Exhibitions Review: Park City
Keeping It Together
Andrew Ballstaedt at Meyer Gallery
Coming to a full realization of an artist’s work can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: artistic influences and inspiration must be fitted together with conceptual frameworks; works of different size and media must align with an understanding of how earlier work influences later. With good artists, though, these pieces come together to form a unified whole that brings new insight to the appreciation of their work. Andrew Ballstaedt is one of these artists. His latest work, which can be seen this month at Park City’s Meyer Gallery, is somewhat puzzle-like itself, interlocking bands of color fitting together to form palette quilts that he calls “Family Flags.” These non-objective works, however, are part of a whole with earlier series, including cityscapes and naïf monster drawings.
We can begin piecing together the puzzle of this artist by looking to a motif found in earlier works like “The City With Scribbles.” Anyone familiar with work of Paul Klee, who Ballstaedt cites as a strong influence, will immediately recognize the tightly knit community of pyramid-roofed houses. The representation of the city gives no heed to depth but only a frontal grid-like structuring where color takes the form of what the artist calls “color families.” This motif of the city appears again and again in his work. Sometimes it is just a couple of houses, sometimes a score; frequently they rise up on a hillside or form the shape of a hill; they may be protected from danger by an overarching rainbow; all, though, give a sense of warmth and safety, of the strength found in community.
Ballstaedt has always had a sense of the importance of relationships, of the people around us who form a community. He grew up in a large family of 12 children, and in a close-knit religious community. His mother encouraged the children to create art, making it a family activity. “She would tell us to draw stories from the Book of Mormon and she would tell us a quote from a prophet: ‘the greatest art hasn’t been done yet.’ It was magical because we had a mom who valued art and believed in us.” His work begins and ends with family and community and is definitive of the philosophy that nothing exists as a single entity as “every atom in the universe is connected to every other atom in the universe.”
A second major section of the puzzle is found in Ballstaedt’s drawings of various sizes and finishes, some fully realized miniature paintings. He calls them his “monsters.” Made of the most rudimentary shape, loosely rendered, with a large bulbous head, a gaping mouth with teeth like little daggers, squat legs and squat arms — with little daggers for fingers and toes, four of the former and three of the latter — great white spheres for bulging eyes with off-centered pupils, these monsters are hardly scary. They are sometimes simple line drawings and sometimes fully realized paintings. And they can be a few inches tall or mural size. But what makes them truly works of art is their cross between arbitrariness and the absurd.
In a recent work, a monster figure is sharply delineated against a bold black ground, its body of warm banana yellow highlighted with fine tonalities of a rusty melon to add real dimension. Above the monster, in colorful, sharply delineated lettering, are the words “i think i may be happy.” This sentence may be read as a spontaneous verbal gesture, something fragmented and detached, random for its own sake, somewhere between the very fecund zone of the arbitrary and the absurd, just like the form of the monster is somewhere between this zone of the arbitrary and the absurd. But just as nothing exists on its own, together they create a composition that pleases, delights, enchants, and causes one to wonder at the imagination of Ballstaedt who makes manifest such an original jewel of a miniature painting.
A second monster, with the same simple body structure, but painted in rich mandarin orange with vermilion red for tonalities, is not frontal like the first, but in an act of valor, is turned to the side, his head in profile, jaws gaping, his right arm high above him holding a dagger, his left arm in front of him also holding a dagger. He is causing no harm, and not to be feared, nor could he be, this delightful wide-eyed monster, sharply delineated against a robin-egg blue ground. Above him in bold and colorful lettering are the words “relax I’ve got your back” and below the forward-thrusting arm, “i’m your big brother.” Here, again, the words are somewhere between the arbitrary and the absurd, as is the monster, but together, these nonsense words and this delightful monster make a unity and a narrative structure that is focused on color and imagination and child-like rendering and sophisticated painting that charms and amazes in their freshness and unique presentation. This is important work.
The words also suggest that feeling of unity, the community on the hill, of the other works. These two bodies should be understood fluently before the later body of Ballstaedt’s large-scale non-objective painting is to be understood. To call one body later, however, is deceiving because Ballstaedt has, over the past several years, worked his way back and forth through various series, even including the monsters in some of his city paintings.
Most recently, though, the non-objective aspects of his work have come to the fore. “Wire 1,” for instance, is an astonishing achievement in painterly precision and articulation. It is both multileveled and multidimensional, painted in a crisscrossing of myriad bright hues and subdued tonalities. As the myriad lines cross, they form connections, and in some areas this is entirely dense, and in some areas this is somewhat thinned. We can see that Ballstaedt is still interested in the idea of relationships, of connections; we could read this as another meditation on the dynamics of relationships, the irregular horizontal and vertical white that is beneath the lines forming a grounding structure, like a family or community.
Now that there are all the pieces placed, the bigger picture can be seen, and can be seen clearly and lucidly in Ballstaedt’s current work that is a compendium of all of the above. These are his flag series. A work like “Family Flag 10” is a composition of color, line, horizontals, verticals, patterns, proportions, and as a work of pure formalism, it is a masterpiece in the vein of the Minimalist form, which the viewer might commune with the essential structure and cogitate meaningful relationships, thus completing the work as fine art beyond fundamentals of pure form.
And the viewer is free to do just this with Ballstaedt’s flag series and embrace the essential beauty. But this is not the purpose of the artist in their creation and the fabric of meaning is something very substantiated and can resonate as the larger picture is understood and as one comes to understand Ballstaedt himself. “In elementary school I would talk my cousins into coming into my room and doing marker versions of the same thing, listening to the Beach Boys with this community of cousins,” says Ballstaedt. “There is something deeper to them, something tribal about them, it’s almost subconscious but I think there are things that families have done together artistically for thousands of years and I don’t think it’s surprising I’m doing these. We have a totem pole and I have one of my flags next to it. It’s not that different.” From the “city drawings” and other drawings come the “color families” that translate as the color patterns that become vertical bands composed of short horizontal lines of color families. These vertical bands might be evenly or irregularly spaced in width, or can even have a lovely curve to each. Some liberty is taken with some of the families and some are strictly adhered to. Which represents the best of families.
And beyond a Minimalist reading there is a narrative aspect to these abstractions. So finely delineated in color and crisp line, left alone, taken as a single unit, each band would be something between the arbitrary and the absurd. As a painting it would be nonsense. But as a compendium, it is something entirely original, it is something exciting, bold, unique and fresh, full of energy and full of life, as the best families can be. The flag series is just that, each a flag, each one special, to represent family, Ballstaedt’s family. “I’m really fascinated by growing up in Salt Lake with mostly whites; but you see Polynesians and they have a tattoo representing their family or a sarong representing their family and I like the idea of each flag and when you see it you think, ‘That represent’s Andrew Ballstaedt and a part of a line of a family and I existed in a long line of family and there will continue to exist a long line after me.’” The quantity of connections is infinitesimal, and the complexity and dimension of the structure is eternal in possibility.
It is safe to say that Andrew Ballstaedt is forging his own ground as an artist. While many artists are determined to stretch far left of center by the manifestation of obscure concepts tenuously linked with obscure form, Ballstaedt is certainly a unique and original artist by being honest with himself, and using as a vehicle for his art the truthful expression of his tremendous love for family, his family, and the importance it has had and has in his life. As a subject, it is about love, the tie that binds, especially in the best of families.
Exhibition Review: St. George
Shining Light On an Oft-Overlooked Medium
Beauty by Grace: Pastels at the Sears Art Museum
In the past, many artists and art critics dismissed pastel as messy, unstable, and useful only for sketching. But a revival of passionate painters with improved techniques has fostered a different perspective, establishing pastel’s reputation as a medium equally worthy of assessment, appreciation, and exhibition space. Curator Kathy Cieslewicz has brought together nine of these artists living in Utah for the Dixie State University Sears Art Museum Gallery’s new exhibit, Beauty by Grace: Pastels.
Cieslewicz says she has wanted to do a show focused on pastels since the gallery opened a decade ago. “We have such an amazing tradition of pastels in Utah. It’s hard to even realize the talent that’s in Utah in any medium, but especially in pastel,” she says. “I’ve seen pastels in museums all over, and I think that the quality of a lot of the pastels we have here is every bit as good.”
Consisting of pure powdered pigment and a binder in stick form, pastel is generally applied with the fingers and has been used since the Renaissance, but peaked in popularity during the 18th century, when notable artists such as Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, John Russell, and Jean-Étienne Liotard began using it as their primary medium. Pastels have garnered praise for the freshness of their colors; each tone requires a different stick, often resulting in artists using hundreds on a single work. Styles range from loose to very tight, and color from subtle to vibrant.
Arlene Braithwaite says she enjoys the layering ability of pastel and its ability to create beautiful hard and soft edges, such as those seen in her piece “Day’s End: Kolob.” Braithwaite is primarily a landscape painter, inspired by the majestic vistas of southern Utah, and after retiring from a 32-year career as an art educator for Southern Utah University, she has dedicated her time and energy to pastel painting. She says that its dry application makes it a great medium to travel with and paint on site.
Julie Rogers, a past winner of the Sears Dixie Invitational Art Show and Sale at DSU, is showing several pieces inspired by the pioneers and early settlers of Utah, portraits of children and people of various nationalities, and a landscape from her personal collection. She has been painting with pastel for about 30 years and says what attracts her to the medium is that it allows viewers to “see inside” the painting. “I am passionate about pastels. I think pastel is an overlooked medium,” Rogers says. “I think it’s a medium that has a certain type of beauty to it that you can’t get any other way.”
She also says it’s a medium that reveals individuality. “It shows personality. It allows you to see what pastels are all about,” says Rogers.
Mona Woolsey, for example, uses the dry sticks to create blocks of color that build up cubist structures in a work like “Cowboy.” By contrast, Jerry Hancock’s painting of an African mother in traditional dress is full of lusciously blended colors. Marilee Campbell and Colleen Howe use the sticks to build up rhythmic surfaces in their landscapes, showing off the medium’s capacities for impressionistic effect, while the works of Carol Harding and Amy Davis demonstrate that pastels can also create very detailed and realistic pieces.
Robert T. Barrett, a professor of illustration at BYU, is exhibiting a number of works that focus on the lines and figures of dancers. His monochromatic pieces reveal pastel’s traditional use as a drawing medium, while in other pieces, he uses the full palette of pastels to create works of light, shadow, color, and delicacy.
During the artist reception held on Dec. 5, the St. George Dance Company brought these works to life. “I’ve had them dance in the gallery before, where they’ve interpreted the art on display. It brings a dance audience, and they learn about the art. People who come for the art learn about dance,” Cieslewicz says.
Anyone visiting this exhibition will have plenty of opportunities to learn, especially about pastel as a medium. “A lot of people use pastel as a drawing tool, but there’s a giant leap when you look at art with pastels. They’re very much paintings,” says Cieslewicz. “They will learn to love pastels, because they’ll understand what they really are.”
Unversity of Utah Press celebrates Ballet West
With all the golden anniversaries going on in Utah's art community, one could only imagine with dread the cultural wasteland Salt Lake City must have been in 1960. There was no Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Utah Symphony or Ballet West, all of which recently celebrated their 50th anniversaries; nor a Phillips Gallery or Repertory Dance Company, which are gearing up to celebrate their own half century, this year and next respectively.
The best way to celebrate these milestones might be to buy some tickets or take home a work of art. If that's not enough, however, the University of Utah Press recently came out with Ballet West: A Fifty-Year Celebration, an extremely handsome book chock full of images that chronicle the company's 50-year history.
Ballet West began when Brigham City-native William Christensen returned to Utah after performing in vaudeville and forming the oldest ballet company in the United States, the San Francisco Ballet. He founded the ballet department at the University of Utah in 1957, and in 1963, with Glenn Walker Wallace, formed the Utah Civic Ballet, which became Ballet West.
A short history outlining this genesis is followed by equally short essays by each of the following directors: Bruce Marks (1978-1985), John Hart (1985-1997), Jonas Kage (1997-2006), Pamela Robinson-Harris (interim director 2006-2007) and Adam Skulte (2007-present).
Ballet West: A Fifty-Year Celebration is more a keepsake, coffee-table book than a history. 226 Photographs, from grainy black-and-white images documenting the early years, to crisp colorful shots from recent seasons, are tasked with chronicling the company's fifty-year history over almost 200 pages. A short afterword, chronicling the company's ever-popular Nutcracker performance will be enjoyed by thousands of Utah parents, as well as the fans who cheered for the company this past season when they took the holiday treat to D.C..