Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Hide and Seek
Brian Bress' Make Your Own Friends at UMFA
Contemporary art is not your thing. So, when you visit the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, make your way up the broad staircase and spot the colored plastic bottles and piles of sand that "pass for art" in the Phyllis Cannon Wattis Gallery, you immediately hang a hard left—to find pleasure and comfort in the stately and familiar paintings of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Early Modern periods. Well, do that for the duration of the UMFA’s newest salt exhibit and you’ll be in for a surprise—or, rather, surprises—for interspersed among the works of the museum’s permanent collection you’ve come to love, you’ll find the interventions of Brian Bress’ silent video portraits.
Bress, a Virginia native, works out of an L.A. studio where he creates collages, costumes and props and with them "executes performative acts in front of a camera." The resulting video, he says, "is the container that holds them all." When he was an undergrad studying film, video and animation, Bress says he was drawn to painting, which looked like a lot of fun; but in graduate school, where he studied painting, he couldn’t get the idea of moving images out of his mind. Ever since—as this 10-year survey demonstrates—he’s been trying to resolve the push and pull between these two forms in works that are generous, poetic, art historical and plenty of fun.
Take that first left at the top of the stairs and in between John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. Colin Hunter and George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of James Thomas Birch's wife, you’ll find a third, slightly disconcerting portrait. “Ridley-Tree Sleeper #1” is lit not by an overhead spotlight, but from within; and unlike the frozen images flanking it, the portrait moves— a touch of Harry Potter's Hogwarts in the museum’s American Visions collection. Impeccably hung to appear like the paintings that surround it, it’s a video monitor. The subject's arms and head (which is a rough mask with a pompadour made up of smaller heads) poke out from a flat, collaged background. When the figure is still, the whole reads as one flat plane; but a slight drumming of the fingers or a shift of the head—what you see will depend on what point in the 19-minute loop you come upon the piece—brings it to disconcerting life: a strange figure locked in a portrait sitting it can't escape.
Similar interventions appear throughout the galleries: in "Imposter," the only work that features sound, the feathers that make up the sitter's Arcimboldo-inspired face could have been plucked from the 17th-century Dutch "Birds in a Landscape" it faces; "Mushroom (Ellie)," a portrait of the artist's wife in which a slice of a giant Champignon mushroom obscures and takes the place of the sitter's face may seem ridiculous, but only slightly more than the oversized starched collar in the 16th-century portrait that hangs next to it; and in the Modern room, in between a Manguin and a Roualt, the figure in Bress' "Fancy Dress Ball" moves about in an era-appropriate space inspired by dazzle camouflage, Art Deco pottery and early abstraction (the colors—blue, gold, white and black—bring to mind the controversial dress that haunted the Internet earlier this year, so caveat emptor).
Ensconced among western landscapes and a bronze by Frederic Remington, "Cowboy" is a more complicated piece. It began as a simple cartoon drawing that the artist transformed into a foam costume. The video shows Bress as the foam cowboy, standing against a blue-striped grid, meant to call to mind graph paper, as he blindly draws on a plate of glass, completely erasing each drawing—a cactus, a landscape, nonsensical lines—before beginning another. It calls to mind the films that show Picasso and Pollock creating their work on glass, and confronts the traditional idea of painting as window into another world—viewers find themselves on the other side of that window.
Bress plays with this concept of the picture plane in a handful of other works. "Kelly Drawing Britt" is a faceless pencil portrait in the 18th and 19th Century rooms that reminds one of a Magritte painting. As the video progresses, someone from behind the screen methodically scrapes out the blank face to reveal her own. "370 Cover" shows a grid of six paintings inspired by Sol LeWitt, behind which googly-eyed characters are using jigsaws to cut out windows. Something similar happens in "Three Faces," where the cutouts from behind photographs of potted plants form simplified faces that could have come out of Picasso's primitive period.
While these dozen or so videos are busy making friends throughout the museum's galleries, in the salt gallery itself the various building blocks for the works have been assembled: drawings and collages, the full-size costumes, and early videos where the artist first began developing his ideas. These early works were scripted, with dialogue and multiple camera angles. They are mechanically more sophisticated than the pared-down video portraits, but less so successful artistically.
Some of the costumes that appear in these early videos reappear later in the silent video portraits. In "Beadman," a hooded costume covered in beads which appears in an earlier narrative ensemble, gets its solo gig in a completely dark setting where it jumps on a nearly invisible trampoline, creating a mesmerizing effect as you wait anxiously to see if the whole costume will come flying apart. This is paired with a similar video, in which a figure in a costume made up entirely of beaded curtains ends up looking like some version of a Yeti, and is shown in a similarly dark environment running on an invisible treadmill. This piece looks so appropriate in the ethnographic exhibit it shares space with, you'd think the whole thing was planned, rather than a fortunate curatorial opportunity; which points to one of the strengths of this exhibit: the individual strengths of Bress' pieces have been amplified by curator Whitney Tassie's astute and playful placements.
What do these works all mean? They really don't: they just are, which is part of their charm. They are not weighted down with pretension or constrained by import. They don't comment on art history so much as celebrate it, happy to be, as the artist has put it, "a small drop in a wonderful ocean."
Exhibition Review: Provo
I Believe in All This
Casey Jex Smith, LDS Culture Warrior at Writ & Vision
When 15 Bytes first encountered Casey Jex Smith almost a decade ago, he seemed exactly the sort of artist the world craves and Utah schools, almost alone in academe, excel in producing. At the premier U.S. art schools, from Yale to the RISD (the proximity of Yale to Rhode Island symbolizing the breadth of U.S. art education) a graduate may emerge a master of management skills who draws like a 6-year-old, while Utah instructors believe in the liberating power of draftsmanship. After all, what use are good ideas to someone with no voice to share them, nor even the power to manipulate them within the triumvirate of his hand, eye, and mind? Smith plays his part by drawing like an angel. If he can see it, he can capture it with a line so precise, yet lively, that nothing less than the animators’ term wire model adequately describes the solid object that seems to float beneath the surface of his art. And if he can’t see it? His encyclopedic memory of appearances and recombinant imagination will convince his audience that he can.
So what has the intervening decade brought Casey Jex Smith? Based on the evidence of Wars and Rumors of Wars, one answer would appear to be computer games. In a number of witty presentations, ranging from the engineering draftsmanship of “Sword of Laban +5 and Gear” to a trio of war game character cards, featuring real-life heroes like Mitt Romney (“Lord Spelldyal”), to the autobiographical “Encumbered,” in which a self-portrait game character stands beneath a pyramid of all the attributes a young husband and father (and artist) found his new role requires, Smith translates the details of his life and worldview into the literary mode of his generation. But that might well not be new: BYU, where he took his BFA in 2003, has one of the leading schools of animation, a key ingredient in computer gaming, and if it wasn’t apparent in his earlier exhibitions, that may have been a graduate’s caution in the face of consumer prejudices that scored his interest in art history ahead of a love of gaming.
In conversation, and in these works, it emerges that what real-world experience has taught Smith are those things BYU and a Mormon childhood could not: what it’s like to go it alone, as every artist must, but in a Gentile world. As he lists the art capitals he’s shown in—New York, Paris, Florida, Texas—and how each tried to contour his skill set to their niche taste, it becomes apparent why Writ and Vision gallery in Provo still appeals to him. Religious art translates easily from place to place, as the plethora of Hindu, Zen Buddhist, Hopi, not to mention Greek and Egyptian, galleries in museums around the globe demonstrates. But despite his genuine piety: “I believe in all this,” he says, sweeping an arm around the gallery, Smith’s primary subject isn’t the theology of the LDS world, but its culture. In landscapes like “Lehi’s Vision” and set pieces like “Vultures,” where his skills and interests achieve their apotheosis, it’s Thomas Child’s Gilgal Gardens sculpture of Joseph Smith as sphinx, not Heavenly Father, that presides over a labyrinth the viewer’s eye can wander through as though all the world’s dungeons and dragons were visible at once.
Art is always best when it contains an autobiographical influence, and Smith’s best work in this show is the wonderfully ambiguous “Sisyphean Shards,” which summarizes his art experience and the history of the world in one gigantic, theatrical stage setting. Arrayed like so many scenic backdrops, the history of failed human aspirations stand cluttered by the detritus of one man’s peregrinations among them. After trying to take in all the fragments of vanity on display, and perhaps noticing its resemblance to King Tut’s janitor’s closet–like tomb, modesty may send the critical viewer back to study some of the works, previously thought straightforward, that surround it. That portrait of Mitt as bearded warrior? Is his “invisible helmet of authority,” with its Viking horns, to be taken seriously, or does it smile at pretension? That Seer Stone? Does its sheer beauty distract from its utilitarian role, or complement the task it served? It would appear that Casey Jex Smith, master draftsman, might just walk a razor edge between the hermetic land on which he learned to walk and the degraded commercial waters in which he must now swim.