, the intensity, and more than anything else the radiant, spirited energy of the horse is fully and expressively conveyed.

Modern West also features a number of portraits exploring iconic figures of the American West. “I like to feel things,” he says of these portraits, based on photographs of figures like Sitting Bull and Geronimo.  “The reason that I wanted to paint the portraits at Modern West is I wanted to feel their faces. I wanted to know them.”

An example of this is “American Portrait II.”  The portrait has a very frontal, close-up view, so it is not necessary to know just who it is that is being connected with, only that there is a connection, and in every respect, this connection is made unavoidable.  With a more structured line, and using an application of linear varnish over the surface of each portrait, Vehar creates what he calls a balance in the linear and loose, thus creating the gestural. 

 “You take a tool that is technical, the lines appear tight, almost like an etching, but when you look at it, the applied glazes, you find that it is as uncontrollable, as loose as a brush, which brings the feeling into it, it brings the empathy into his expression.  It’s the way I’m trying to feel the piece, it’s the way I’m trying to heighten the piece.  It helps me to know that person. The tool is limited but the artist is not limited and when those two things clash, you push the boundaries a little bit.” 

And these curvilinear lines are there to heighten that connection with the very distinctive face, in a way that reads as more psychological than the intense gaze the eyes already radiate. This psychology created by the layered varnish patterns work on many levels, from a heightened conscious of connectivity, a feeling of euphoria, a sense of hypnosis, a kind of vertigo that draws the viewer in, a feeling of displacement that enhances the power of the figure being looked at, even a schizophrenia that creates a duality and an altered reality of a sense of being and perception.

These portraits came about as a direct result of the exhibit. “When you are creating a body of work, for a show, for example, you have your influences, you have your ideas, and there is some intangible element ‘in the air.’  As you are working on the show, even at the very end, your work may turn 180 degrees, whatever makes the best show; you don’t have to be a painter, you need to be an artist.”

What we do not see at Modern West Fine Art is the range of Vehar’s expressive approach to the figure, which is something quite revealing.  In a figure called “Fear,” the portrait head is already handled wonderfully well; her hair especially is striking, as it is so loosely handled yet so acutely palpable.   Her face, which is in a three-quarter-profile view, is turned gently to the right.  She has lovely soft lines, and one gets a lucid sense of just who she is.  But one wonders why she is given the title “Fear.”  She is quite beautiful, and in her soft and feminine lines, with eyes that radiate, could second for a biblical “Eve.”  But it is her companion piece that gives her the title, “Fear.”  In the companion piece, “Resolve,” she is given the same linear equilibrium as “Bison,” that expresses so much, while conveying her naturalness.  Her eyes, like “Bison,” are hid, but not in a gesture of reticence, in a gesture of introspection, self-composition, and inner being.  The “fear,” in “Fear” is Vehar’s own reticence, and his own fear in being unwilling, afraid, to take “Fear” to that level of gesture and self-expression.

The Modern West exhibit suggests and the work in his studio confirms, that Vehar has an exciting and vigorous attraction to the fundamentals of painting, which animates his process and ultimately allows his work to function on many exciting levels.  These can be both experimental, with evocative and edgier effects on audience sensibilities, to more hushed and softer features, the kinds that aren’t as easily recognized, but the kind to imbue a subject with frailty, strength, and grace.


Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
The Ties That Bind
A look at and discussion of CUAC's Utah Ties exhibit

As with all juried shows, this year’s annual Utah Ties exhibition is an inconsistent mixed bag —some works evoke the grotesque and the abject, while others are quietly beautiful and even majestic.  As a collective, the show includes a select number of truly remarkable pieces here and there and a spattering of undergraduate-level work.

Take for instance Maia Bromley-Dulfano’s work “B.A.D. (Bad Air Day)” (2015). Her small acrylic painting and collage explores air quality in a naïve way, literally mapping the lung on one hand, and then coloring in the graded warning levels of red days and yellow days in a way that reads like earnest literalist aesthetic propaganda. Or take Jason Metcalf’s yeti suit from his performance in “The Curse of Master Mahan” (2012), which hangs on the wall like the returns section from a costume shop. To be clear, the concept of this piece is strong and the performance interesting but when displayed without easily-accessible context and unaccompanied by documentation of the performance upon which it is based, the work falls flat aesthetically, and makes the object look discarded, misplaced.

But then there’s Al Denyer’s “Green River IV” (2015),a drawing so dark that it causes the viewer to continually look, deeper and deeper at the surface, that seems to bend and fold, simultaneously, making the river known and unknowable. Or take Ryan Neely’s monolithic “NOMROMFOKOOBEHT” (2015), a handwritten version of the Mormon scripture, The Book of Mormon. Antithetical to Ben Howell’s handwritten devotional “Transcription”(now on display at UMOCA in the exhibition Church and State), Neely’s work seems to unwrite the text, unmap the context of words, retranslating scripture into nonsense. Indeed, it is a culturally-loaded piece, like Bromley-Dulfano’s, but one that doesn’t have the message usurp aesthetics.

To be clear, I mean these binary comparisons and the claim of inconsistencies only partially as a slight. Juried shows, by nature, come with their own subjective bias implicit in the process. They manifest a single taste preference, which often leaves itself open to criticism in the singularity of it. This is especially true when it manifests a perceived outsider’s perspective.

“Juried shows as art shows are weird,” says CUAC director Adam Bateman. I agree, and that weirdness is particularly the net result of an open-call submissions and what sometimes seems as arbitrary selections. Bateman continues on the notion of weird by saying, “The blind jury process is funny because on one hand, it’s totally arbitrary and on the other hand, there are a lot of consistencies.” Consistent yes, old Salt Lake favorites are included, such as Metcalf, Stephanie Leitch, Cara Despain and Marcela Torres, to name a few — the latter two having taken home the prize money for “Best in Show.” Unpacking Bateman’s claim then, consistent inclusion seems to attest to these artists’ significance, which has transcended a local bias.

However, juried shows are by nature arbitrary, not only because they represent a single subjectivity, a ruling based on a small fraction of online thumbnails, but also because the process can be limiting because some works shine online, yet fall flat in person, and vice versa. Implicit arbitrariness is an important revelatory element, however. All exhibitions are, to some extent, arbitrary. We all have our favorites, our biases, our personal experiences, our psychoses that feed into the selection process.  

If the end product of an exhibition lacks a cohesive sense of curatorial voice or thematic arch for the audience, what then is one to take home? 

Now in its ninth year, one of the professed purposes of CUAC’s annual show is first to showcase a breadth of established, new, and emerging Utah artists. Utah artists being defined as artists living in Utah, as well as artists living outside of Utah but who either are from Utah or who have spent time academically or professionally in the state. Included this year are 23 artists (out of the 190 who applied, about 12%) — the already mentioned Metcalf,  Neely, Denyer, Despain, Leitch, Torres and Bromly-Dulfano, as well as Alexis Furlong, Elizabeth Morisette, Edward McKenna, Ashley Wilson Wall, Chris Gariety, Mike Richards, Chandler Dee, Jamie Harper, Sherri Wright, Samuel Carpenter, Mitchell Barton, Kevin Marcoux, Rachel Barney, Rachel Stallings, Justin Watson, and Levi Jackson (though Jackson self-selected out of the exhibition due to logistical issues).

And in fact, many of these names were new to me and new to CUAC. “I think out of all of the artists that submitted work I only knew a third of them,” says Bateman. “Of the artists whose work was selected, I only knew one-half of them.  So, the show gives a totally new sort of opportunity for the art community to otherwise have.”

The second purpose of the exhibition is to introduce Utah artists to an outside curator.

This year’s juror is Mara McCarthy of The Box Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, located not far from the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA and the Los Angeles River. The Box was the 2014 winner of the Stand Prize at Frieze London for the best booth. She is described in the press release as, “The principal curator in a visionary gallery that takes on challenging projects and regularly presents groundbreaking and historical exhibitions.”

McCarthy herself has Utah ties, coming from parents who grew up in Utah and attended University of Utah, Weber State and were descendants of Mormon pioneers. Such biographical information is important to point out as it suggests that McCarthy is an informed outsider, who can, at least in part, speak the language or at the very least, recognize symbols of the local culture.  Recognize she did, as some of the work of the back gallery includes pieces that make specific reference to uniquely Utah visual culture such as Stephanie Leitch’s “Untitled Ordinance” (2015), a sculpture of Jordan River Temple figurines, suspended in the air upside down on a grid, and dripping with glue.

Only 12% of all applicants were accepted into this year’s Utah Ties show. So, in the end, a juried show like this doesn’t tell us much about the comprehensive picture of Utah artistic production nor does it produce a cohesive well-unified exhibition.  Where Utah Ties does succeed, however is in adding an additional set of critical eyes on our artistic landscape, offering the juror’s biases, opinions, and subjectivity. Given the small pool of tastemakers that practice in Utah, such introduction is valuable in and of itself even if the net product is mixed.

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