Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Four artists who teach what they've learned
Leonardo da Vinci would have been as surprised to see it labeled as art as he would have been to find art in a secular, public gallery, but “Tug (Peaks and Valleys)”would have intrigued, almost certainly delighted him just the same. One of two contraptions built by Karin Hodgin-Jones that are part of Adjunct, an eponymously-titled assortment of gems at UMOCA, “Tug” features a triangle at its top reminiscent of the weaving mills seen in so many BBC productions of 19th century, social realist novels. A horizontal wooden frame extends beneath a web of strings running through an array of pulleys and levers that, driven by a concealed motor, create a constantly shifting, utterly hypnotic display of Euclidian geometry. From there, strings extend straight down almost to the ground, where each is attached to a spot on a flesh-colored square of lightweight cloth. They lift this fabric into peaks that rise and fall in response to the pulling strings, suggesting the surface of lake water in a storm, yet in stately fashion, like a slow-motion film.
There are 10 works here, some in multiple parts, by four artists who have two things in common. First, all are competent and productive individuals whose careers give the lie to the notion that artists are inherently unstable fringe dwellers. They do so while laboring in the world’s most wealthy, culturally-indifferent society, hoping to achieve success in a market that, to a degree unequaled in art history, operates on a winner-take-all basis that sees a handful of artists and works garner millions of dollars, while most artists can’t even make a living at it. Second, while all four have in common one of the most familiar means of supporting themselves and their art work—teaching—they get by without the perks and protections available to their colleagues who, regardless of relative artistic merit, have landed that increasingly rare and endangered haven, a full-time, tenure track appointment.
Some of the most important academics in America are adjuncts at old-fashioned schools that still recognize the value of peripatetic scholars, not attached to committees and revolving departmental chores, who can take full advantage of research opportunities and resources, while providing students early exposure to accomplished public figures. Most adjuncts, though, are temporary hires, paid near or below minimum wage, denied routine benefits like health care and retirement, and regarded for the most part as an unwelcome necessity. As much as any other marginal employment predicament, there is much that can be said about the plight of adjuncts. Yet the pressing question for now is what a work of art should, or even can, have to say about it. Just because some adjuncts are artists doesn’t make employment amenable to explication in visual or aesthetic terms.
At one extreme, Marin Abell’s entire career cries out for the protection afforded by tenure even as it demonstrates the virtue of independence from institutional risks and constraints. Abell’s populist approach, involving loyal assistants in idiosyncratic actions, such as unleashing hundreds of ping pong balls to disrupt mundane activities, suspending sheets of blue plastic over a green field on a windy day to turn a meadow into a lake, or exercises in futility like constructing a bike that goes backwards when pedaled, could at the very least expose him to charges of triviality from insensitive onlookers. Yet “An Inside Out Mine Tunnel” stands as a model of student involvement in a project by a visiting artist. Present are various levels of artifact, from maps and methodological examples to completed projects, of a plan to make students intimately aware of their environment as they probably haven’t been since childhood. Not only that, but the principal product, a unique, colorful glass slab made by the student from recycled material individually gathered and indelibly stamped with the form of a topology significant to the maker, argues for what likely will prove a lifelong connection between school and student. Even more significant from the points of view of enrollment and fund raising, it’s hard to imagine those who see these opulent talismans not wanting to try this magic for themselves.
From a philosophical point of view, the artist whose work says the most about the predicament of the adjunct is probably Sterling Allen. His ongoing research into two- and three-dimensional visual experience has made him familiar with an array of perceptual illusions: illuminating instances where the superb analytical skills evolved in the brain to enable it to make sense of the immediate environment can still get it wrong. Surely the cognitive dissonance that comes from spending a couple of decades and tens of thousands of dollars on an education, then seeking a job and, while getting the work of teaching, coming to the realization that you still don’t have the job, bears a strong resemblance to the ambivalence of an optical illusion. The loose mimicry of “Pallet Jack” and the textbook illustration of “Untitled” are both about point of view. Stand at one place and to you it appears real; those looking from anywhere else see it very differently. The only available solution is found in the three untitled, digital photographs of Allen’s studio, where he demonstrates his command of all the points of view at once. Whether failing to ride a bike backwards or to see through an illusion, only the powerless truly understand power.
Jill Bedgood’s 25 cast plaster books, collectively titled “Book of Hours: Intervention,” each with some plangent object in relief on the cover, bring into focus how the long human past, when scientific ignorance left anyone suffering from illness nowhere to turn but religion, contrasts with recent history, when the rise of scientific medicine has robbed treatment of the emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions with which suffering saturates the patient. Anyone puzzled by the connection between this dilemma and adjunct teachers needs to observe a commonplace difference in teaching styles. Regular faculty, for a variety of reasons, are more likely to deliberately maintain a remote and aloof connection when teaching, while adjuncts are well known (and widely appreciated by students) for rolling up their psychic sleeves and engaging their charges on a more personal level. The damaged, shopworn quality of Bedgood’s books reflects many adjuncts feelings of having been intimately involved while others, better paid and honored, have skated over the hazardous depths.
The autobiographical content of the works in Adjunct is only one of their qualities, and neither the first nor the most important. What can be said about adjuncts in 21st-century is a fragment of the human condition. And their aesthetic qualities? Just as “Book of Hours” employs recent advances in mold-making technique and casting materials, Sterling Allen’s photographs take full advantage of digital advances, and “An Inside Out Mine Tunnel” capitalizes on new ways of displaying information graphically, so Karin Hodgin-Jones’ “Tug (Float),” with its dual, active and passive membranes, takes advantage of a seismic change in art making. Like its companion piece, its mounting and lighting are part of the artist’s intention, a part of the work that breaks traditional boundaries of art and integrates it into the real world. And that’s arguably why talking about adjuncts in this context matters. It isn’t an academic debate; teachers, like artists, are proverbial canaries in the coal mine, and their fate is a vital matter for the world beyond those ivy-covered walls.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Open Setting, Restricted Venue
Et In Utah Ego at Mestizo
Utah houses some of the world’s most stunning geological wonders and Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art's newest exhibition, Et in Utah Ego, acknowledges and challenges these markers of Utah’s local identity. The show, curated by Mestizo's director Renato Olmedo-González, presents over 100 small photographs taken from locations across the state with an iPhone camera. The images were originally published on the Internet, making their translation to an exhibitional venue an interesting one.
The images vary in tone and subject, with a mixture of landscapes and banal interior scenes littered across the gallery’s walls. A great contrast arises when comparing several of the landscapes, which are picturesque and postcard-like, to the snapshots of dilapidated houses, abandoned sheds and eerily isolated locales. For those who are from Salt Lake City, an uncanny familiarity is sparked when viewing these images, inciting a guessing game that invites viewers to locate as many of the sites as possible. This quest is difficult however, as some of the images are deliberately cropped so as to zoom in on one section of a larger whole. “This exhibition intentionally experiments with several aesthetic elements (e.g., line, form, color, subject matter) both through the work itself and the way it has been curated, which visually contrasts with [the] idea of pastoral beauty in landscape images,” Olmedo-González says.
The photographs are numerous, and thus hung in rows and grids on each wall of the gallery, making it apparent early on in the viewing experience that one cannot visually register each photograph. This visual overload sparks an internal rhythm that guides one’s motor movement, moving in a slow yet calculated fashion attempting to absorb some-but not all-of the images displayed.
The exhibition speaks to the nature of contemporary image consumption. With an increasingly large amount of information obtained electronically, digital media that offers viewers faster, more remote and anonymous interaction, is replacing tangible means of communication such as newspapers and art museums. Despite these rapidly changing channels of connectivity, we still hold institutional venues such as galleries and museums in high regard. If a work of art is placed in such a venue, cultural critics who agree on its value must have vetted it. Works placed on the Internet however, may not receive the same degree of interrogation and are part of an endless stream of data. Therefore, Et in Utah Ego takes images that existed in such an open setting and places them in a restricted venue. Olmedo-González adds, “I think of the Internet a ‘space/location’ in its own right, rather than just a technological construction or a place that just exists through computers, phones, etc. For me, one of the most interesting functions of the Internet is how it is a place for visual production.” Indeed, exhibitions such as this can inspire a new view of the curatorial process and artistic participation alike.
Exhibition Spotlight: Ephraim
The custom car art of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth
America has a way of normalizing rebellion. Beat poets in smoky coffee shops turned into hipster coders in Starbucks; the opt-outs of surf culture were transformed into commercial commodities packaged by Gidget and The Beach Boys; and the body art once reserved for sailors has become a rite of passage for 21st-century housewives. Mid-century hot-rod culture has gone through a similar domestication: vestiges of its fiery independence and outsider quality can be found in the low-rider tradition of Mexican Americans, but hot-rods are now a matter of nostalgic collecting for graying baby boomers, and the "weirdo" vibe of Kustom Kulture has become normalized to the point that the bulgy-eyed, adrenaline-fueled monsters that were once synonymous with the rebellious nature of the subculture have become part of the mainstream: you'll see similar characters on almost any program of the Cartoon Network.
"Rat Fink," the first and most famous of these characters, was the creation of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, a key figure in the Kustom Kulture of Southern California who lived his last years in Manti, Utah, and is currently the subject of a retrospective at The Granary in Ephraim. The grotesque and crazed rodent, usually green, sometimes gray, always strung-out with eyes bloodshot and tongue wagging — an anti-hero to Disney's bland wholesomeness — is the centerpiece of the exhibition. He appears in original T-shirt designs and paintings, and as sculptural masks and statues, and makes tongue-in-cheek cameos in a number of famous paintings — riding the train in Magritte's "Time Transfixed" or as an unwelcome fourth in Picasso's "Three Musicians."
Rat Fink became the unofficial mascot of Kustom Kulture, and unlike his litigious Disney counterpart, was part of a creative common, so that some of the creations here are inspired but not created by Roth. And similar "monsters" behind wheels created by Roth appear here as well.
In addition to his manic drawing habits, Roth was known for his custom built hot rods. In fact, these came first and Roth put Rat Fink and his cohorts behind their wheels later. While none of Roth's hot rods are here, two inspired by his designs and built by Ephraim local Robby Layton are here, as are two go-carts and a Rat Fink chopper.
In his later years, Roth joined the LDS Church, which to many must have seemed like the taming of a once-rebellious spirit (by the time Roth joined, the rebellious, counter-culture aspect of LDS culture had all but disappeared). His creations, though never tamed, have become more mainstream as well. At one time, having Rat Fink on your T-shirt was enough to get you kicked out of school. Now, his image probably wouldn't raise many eyebrows. In fact, you're more likely to find his artistic descendants (or slightly toned-down versions) in an animated cartoon these days than you are to find those of his inoffensive Disney counterpart.