Working before the invention of a reliable clock, Galileo probably used his musician’s skills to time motions crucial to his experiments. Leonardo da Vinci perfected his drawing while limning the behavior of nature. While it’s not clear how or when this synergy broke down, there’s no time to waste putting it back together. We live today in a crucial moment, when no human endeavor is more pressing than getting scientific knowledge right. Where our species historically has depended on the ability to move to the next place when this one could no longer support us, and counted on the seemingly limitless capacity of marginal lands, atmosphere, and ocean to absorb our wastes, there are no more pristine valleys over the hill, and we’ve exceeded the environment’s ability to absorb our poisons. Scientists struggle to convey the extent of the problem, while artists, who rely on their ability to communicate with an unseen public, often lack the sophisticated knowledge that would make their concerns convincing.
On a fundamental level, the same drive to observe the natural world drives both artists and scientists. ARTsySTEM acknowledges this with contributions from artists whose subjects, permitted more traditional representation. Edward Weston, perhaps the first photographer to present nature precisely and holistically—as an ecological scientist might do—is represented by “Soil Erosion, Carmel Valley” (1931), a Modernist photo meant to capture the formal qualities imparted to land sculpted by water. Seeing it today, it seems every bit as much an environmental statement as Harry Reuben Reynolds' untitled landscape of the part of Cache Valley known as 'the Island' in its pristine condition, in 1950, before development forever altered its original state. A more sophisticated take on this view of nature appears in James Turrell’s “Roden Crater,” a project far ahead of its time when Turrell, whose life’s work explores the role of light in giving form to the world we see, began it in 1974. The documents here, including maps, elevations, and a mind-bending scale model in a custom-built carrying case with an aerial photo in the lid, primarily reproduce the geometry of a conic crater inside a cinder cone, a view into either the remote past, 400,000 years ago when the volcano was active, or an even more desolate future. Either way, viewers should realize that this bleak bit of real estate typifies countless features on a vast majority of planets that remain inimical to life. Curious viewers will want to explore “Roden Crater” online, where an impression of the grand, literally consciousness altering visual effects available to visitors may be found.
On another level, science provides rich and complex subject matter as suitable as any for visual representation by artists. Mario Reis used sediment-rich river water to make the nine evocative squares of “Nature Watercolor, Logan River” (1998). More ambitious and differently atmospheric, the “Ocular Revision” (2010) of Paul Vanouse looms over the gallery in a way that recalls photos of both big science—the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland is the largest experimental apparatus ever built, due to the U.S. government’s decision to cede basic research to Europe—and big art: Roden Crater would not fit in the gallery, but the entire museum could fit in Roden Crater. Yet it also reveals an essential difference between the two disciplines. “Mona Lisa” belongs to Leonardo forever; if someone alters it, the result doesn’t qualify as art. Even if the vandal is Marcel Duchamp, and the result is “L.H.O.O.Q.“ (1919), the original stands. Contrarily, anyone with a valid contribution can bring a hypothesis closer to becoming a theory. Vanouse wants to liberate DNA research from the accepted way it’s visualized: the familiar field of bars resembling a product code, so often seen in dramas and documentaries. He wants to find a way of representing these molecules that is closer to biological reality, resulting, so far, in the circular patterns shown in this video projection. Should he succeed, his procedure may well make the transition from art gallery to laboratory, hospital, and courthouse.
Among the more surprising, even paradoxically exciting works here, Channa Horwitz’s mathematically formed drawings, meant to visualize languages, sounds, and intervals of time without reproducing their sensual impressions, seem to have anticipated the way computers would later influence some of the ways we see. Like one of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, “Eight Expanded“ (1980) refuses to lie flat on the wall and remain a collection of lines. Instead, it seems to coalesce and animate in the mind of the viewer as it travels across the page, casts its own shadow, and grows another segment. Viewers will draw their own conclusions as to whether, as the artist argued, stringent discipline liberated her to find a freer way to make art. But in the 1980s, when hyperrealism sought to find out how closely an artwork could cleave to optical expectations, Horwitz was finding the other end of the spectrum of abstraction, and in the process effectively replacing reproduction with visualization.
Horwitz is one of several artists whose abstract depictions of abstract subjects, coming at the end of ARTsySTEM, invert the realistic depictions seen on the way in. Here Hilaire Hiler combines mid-twentieth century psychoanalysis with color theory in “Parabolic Orange to Leaf Green” (1942), while Anna Campbell Bliss employs her characteristic combination of mathematics and optics—software and wetware, in today’s parlance—in “Spectrum Squared”(1973). Modern art and literature have been criticized for failing to include more recent forms of knowledge, but ARTsySTEM demonstrates both the value and the potential pitfalls of trying to include knowledge that has not yet achieved, and in fact may never reach, the level of common knowledge. When America’s most popular television reporter remarks that no one can explain why the ocean has tides, and no one in his audience objects, artists may be excused for choosing not to trust the public’s knowledge. Yet if the history of art proves anything, it’s that beauty, whatever its relation to truth, rarely depends on understanding.
Many contemporary or post-modern artworks use graphic or visual components in a manner that might traditionally have been labeled ‘illustration,’ and a valid question arises as to what comes first: does the art need an explanation, or does a text summon up visual clarification, as Tom Wolfe argued in The Painted Word. Nothing in ARTsySTEM agitates for specific actions, for which artists and curators alike should be praised. Instead, the exhibit engages in dialogue with viewers on a variety of levels. One artist who labels his perspective ‘critical’ is Derek Curry, whose installation “Viaticus Par Eximo Sermo “(2010), translated as “money is free speech,” compares political interests to species of insects and features a loudspeaker set inside a box of cash. While it feels closer to activism than art, Curry would probably rather spend his energy on debating the issues he raises than on what to call the way he raises them. He would not be alone in believing that if nothing changes, there may be no more arts to argue about . . . or humans to debate them. Perhaps the final word should go to Allison Kudla, whose diptych “Manicured Field” (2011), employs living plant tissue to grow her images. Things have come a long way since Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison set out to forge an ecological art in the 1970s, when even the term ‘ecology’ was brand new. ARTsySTEM does a yeoman’s job tracing how art has responded to this challenge, a feat made more impressive by the sheer number of significant works that came from the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum’s own collection.
||Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake City
Levi Jackson's Bushwacker at UMOCA
The work in Levi Jackson’s Bushwacker exhibition now on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art has a conflicted and ambivalent view of the West. This is in part due to two distinct and pervasive notions that permeate such depictions. The first is the West as an idealized and picturesque blank canvas that is the fulfillment of manifest destiny, the land of the great and vast America. The second is that of the cautionary West, whose discourse is largely moralizing. From this view, the western landscape is a site of a suffering and wounded wasteland maimed by human destruction. It is a difficult legacy to resist, to negotiate.
Yet both camps are a kind of extreme and each legacy informs and embeds itself in the work of Jackson, quoted throughout the exhibition in ways that are complex, at times sincere, ironic, or disingenuous. Such a paradoxical approach speaks to an overall vacillating mixed-feeling view of the West as a site. In part, it is a perspective that emerges from lived experience: Jackson grew up in rural Utah and throughout Bushwacker makes references to ATVing, shooting, hunting, and trucking. He does so not with the common critical urbane eye that condemns the rural as antiquated, backwards, and bumpkin; but rather, such quotations are one part observer and one part participant.
Take, for instance, “Man Up!”, a performance piece in which Jackson drove a 1981 three-wheeler ATV through printer’s ink and then up the gallery wall a full 10 feet. What followed was inevitable: dragged down by gravity, the vehicle crashed to the ground, spilling gas all over and landing within inches of Jackson’s leg. At its root, “Man Up” is an arrogant performative gesture a la Chris Burden in its danger, in its notions and explorations of masculinity, and in its pure craziness, really. The gesture’s strength is in its use of violence both to the gallery wall and to the artist himself— a violence that deconstructed white cube, colonized the gallery space, and renders Jackson at risk.
Leaving the ATV in the gallery as artwork is an interesting choice. At its earliest inception, the all-terrain vehicle created access to the inaccessible. Such access was granted to rank-and-file explorers, who could position themselves like the earliest pioneers of the American West, discovering, marking and, at least momentarily, colonizing the non-site, non-mapped corners of wild America. But this particular model, the 1981 three-wheeler, was marred with reports of danger that resulted in its being banned from production for safety concerns. Thus, by using an ATV, a vehicle that typifies rural culture, Jackson equipped himself with a tool, and a position, that is, in its very structure, problematic.
Then there is the beautifully haunting video “Esterbend,” which makes reference to the federally funded bounty given to hunters to reduce the coyote population. Certainly there is a critique of such practices, but the criticism does not fall on the hunter nor the hunted. Paired with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which is known for its reference to Christian resurrection, the coyote pelt floats with the whims of the wind, and, at least momentarily, appears to reanimate and take on a new form. Watching it move is both majestic and beautifully horrifying. It is also absurd, uncanny, and abject. Despite its dance of motion, the pelt’s limpness and mortality persists. Here is the remnant of a body being dragged in the wind. It flounders and falls flat on the desert landscape. The emptiness of the dried desert is marked by tire tracks, so by people, and fails to be blank, to be self-referential, to be non-political. The coyote of Joseph Beuys, which stood as a metaphor for the wild and terror of the West, is a ghost lost in the barrenness still echoing, “I like America, and America likes me.”
Coyotes are not the only symbol for the American West referenced in the exhibit. In “Columbia,” Jackson takes on the quasi-mythical female symbol of Columbia, the female figure who stands in for notions of exploration and the United States collective identity, whose name emerges from Christopher Columbus. But rather than taken the form of a woman’s body to stand for an ideal, she is a discarded cloth, floating in the Great Salt Lake, being held up by a pole. She is floundering, forgotten, trash. It is also funny too. Here is your Columbia, in all of her majesty, the embodiment of American exploration.
“Untitled” is a grouping of sterling silver chains that hang on the gallery wall awkwardly like tchotchkes found at a truck stop. Custom-made by Jackson,each pendant was created from forgotten and discarded trash found at the Spanish Fork and Payson public shooting range. In part, an extension of Jackson’s book The Range, the broken clay skeet, shot-up can of beer, bent paint can are all comically transformed when wrapped in new material and when isolated in the gallery. Similarly, the photograph, “I Hear There Is Land There Man Has Never Seen” is a snapshot of such a stop, the modern-day version of a frontier rendezvous point, now populated by Taco Bells and Subways, mediated through yellow acrylic. Seen in this way, there is something rooted in surveillance in the vantage point but also something tremendously picturesque. The lights give off a soft glow, the stop feels like an Edward Hopper painting. But it is not necessarily critical. There is no lamentation regarding the expansive globalization of corporations or the pervasiveness of American commercialism as I see it. Such stops are what allow drivers and truckers to go long distances, to temporarily rest, fill up their gas tanks, and then to keep going. Like ATVs, they allow for modern-day manifest destiny, they string the country together. It could just as easily have been called Columbia, as our new patron saint of exploration.
Then there’s the painting “That Tickles,” a re-creation of Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam, who despite being castrated from his ever-ubiquitous guns, cries out in bold lettering BACK OFF! The reference is hugely sarcastic and the irony comes not only from Sam’s stance, which, when removed from the guns, looks almost like a receptive hug, but also from the medium itself, scratch-and-sniff paint on canvas. Visitors are invited to engage with the work by carefully rubbing and smelling the body of Yosemite Sam, and the smell lingering on the fingertips is a mass-market- pine smell. The West mediated through simulacra, inviting the viewer to come, explore; but truncating the process by mediating it.
UMOCA Artist in Resident Curator Jared Steffensen says, “Jackson balances humor and seriousness, comfort and bizarre, pathetic and monumental, in order to better illustrate the complexities that are imprinted on the American West. For Jackson, there is something profound and tragic that exists in this culture, landscape, and mentality.” I would agree, but suggest that such dichotomies manifest Jackson’s own shifting view of the West.