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July 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Review: Springville
Inspiration in the Familiar
Jacqui and Lance Larsen's Three-Mile Radius at Springville Museum of Art

What do a rusty sewer grate,  “Llama Crossing” street sign, rabbit, and a metal screen door have in common? On the surface, not much. Aside from the llama-crossing sign, these are all ordinary things anyone might see in a neighborhood or while out for a drive in the country. Perhaps even within a three-mile radius.

Such is the inspiration behind Three-Mile Radius, an exhibit of words and paint currently on display at the Springville Art Museum. The exhibit features the talents of husband and wife duo Lance and Jacqui (Biggs) Larsen, highlighting the manifold local inspirations waiting for discovery on the next street corner.

Lance Larsen’s poetry will be familiar to many, not only because of his current tenure as Utah’s Poet Laureate (2012–2017), but because his poetic themes combine the familiar with the whimsically imaginative. As a visual artist, Jacqui Larsen uses her husband’s words not only metaphorically but literally, painting a verbatim word here and a poetic stanza there as integral parts of the artistic canvas. It’s also easy to see why her works continue to receive acclaim whenever they are displayed or published.

Naturally, visitors will see ample evidence of the Larsens’ own three-mile radius (e.g., many views within Springville and its outskirts), but the theme doesn’t stop at these visual and poetic displays. Instead, periodically within the exhibit itself, the Larsens challenge viewers to find their own three-mile radius, proving all the while that one need not embark on an artistic pilgrimage to Italy or New York City in order to be visually inspired. The lesson is simple to understand; after all, some of the most powerful inspirations are local ones.

As patrons gravitate to the upper, southeast gallery of the Springville Museum of Art, they will see a large panel entitled “Trotting a Fenced Field” (2010)—the opening work of the Larsen exhibit. Entering the view from left to right are three horses:  teal, mustard brown, and turquoise. Off to the right stands a red bicycle with a banana seat and ’70s-style cruiser handlebars, poised as if ready to join in the trot. In the background, a dark, brown building (perhaps a weathered barn or warehouse) stands silently. Upon stepping closer, the viewer can see bits of collage behind the paint—statement to Jacqui Larsen’s preference for multimedia elements within her works.

In delightful juxtaposition to the painting sits a computer-monitor slideshow of Instagram photos (worn packing pallets thrown carelessly in a small heap, a “Pass It On” freeway billboard heralding the works of Shakespeare, solitary tracks in the snow—even a local mailbox cryptically wrapped in blue canvas as though suffering from a toothache). Next to the computer display hangs a large panel containing the complete poetic text of Lance Larsen’s “Some Minutes”*:

                  Some minutes pinch us in a crowd, some cheer us up,
                  some dangle us from the Golden Gate,
                  then at the last instant pull us to safety.
                  Some minutes wobble, then rise,
                  a homemade kite with a tail of torn pajamas.
                  In some minutes you say I do,
                  In some you vow In this life I would never …
                  Some teach us the difference between “oh” and “o!”
                  Some say, What’s the use, we’ll all get audited,
                  whether by God or a flunky at the IRS.
                  Minute one: you believe in bigfoot.
                  Minute two: you doubt your ability to boil water.
                  Minute five: you put on a paper crown.
                  Meanwhile, minutes three and four join
                  other unskilled minutes and compose a weekend
                  trapped inside a snowy misunderstanding
                  called Montana. In some minutes, a blind man
                  reads by the light of his wife’s snore.
                  In some, a tiny girl peeks into a birdbath
                  to see if she still has a face. Some minutes count
                  mistakes at a recital, some dream
                  in neon blue, some keep vigil with the dying
                  and write down every pause and sigh.
                  Napoleon whispers, “Josephine.” Oscar Wilde
                  says, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
                  Anna Pavlova, ballerina, leans forward,
                  squeezes your hand: “Get my swan costume ready.”

This poetic display prefigures Jacqui Larsen’s own version of “Some Minutes” (2016) shown later in the exhibit. But unlike the full text shown above, in the painting words float around the canvas in tandem with collaged elements: embossed papers, map-like snippets, and incomplete keyhole views into other scenes.

Seeing the magic in ordinary scenes may be an overarching theme for the exhibit, but there’s also magic and humor in Jacqui Larsen’s media choices, color palette, and artistic philosophy. Nature also plays a large role in works such as “Neighborhood Watch: Rabbit,” “Neighborhood Watch: Dog,” and “Neighborhood Watch: Deer “(2013, 2015, & 2016 respectively). Similarly, in “The Elk of Houtz Avenue” (2016) the artist places a salesman’s sample screen door from the 1960s in front of a large sepia-toned photo of an elk: nature humorously reimagined. A rope light stapled in between screen and photograph adds further dimension and psychological effect.

As to media, most are a combination of oil, acrylic, and collage on panels or canvases. Also typical to this exhibit are bright colors such as turquoise, teal, red, and lemon yellow—but it’s just as common to see in the next display a more neutral palette of cream, earthy brown, the antique yellow of old sheet music, or the seafoam green of a dewy field before sunrise. Collaged elements are as likely to include a ’50s-style, quasi Stepford-Wives snip from a clothing ad as they are to include sheet-music scraps or bits of embossed wallpaper. Psychologically, the effect can vary from the comfort of the familiar to the humor of the whimsical. But the effect of the whole is such that visitors should come away with a smile on their faces and the gentle suggestion of discovery in their hearts.

Exhibition Review: Provo
Paradise Found
Denise Milan's Mists of the Earth at Springville Museum of Art

The idea of paradise is about as slippery as the idea of landscape: no two are exactly alike. They look different to each of us, smell different, imbued with cultural constructs fashioned from our own experiences. No one will have the exact same version of paradise: it is either a fantasy we dream up or an idea of a place we visit which transcends the everyday.

As each version of paradise is different, so are the responses and actions to bring attention to our environmental degradation of the planet. Joni Mitchell’s disappointment in seeing the marred Hawaiian landscape was to write her song, “Big Yellow Taxi.” Visual artists have been producing environmentally oriented work to shine a light on ecological concerns since at least 1969, when Mitchell wrote her song.  In the past few years, the number of artists doing so has increased exponentially as the concerns for the harm we have done to the environment has grown. These are global artists working in a variety of media and many geographic locations to impart their message.

Brazilian artist Denise Milan is one such messenger. She is an eco-activist, curator, and journalist whose work has been exhibited across most continents. Before coming to Utah, her current exhibition, Mists of the Earth, opened at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2012, then traveled to São Paulo’s Galeria Virgílio in 2014 and the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., in 2015. Milan is no stranger to Utah – her exhibition was shown at the University of Utah earlier this year (a collaboration among the Center for Latin American Studies, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and the Marriott Library) before stopping at its current venue on the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU).

BYU has a strong Brazilian Studies program and an interest in the Brazil Institute of the Wilson Center; the two institutions collaborated on a show a few years ago and are now in partnership in presenting Milan’s work to new audiences. Through the mediums of photography and photo-collage, Milan highlights the cultural diversity of traditions from her native Brazil through a stunning visual narrative that depicts a journey through paradise, which is lost, then reinvented.

At first glance, the exhibition appears small, each image visually accessible upon entering the gallery space. This compact arrangement does not reflect the expansiveness of Milan’s message, or the sheer beauty of her visual method. With striking photographs of vibrant color depicting lush, dense foliage, she addresses issues of the environment through three segments: “Paradise,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Paradise Found.” Our desert environment looks nothing like Milan’s Paradise, but by considering ourselves within a global context, we come to understand that we ask the same questions regarding overdevelopment and the future: Brazil’s Atlantic Forest is closer to the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin than we think.

“Paradise.” The richness and exuberance of the earth draws us into an environment that is blooming and hot with color. Two of the work’s titles, “Vulva” and “The Cycle of Life,” conjure biological references of growth and abundance. This world is visually complex, a collage of landscape, environment, and possibility.

“Paradise Lost.” The shift is palpable as we move from abundance to a new reality of environment. In this series, Milan’s collages are torn, a metaphor for a torn earth. While “Paradise” conjures ideas of fertility, “Paradise Lost” now includes the human form, informing us of the utmost importance of people on the planet. Milan interviewed Brazilians from varied topographic regions, traveling to the coastal village of Paraty, known for its lushness, to the dry landscape of Bahia in the country’s Northeast region. The tears in these collages are lined with gold, creating both continuity among images and separation within each work. The hot colors of “Paradise” are lost, replaced by the natural coloration of the landscapes the artist has photographed.

“Paradise Found.” In this final series, a series of mostly black-and-white photographs depict geodes and crystals in a wonderfully organic way so that they appear almost like blossoming flowers. Christiane Ramsey, fine arts librarian at the Harold B. Lee Library, explains that Milan proffers her own interpretation of the power of crystals to heal, to bring hope to a torn planet, to bring us back to paradise, albeit one markedly different from the original state.

Ramsey recounts a story about Milan: the artist was in the gallery, and asked a visitor if they liked the exhibition, wanting to know how her work related to our Utah environment. Did her work make the connection between places? The answer from the visitor was yes. The issues we face today are global and similar as development continues to take over the original environment. Beauty is destroyed everywhere.

Milan has visited Utah twice this year, and may return again to work on another project. She appears to have found an affinity with our landscape, which is so different than her homeland. Until then, Mists of the Earth is on view at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library Auditorium Gallery until July 29th, when it moves to Georgetown.

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