Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake City
The Moving Art of the Still Life
At Slusser Gallery, Phillips and Charley Hafen
Three Salt Lake City galleries are currently showing still life paintings: one-person shows at Phillips Gallery and Charley Hafen, and a group show at Slusser Gallery. All of them close soon, but are definitely worth taking the time to see. We spoke with a couple of the artists about the attraction of the still life.
In the past, the still-life genre has produced works of art with mostly inanimate subject matter. It became a professional specialization in Western painting by the late 16th century and has been popular ever since, although at one time was viewed as being at the lowest level in the rankings of genres. Still life evolved from the background details painted in large compositions, bringing those minor elements to the fore and rearranging them: metal ware, flowers or recently caught game might be used symbolically or simply as emblems of wealth and power in a time of widespread poverty. Now, however, aesthetics and the artist’s psyche eclipse the illustrative aspects popular in earlier times.
The current exhibit at Slusser Gallery highlights the infinite styles, visions and concepts of the genre and demonstrates that still life is alive and well in the 21st century. There are a number of well-known local artists—painters like Paul Davis, Randall Lake, Mark Slusser, Rick Graham and Justin Wheatley—as well as lesser known but equally talented artists like Russian painter Anastasia Dukhanina, Courtney Derrick and Joann Musser. The subject matter ranges from the traditional, as in Dukhanina’s flower arrangements or Lake’s “Nature Morte Au Cuivre,” to the more contemporary, like Justin Wheatley’s “Sacred Heart,” where the nature is more “vivante” than “morte,” or Paul Davis’ painting of stacks of piled-up wood adorned with figures and glimpses of houses.
At Phillips, the downstairs Dibble Gallery presents the first one-man show of Simone Simonian, featuring his landscapes and still lifes. Simonian has been in Utah since age 11 and studied with the late Alvin Gittins, who, in Simonian’s opinion, was “the best of the best” at the University of Utah. Although Gittins’ focus was portraiture, he was often heard to say “… if you can paint a portrait, you can paint anything” and that’s what Simonian wanted. He says he’s attracted to the still life because it gives him the time to “observe things and have the opportunity to do it without having a moving target [as in painting portraits]. It’s beautiful, it gives you an opportunity to observe the effects of light, to conceptualize your work...You can say this painting is going to be about color, or the way the light moves, or how I’m going to control the viewer to see what I want them to see.”
He describes the evolution of one of his pieces: “I often visited a place whose perimeter was surrounded by bamboo. Over time I watched the color of the bamboo change and asked if I could take a piece that appealed to me. The arc of that bamboo and the way the light falls on it in my arrangement creates a beautiful composition that draws you into and around the scene.” The shadows on the right side of a sconce in another painting he views as crucial— “without them the piece would be nothing, just as the gilding on the sconce, if painted as one solid hue would be quite dull. You have to study it carefully to see the variances and how the light source affects it.” He believes that most Westerners, having been taught to read print from left to right, also read art in the same way (although probably subconsciously). His observation prompted us to look again at some of his work, and indeed, it felt quite natural to “read” them that way. It also enhanced our comprehension of his way of using light in his work.
He loves things with great sheen and highlights. “When you paint under this beautiful north window,” he says of his studio, “you get to see how light explains form in such a beautiful way. The way you can make the light leap from one thing to another and come to a crescendo and finally end. It’s like a song, it’s more than just a still life, it’s a story.”
David Estes, who is showing this month at Charley Hafen Gallery, also likes the control the still life can provide. It allows the work to be more personal. “You can go out and paint a landscape, but [with still lifes] you can arrange the things you have in the studio and make your own ‘landscapes,’ and they say something about you.” Estes agrees with Simonian that still lifes can tell a story, but views it from a different angle. The objects he chooses often have some personal significance, whether it’s who gave them to him, or his mood, or are reminders of his late mother, or a result of his musings when not at the studio. Sometimes he paints a still life because the objects in it are “just plain beautiful.”
Where Simonian uses light to direct the viewer’s eye, Estes uses what he calls “paths through the painting.” Composition is the key for him—the placement of objects and the space between them create his paths. But they also tell a story. For example, one of his paintings at Charley Hafen has a rubber figure of Godzilla in it along with other interesting objects he has found or have been given to him. “I was struggling with a painting, working it over and over and over. I got so frustrated that I just wanted to throw my brushes on the floor and stomp all over them. Then my eye caught the Godzilla figure in my studio. I felt just like Godzilla, so I abandoned the other painting and set this one up with him in it.”
Another painting has two yellow porcelain figures in it, also a gift from a friend. Estes describes being at home, letting his mind wander and imagining what’s happening back at the studio. He sees the two figures as protecting the place and all the beings and objects in it, hence the title “Night Guards.” Another piece is personal to Estes in a different way. It seems to say, “This is me – with gifts from friends, objects I love and the tools that make me an artist…”
The idea of the still life may seem static—an arrangement of items that left alone will never change. But as these contemporary Utah artists demonstrate, the genre provides ample room for stylistic interpretation and narrative play.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Beauty in Vitality
Aaron Memmott, Janell James and John Collins at 15th Street Gallery
A street car leaves the station and moves steadily toward the picture plane, bathed in light and shadow on Salt Lake City’s busy Main Street. A richly-hued autumnal scene is set ablaze in greens, reds, burnt oranges and yellows, as the form of a tree is illuminated against the winter-encroaching sky. A parade of aspens becomes an abstract image that takes a place of its own in the reality of the natural world and invites the viewer to experience what color, light, shape and lucid gesture can achieve in an abstracted state in nature. At 15th Street Gallery this month artists Aaron Memmott, Janell James, and John Collins each present their own way of capturing the essence and spirit of living in nature.
Aaron Memmott’s cityscapes have the energy and urbanity one can only find in a vibrant city, the product of its people and its commerce, the physical color and structural aspects of the city, and the pulse that drives it. Memmot’s drawing is accurate, but his brushwork is loose and energetic, paying attention to the play of light and form. He paints Salt Lake City in all seasons and lights: In “Mountain Valley,” the frosted Wasatch Mountains are suspended in the frigid atmosphere and encompass the coldness and frostbitten bustle of buildings, automobiles and activity below; in “Rio Grande Evening,” the old train depot is soaked in the warm light of twilight, the western sky at its back bathed in orange and yellow.
In “Main Street Ride,” Memmott digs deep within the heart of the city, like taking a glimpse into a canyon and finding rushing rapids animated and flowing within the ravine of the canyon. Depicting an everyday scene like “Main Street Ride,” what brings the city to life is the radiant light that animates the city as it touches it, embraces it with color, encompassing all other aspects of the vitality, the pulse of the city, bringing it to and giving it life. Not stopping here, there is found with just as much vitality, light that infuses ubiquitously, in every tonality, gradation, and hue. It is the animation, the vibrancy, the radiance, that gives the light its substance, thus the color, the dimension, the character, the beauty of the city would be lost, without life.
In Janell James’ work we find nature in its glorious, symbiotic fullness. In a work like “Br’ers Passage,” the artist may paint but a single tree, but the painting is so much more, and the viewer finds a resplendent display, in a full palette of rich, golden, autumnal hues moving in intense gradations of lights and darks. But more than a tree, what James depicts is something born of nature to grow and create form in the purest sense, in the most natural sense, as trunk turns to branches and branches to twigs and leaves. And even more so, these trees, shapes that James uses without exception, are a study in form. The tree, dimensional with intensive color and contrast, and a sense of time that the tree in just this state of precise autumnal color will exist only in this moment, and the viewer knows that winter will soon come and the form of the tree, still a pure study of natural elements, will change.
As dominant as this form may be, James gives equal attention to the very present sky, without which the tree would have no form, no shape to respond to, and the color of the subject would be absent. However, as full as the colors of the tree are and as glorious as is the form itself, reminding us where in the year we are, the tree gives presence and being to the sky. If there were no trees, no mountains, no lakes and streams, the sky would be lifeless, just as the tree would be without the sky. Without the empyrean presence, there would be no immense color, there would be no sense of season, there would be no beauty of the tree; it would be lost, without life.
John Collins likes to lose himself and his viewers in his paintings, whether it be groves of aspens, a favorite subject, or the burned hues of the desert plateaus and skies. The artist has a lucidly lively palette, and Collins reaches far in his depictions of scenes of nature—meadows with sinewy trees and minute cows, sweeping alpines, tall and majestic, and reaching for the mountains behind and the clouds above, a magnificent mountainside with sagebrush and black shapes of cows at the base, and a monumental series of plateaus that are pure color. The aspens are among his more abstract scenes, taking advantage of nature for a more elevated state, allowing the natural light and shade to enliven the color with an explosion of life, with a play of color and intensities in the light and shadow.
The reality that is a grove of aspens for Collins, in excited variations of color and tonality, takes on another presence entirely. Without the color, the rhythm and the dance of the trees, without the flickering light and darkness and animated play of a panorama of tones, shades, and hues in a work like “Aspen Grove-Alpine Loop,” there would be no majesty to this canopy, and all would be white columnar shapes with little to give the work substance or animation. And without these colors, the pulsation, the dance and the flickering light, where would be the changes of seasons, the clouds overhead, the light radiating from above and through the forest, the shadows, the winds rushing through the trees, the blistering cold, the burning heat, and the falling into night; all would be dark, the color and light black, without the beauty of the trees, without life.
At 15th Street Gallery this month, a symbiosis is manifest within the city, majestic trees, or radiantly colorful groves of aspens. Whatever the conditions of each symbiosis, these artists show that for the fullness of energy and the reality of elements at their most impressive and natural wonder, all must come together in a dance of light and color, or else beauty is lost, nature without life.