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February 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 7    


Tess Cook, Grant Fuhst and Larry Revoir . . . from page 1


Tess Cook first turned up a few years ago with a number of very small canvases, each just large enough to contain the setup and punch line of the sort of joke that is funny in a picture, but would be disturbing, or worse, in person. Her paradigm was a species of crab cake: an uncanny zoomorph in which a hermit crab, instead of wearing the discarded shell of another marine organism, was seen dressed in a delicious-looking pastry. Puns are a matter of taste, but Cook intensified the confrontation by linking the irresistibly inviting with a threat so ancient and deep-seated it seems to come from each viewer’s own DNA. The punning verbal keys to these works paled into insignificance before the suggested possibility of biting into voluptuous frosting, expecting a rich mouthful of cake, and finding instead the overgrown insect-body of a crab. It was funny at a conceptual distance, but once visualized up close, it made a cerebral encounter that could not be unthought. That Cook brought preternatural skill to her representations of the denizens of both pastry case and sea floor made the tableau so real, the encounter so intense, that laughter became as much defensive as aggressive.

Because of their small size and resulting focus, those early panels recalled the work of Wayne Thiebaud, the locally grown American master who limns simplified desserts and candies on plain, solid-colored backgrounds. In Food Fight, though, Cook’s new works have grown in size and ambition. On these medium-sized canvases, she’s enlarged her creatures to show even more detail, and while a few, such as “Strawberry or Cake Walk,” in which a cupcake bearing six birthday candles is grafted to the working parts of a blue crab with orange claws, still dwell in one of Thiebaud’s cool, creamy voids, Cook more often creates contrasting settings, filled with bravura painterly effects against which the realism of the foreground subjects pops out all the more.

Take “Containment,” for example. Here an elegant baker’s display bell on a white base contains a stack of two round macaroons, the trendy Venetian pastry that from now on will always resemble the shell of a slider, the popular pet store turtle whose striped head and legs here protrude from the pastry’s ruffled pied. True to her painterly impulses, Cook has carefully cataloged the array of optical effects produced by the glass bell, as though to assert that she is an objective observer, her apparent disinterest marred only by the tongue planted so firmly in her cheek. Another set of optical effects can be found in “Solitary Blues or Jelly,” the transparency of the latter dessert permitting seeds to float within while contrasting with the frosted surface of yogurt-covered pretzels below.

Cook’s backgrounds also display a catalog, primarily the intersections of realistic underwater environments and the painterly gestures that often produce them. “Power Struggle” employs watercolor stains among its techniques, while “Napoleon Melt Apart” juggles photorealism, in part a shallow-focus effect, against droplets—real and rendered—on parallel brushstrokes. Here, for once, the pastry seems to have the upper hand, as though overwhelming the turtle that lies on its back below. In “I Scream, You Scream, Then We Eat Ice Cream,” paint ran down a blank canvas that was then up-ended to produce a rising effect analogous to smoke, bubbles, or floating seagrass.

If one boundary Cook confronts in Food Fight is complexity, with so much going on in “Coup d’etat” and “It’s a Wild World” that clarity suffers, another limit may be how disturbing an image can be and still be enjoyable. In some canvases she documents the Darwinian struggle to eat or be eaten, so that in both “Courage” and “Cravings,” the harmless, eagerly anticipated biting open of the bonbon coincides with the animal’s disemboweling. But of course it’s all just a figment of the imagination, and part of the way Tess Cook has found to pull and push an audience off-balance, which is something good art has always sought to do. Wherever she goes next, Tess Cook will be followed by an enthusiastic audience that shares her appetites, even if not yet sure where they lead.

All of Food Fight’s contrasting colors, forms, atmospheres, and levels of detail stand, in their dancing vitality, in contrast with the painting of Grant Fuhst. Painting, singular, feels particularly apt here, because Fuhst’s room full of ”anthropophobic” figures are all trapped in the same dire predicament, as though the canvases of The Yearning Curve were all windows that open into the same featureless void. It’s a frequently two-dimensional space in which things remain as ominous as they first seem. “The Optimist,” despite his hopeful title, doesn’t enjoy fielding falling destruction, while the couple in “The Hands Speak” must use their hands while dwelling under water. This world seems preoccupied with authoritarian issues, which to be fair is the American public’s predicament-du-jour as well. Change the haircut and the powerful figure in “The Re-Education of Sub-Atomic Particles” could be candidate Trump, having hypnotized a catatonic nation into believing that he alone can elevate it to safety. Four small mixed-media works, “Traveling Light,” “Quest, Dreamers,” and “Above,” capture the paradigm, each placing a prolate spheroid-shaped head within a three-dimensional circle. It could be a comment on the popularity of football, but it seems more to do with the common sensation that the intersection of irresistible forces external to us determines our fates.

This may sound like someone who doesn’t like Fuhst, or worse, doesn’t respect his artistic prowess. Nothing could be more untrue. These works are instantaneously accessible, which is no mean feat, and they present a consistent and coherent view of a world anyone can identify with on the right (dreadful) day. At the opening, it was clear that viewers were connecting quickly and responding enthusiastically to what they were seeing. That said, there’s a rule of thumb in all the arts, whether painting, sculpture, storytelling, poetry, even music: what is quickly accessible may soon pale, while things that take some work to appreciate are likely to go on opening up for years, even a lifetime. There are no settings here to fit the figures to, nothing but a collection of symbolic objects, primarily houses, that tell their points rather than show them. The enigmatic-sounding titles are primarily descriptive: “The Touch,” “Release,” “Dangerous Days.” What is a yearning curve? What appears deep or poetic may be exhausted at first sight, unless viewers fill them in from their own experiences. Like the stunningly effective illustrations that they would make in a book, Fuhst’s paintings will utterly convince when the page is turned to them, but count on the text moving on while they renew that power and await another exposure.

If the unified visual character of Grant Fuhst’s imagery contrasts with the diversity of Tess Cook’s representations, Larry Revoir’s entire approach differs from both, and not just in being three-dimensional where theirs use only two. Creatures with childlike, anthropomorphic features that have direct access to us through toys, cartoon narratives, and nursery decor take on universal and significant real-world reference here. These disturbing—to say the least—figurines were considered at length in last month’s 15 Bytes, but now that they can be seen properly, a few observations are in order. A large variety of techniques including multiple and wood firings of the clay produce unexpectedly diverse results, including colors that are bright, scaly, and anything but naturalistic, except when they recall their fiery origins. This gives them a symbolic quality that compounds their already ambiguous relation to life and death. Some, like “Sallow” and “Trope,” are mounted on bases that extend them and suggest more environmental presentations: tableaux or panoramas like those seen in natural history museums. In spite of the horrors inflicted on them, or maybe all the more because of it, they continue to appeal to an audience that acquires the presence of a witness. “Anathema,” all that remains of a bunny perhaps, tilts its head back and looks up with owl-like, gaping eyes, while “Obfuscation” and the painfully aptly titled “Bereft” sit, sagging, as though they died awaiting a loved one’s return. At the beginning of any new art form, of course, there are no rules and anything can happen. Larry Revoir avails himself of this ultimate artistic freedom in July 16, 1945: Enter the Anthropocene. How ironic then, that art with such a promising future predicts, with certainty that is anything but calm or dispassionate, that the life we have known is over.

       

Exhibition Review: Springville
Space for Place
Middle | Nowhere at Springville Museum of Art

The six prominent Utah artists now on exhibit in the Springville Museum of Art’s (SMOFA) Here, There, and Everywhere have each developed a personal style that is immediately recognizable as well as adept at evoking a sense of place. The exhibit is an examination of how ”spaces” become ”places,“ the interaction between the concrete and the abstract, and the works on display here, which feel at home in Springville, use the beautiful and the iconic to give viewers a sense of a physical place. By contrast, Levi Jackson’s parallel exhibit, Middle | Nowhere, examines place from a more conceptual viewpoint, a curatorial decision that indicates an exciting departure for the normally conservative museum. Through sculpture, video, photographs and installation, Jackson’s exhibit focuses on the presence and quality of being that is “place” by addressing various contradictions and misconceptions that define the American West—ways of seeing versus ways of actual being. His idea of “place” isn’t as much about the space one inhabits as it is the ideas that inform it. 

In Here, There, and Everywhere, each artist is represented by a number of works illustrating their unique take on place. Many of these paintings are defined by concrete presence – the rocks in Brittany Scott’s majestic mountain, or the grass from Jeff Pugh’s rustic prairie; a stream cutting through rough terrain in deep winter snow evokes a sense of place in Joshua Clare’s work, as does the glowing lights of Las Vegas in Karen Horne’s nocturnes. Justin Wheatley’s architectural paintings may become detached from specific settings, but they remain evocative for their concrete rendering of physical landmarks. Mark England’s paintings are surreal scenes, bird’s-eye views of fantastical landscapes in which much is exaggerated and much is elided, which only goes to emphasize England’s reliance on the physical landmarks we associate with place, helping us to identify portions of his paintings as we would when peering at a map.

SMOFA presents Jackson’s exhibition as “the other side of place—the forgotten spaces and disregarded landscapes of the American West,” thus allowing the audience to journey through tough art, with equally nebulous philosophies to come to their own conclusions.  Remarks Jackson in his personal statement for his show: “My intention is not to simply comment on a Western reality as not inspired or beautiful, because it is, but it is more complex – and gritty.  While the West certainly is mountain springs, ox bows and wild flowers; it is also dry lakebeds, horse flies and thistles.  Furthermore it is a cocktail of militaries, mysticism and the momentary.”

For those who do not know it, the West may be a myth (and it may still be for those who do).  It is “Eat at Joe’s” diner, the Grand Canyon, the Spiral Jetty.  Many who do not know it don’t even know where it is—Utah is perpetually misunderstood as somewhere in the Midwest: “Iowa, Ohio, Utah?” Envisioning Death Valley, for one who has lived in New York City for a lifetime and never ventured to Baker, is like trying to grasp Space Mountain having never been to Anaheim. It is a misconception, a falsehood, and these kinds of preconceived ideas of what is assumed and not experienced speak of precarious “contemporary mentalities,” of ever-changing realities.

Even those who have driven through these places, or even visited them for extended trips, may not fully understand the West, with its myriad elements, shapes and sizes, forms and functions. The West is not only landmarks but concepts. Jackson’s “Jesus Was a Cowboy” is unsettling in its statement about misconceptions and what is misunderstood and at war with truth.  A traditional cowboy with a full-length “duster” coat and cowboy hat, classically tilted down, hiding his face, holds a crowbar in his right hand, while on his white hat is the crossed shotgun “sight,” transparent and gray, aimed from an unseen force while the cowboy holds his bar at an unknown foe.  Who is right or who is wrong?  Of course, both and neither. Contemporary mentalities destroy the authenticity of presence that defines the condition of place… and the moment-by-moment shifting and changing of the West itself.

In another photograph we see a large painted white cross on a rocky mountain peak. Printed in black and white and cursorily attached to the wall, with a band of white, unprinted paper curling at the bottom like a loose scroll, there is a sense of foreboding ambiguity. For those who have seen the “Y,” and the “U” and so many other marked mountain slopes along the Wasatch Front and throughout the western United States, this may be no cause for attention whatsoever.  But to a foreigner, this might look cultish, from “a show I saw on TV,” or even an association with the KKK, without any regard for thoughtful understanding.  The photograph is surrounded by a number of cryptic images on the wall, created as negative silhouettes, like the handprints in cave paintings. They reference a number of things, including NATO military codes, Christian theology, and Native American traditions. A platform beneath this wall, full of broken pottery shards, suggests both our institutionalized experience of sites like those suggested by the wall paintings, and the destruction we cause to these sites.

In a panoramic photograph on one wall, the title “I Don’t Plan on Shootin’ You Guys,” seems to be the remark of a frightened young stag as a hunter pursues it on an all-terrain vehicle.  The image is ironic and ugly, a prosaic reminder of the reality that this kind of sport is a practice in the American West.  Whether there may or may not be more hunting on the African plains, or Nevada, who can say?  Yet besides poaching, hunting is condoned in Africa, while the “West” is a “backwater place of deserts and salt flats and scorpions and cowboys and cults and hunters.” 

Additional works in the show deconstruct the mythic West. “Hogwash,” a sculpture of wood and mud draped in a helmet, goggle and flag, reinforce this uglier side. The tattered flag – an advertisement for the Red Bull energy drink – forms a protective mask around the helmet and goggle and reminds the viewer of the loud, emissions- spewing vehicles that have replaced the mythical rider on horseback. “The Dotted Line,” a shot-up sign which at one time apparently read “Warning: Don’t Blame Me,” is a similar reminder of the derelict edifices that lie just behind our views of the pristine outdoors.  In the video piece “Drifter” a cowboy dressed in white is dragged along salt flats by a Ford 1500, a modern-day take on the Hollywood trope of a cowboy being dragged by his horse; but these images are juxtaposed with another figure in white, prone on the same dry ground, who turns out to be a woman, charging the cinematic trope with an undercurrent of sexism, a tribute to the perpetual changing realities of place and conceptions of it.

All of these ideas explored in Jackson’s Middle | Nowhere are as much a part of the West as the physical elements found in the majestic mountains and Victorian architecture we see in Here, There, and Everywhere.  With ever-changing conditions that constitute our world today, having surer awareness of place and space benefits the current threat of heterology, affecting the loss of cultural, social and personal identity.  Understanding place is to maintain cultural norms, values, and conditions, while space is forever within reach, engendering attainable aspirations while forging forward.  


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