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March 15, 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 3   

Larry Elsner . . . from page 1

Born in Gooding, Idaho, Elsner grew up on a ranch in the southern part of the state. When he went to the University of Idaho on an athletic scholarship in 1948, he promptly registered for art classes. His studies were interrupted, though, by work and then service in the United States Navy (1953 to 1955), and he eventually transferred to Utah State University.

It was at USU in 1957 that Elsner met Yoko Yamakawa, a microbiologist from Tokyo who came to Logan to further her studies. It was not a whirlwind courtship. “I was not interested in marrying; I guess he was the same way,” she recalls. After receiving his B.S. at USU, the artist was awarded a scholarship to Columbia University under figurative sculptor Oronzio Maldarelli and earned his master’s there in 1958. The couple wed a year later.

While at Columbia Elsner researched Chinese art for a paper, which was the beginning, his wife says, of his study of Oriental culture, its religion and art. The couple went to Japan for a visit in 1969 and stayed for three months. Yoko had not been home for 13 years and it was the first time her family had met her husband or their daughter, then 7.
They took some of Elsner’s tea bowls to a friend for a gift. At that time Elsner was making ceramic wheel-thrown pieces. One of their acquaintances thought they were so good they introduced him to a gallery in Tokyo. Elsner eventually would have four one-man invitational exhibits in Japan to critical approval. “What they liked about Larry’s work,” says Yoko, “was he left his pieces unglazed, showing the clay. His main concern was with form.”

Elsner began showing at Phillips Gallery in 1974. Bonnie Phillips says Elsner’s work has ‘integrity.’ “It has an organic sense to it — every piece has a real sense of organic shape. And Larry’s work has a sense of formality.”

Renee Fitzpatrick, who was gallery director at Phillips in the ‘80s and ‘90s, says Elsner had “a phenomenal aesthetic that ran the gamut between being an Idaho farm boy and loving twigs and sticks and teaching in Japan.”

His majestic, ceramic horses have always been prized by collectors. They have personality, style and undeniable charm. With an Asian influence, particularly in their minimal color, they continue to hold their interest. Another animal he loved to sketch was the cat, and “Frolic,” a stately feline, is included in the Phillips show. His intriguing modernist pots are consistently studies in form over function and a delight to behold as their shapes mimic intricately decorated Aladdin’s lamps; simple hand-built rounded vessels where the clay’s beauty shines through; tall, elegant pieces with quite simple but fascinating decoration. His wooden works, shaped from found branches and limbs, are often primal images, almost early African in nature; others are good for a smile.

The Japanese aesthetic, Fitzpatrick emphasizes, is very evident in all his work. “These pieces,” she says, pointing to photographs, “were from limbs and roots and tree branches that he found in and around Logan: walnut, ash, cottonwood, box elder – and are very Asian in the way they show the chinks in the wood, that very fluid form is very Kanjiesque. But as a ceramic artist, you know, he was crazy good. They were hand built; they weren’t thrown. So hand-building is something that in the ceramic world is an exceptional talent. He used minimal color in his ceramic pieces which is also very Asian and gave emphasis to the form.”

Fitzpatrick was also impressed with the range of his materials. He had studied metalsmithing under Richard Thomas at Michigan’s famed Cranbrook Academy; and at the Archie Bray Foundation he studied pottery under Ken Ferguson, and sculpture under Betty Feves and Richard Hunt. “He worked in pen, pencil, clay, bronze, metal,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “I always had great appreciation for him like I do Denis [Phillips] because they just don’t have any way to hold themselves to any kind of barrier as far as making art.”

Elsner spent his life creating sculpture and teaching — he was at Utah State University for 30 years. When his teaching day ended, he often worked in his studio/office on campus. Evenings and weekends he created in his home studio, housed in a separate building. At home he worked with wood or metal; at the university he worked in clay.

He was an incessant sketcher, continually refining his ideas on form (his “drawing diaries” can be viewed digitally at the Utah State library site). Fitzpatrick remembers visiting his home after meeting his daughter, Tami, at USU. “There was a bust of the head of Yoko that was just mind-boggling,” she says. “There were clerestory walls – it was a very contemporary house. He watched lots of sports and sketched the whole time,” she says, presenting a photograph of a sculpture of a coach by Elsner that was the result of one of those sketches. To honor his lifelong obsession, his family buried him with a pen and sketchpad.

Elsner’s sense of humor, which came out more in his work than at parties, his wife says, was an important aspect of his art. When Fitzpatrick began working at Phillips in 1986, one of the first shows was Elsner’s. “Having seen his studio in Logan and their house there, it brought a completely different perspective to what that exhibition could be.” It was called “Friends,” and each piece had the original Elsner sketches, different views if they existed, hanging beside it. The figures were very popular, Fitzpatrick says, “and it was a nice exhibition for me because it brought humor into what can be kind of a stuffy setting. . . Elsner was incredibly funny; and these were figures that really brought that out.  . . . “

Bonnie Phillips recalls visiting Elsner’s Logan studio a couple of times and having dinner at the Elsners’ home with her husband and gallery partner Denis. “I just felt a confidence in Larry’s understanding of art, in what he created, and the gentle way in which he transmitted information about it, whether it was a conceptual principled idea he was looking for in the shape of a horse or an abstract shape and how he did it. So, he was well-spoken about the way he intended to create a piece, with the substance of the idea behind it and how he went about doing that. And I thought, ‘he’s just a good teacher in person and through his work.’

“So, he was a good teacher and working with him was always a positive experience. We have only a few difficult artists, but Don Olsen, Larry Elsner and a few people stand out as the most responsible and courteous kind of artist. Not expecting too much and wanting to help. Larry was always willing to come down, heft around a few pieces and set up the exhibits,” says Phillips.

“He was very smart and incredibly quiet but would have a little smile that would come over his face that was really charming,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “He lived a very simple, very nice life and produced a lot. That’s another thing I admire and there was a time when I didn’t understand that. But it almost becomes an obsession, a worthy obsession, not unlike Denis,” she observes.

Since Elsner’s death, Phillips Gallery has been able to sell a few pieces, mostly those the Phillipses owned and a few the Elsner estate released. But the majority of this incredible and extensive collection has been warehoused until now and will be seen for the first time in a quarter century on March 20th.

Yoko Elsner naturally had difficulty coping with her husband’s loss and the numerous demands involved in bringing his work to the public: determining which pieces to keep for the family, cataloging (she spent 20 years at this), consulting (particularly with Elsner’s friend Peter Briggs, art historian and Helen DeVitt Jones Curator of Art at the Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock) — so much to do, so many decisions to make that are extremely difficult when you have worked full time well into your 70s and reached the age of 86. But with the considerable help of her daughter, Tami Leppert, this show has come about and Elsner’s work “finally . . .  can be enjoyed as it was intended,” DeCaria says. “Larry’s there,” observes his daughter. “It’s a powerful show. It stands the test of time. Hopefully we will pull in a whole new generation of people who will follow Larry’s work.”

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
My Foot is a Desert
Abraham McCowan's drawings and woodcut prints from the desert southwest

One of the more perennially popular genres of art, often done in watercolors that are engraved and printed—sometimes bound in albums or books, at other times framed in sets hung together on a wall—is the ‘botanical,’ a characteristics-displaying portrait of a plant species shown through an exceptionally complete and yet typical individual. A botanical ideally combines clear, scientific accuracy, often including the typical environment and insects or other companion species to be expected alongside the subject, with an exemplary aesthetic composition. These ‘flora’ bear comparison with ‘fauna,’ similar studies of animals, of which a primary example is John James Audubon’s Birds of America, a cultural treasure that can be seen on display outside the art gallery on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake City Library. Yet aside from such examples, with their unmistakable aura of Natural History, plants tend to appear in art as background, often in expressionistic pastiches, like those created by Henri Rousseau in images that deeply affected artists like Picasso and Gris and the collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein.

So there’s not a lot to see between art that means to transform the look of a plant into graphic form for its own sake on the one hand, and that excited by nature’s sublime menace on the other. Among the few who explore the historical desert that lies between is printmaker Abraham McCowan, who spends his time in the geographical desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, an area of which he says, “While these desert regions are sparse, they are surprisingly rich in biodiversity.” Anyone who has hiked or just traveled attentively in this corner of the world will know he means that in place of large numbers of individuals, the desert features exotic forms not seen in less challenging climes. One tree, found almost exclusively in Baja, California, is so eerie that the botanist who named it borrowed a moniker from Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark, and dubbed it the Boojum tree. Taking inspiration from such daunting materials, McCowan is able to turn plants into visual meditations that combine close observation with ornamental creativity, resulting in a kind of fantasy landscape in which the topographic features of a plant stand in for the features of the Earth, while the ornamental details are freely drawn from what is, in the 20th century, a virtually universal language of decorative gestures.

Included along with his prints at Saltgrass Printmakers are a number of drawings, most apparently done en plein air, that give some idea of how the magic comes about. The principal challenge is just to make sense of such extraordinary plants as Saguaro, Organ Pipe, and Nopales cacti: hard-shelled plants so tough their skeletons often stand for years after the plants have died. Their capsules—skins to us—bear the scars of countless assaults, and when they bloom, usually rarely, the flower may emerge as unpredictably as a blade of grass peeking out from the merest crack in stone. Another artist might accept that, considering their bizarre architecture, just capturing the living form of such wonders would be enough. It would seem, though, that as McCowan contemplates the contrast of sunlight and shadow as rendered in his drawings, associations come to him that suggest ways to transform purely sensory marks (such as convention dictates be used to suggest three-dimensions to the eye where only two are present on the paper) into conceptual marks meant, in very different circumstances, to convey cognitive information. Thus a scrubbed-in shadow might become a herringbone or a wave-form: the more-that-just-descriptive names give away the game.

If the data that emerge from the surface detail of McCowan's plants look familiar, that doesn’t mean they are meant to be translated, or must be in order to enjoy them. It’s enough that they draw the viewer’s imagination into the vegetable world. One onlooker commented that the roots of one plant, drawn in the Kaibab wilderness north of the Grand Canyon, appeared to be tattooed. One leg of the cactus shown in the print "Organ Pipe" seems covered with pressed flowers, while on another nearby, geometrical patterning suggests agricultural fields seen from the air. Elsewhere, classical cross-hatching vacillates between optically molding rounded surfaces and calling attention to itself the way traditional engraving tropes do on paper money, wedding invitations, and other classic applications.

Part of the pleasure—and quality—of these prints comes from their being woodcuts. Relief printing is always a negative medium, which is to say that the artist starts with a hypothetically black page, from which he removes areas where the medium—typically paper—will show through. While a variety of textures can seem to blend and soften the distinction between applied color and the support it’s printed on, many of which techniques can be seen here, the contrast is always locally absolute. This fact gives these woodcuts, with their bold patterning and intense use of color, a strong graphic presence, composed of strong lines and crisp, sharply defined visual information. As good as they look in small reproduction, their full impact is lost in this format; they need to be seen full size, which in McCowan’s work must be measured in feet. One print, titled “Feather and Spin,” is 8 feet long, and in fact extends several inches around the corners of the gallery wall at both ends. It recalls such over-the-top decorative examples as the door jambs of Romanesque churches, which were often rimmed by as many as a dozen concentric decorative motifs, each unique and each of which extended up the wall, around the arch and back down to the ground. So here one branch wears a creeping vine covered with flowers, another sports oak leaves, and yet another displays trumpet flowers, each of these possible motifs emerging from and submerging back into a garden of endlessly inventive marks.

My Foot is a Desert offers striking images that should unsettle even the most convinced perceptual and imaginative faculties. What looks like a vegetal profile becomes a cartoon caricature, while bird or insect parts assume the quality of sophisticated metalwork. Our eyes are drawn in to sort out the parts, only to become engaged in visual play that leaves the mind even more confused, but happy with the rapidly elaborating possibilities. Those seeking a moral may at first feel shortchanged, unless and until they realize that the intricate fit of living forms within the environments they inhabit, whether created or evolved, is the founding ethical principle. The continuity between these plants, as reimagined and elaborated by Abraham McCowan, and the spirals, pinwheels, stripes, and morphing grid patterns he draws on to further describe them, give a sense of the dimension of life, reminding us what a remarkable adventure we are privileged to undertake.

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