Exhibition Review: Park City
The Sustained Gaze
Sunny Taylor's Resolutions at Julie Nester Gallery
What does one say about abstract art? It neither depicts a scene nor tells a story. It does not reference, investigate, or negotiate — or any number of the vague, latinate verbs endemic to curatorial statements these days— anything. It is, in a term which has been largely forgotten in favor of its better-known-but-less-accurate cousin, non-objective—its only object itself. Yet despite abstract art's lack of institutional cred or the commercial appeal of recognizable subject matter, artists like Sunny Taylor, who is showing this month at Park City's Julie Nester Gallery, keep making it. And we keep looking at it.
Not that Taylor isn't familiar
with institions: after earning an MFA from Ohio State University, she was a professor at Brigham Young University. She says she left the full-time teaching position in Provo in 2014 to concentrate on raising her family (she and artist husband Justin Taylor have three young daughters) and making her art. Call it one of her "resolutions" — the title of her show — though of the New Year sort: within her demanding domestic routine, she carves out time in the studio every week.
Her paintings suggest resolutions of a different sort— not objectives but conclusions, a coming to terms with any number of pictorial decisions. Her paintings have always had a very rectilinear, architectural framework and she uses squeegee, tape, sanding and glazing, to create complicated and hypnotic webs of lines that emerge and recede, folding into, behind and around each other.
Previous works could be maze-like in their compositional meanderings, but in her most recent work — a baker's dozen are on view in Park City — larger blocks of paint have come to the fore. These push and pull against each other, as well as recede and advance against the picture plane. In a work like "Resolution 2," the largest in the show, the red mid-section is both a block and a mask, larger than any other portion of the canvas, but never dominating the overall interaction because the translucent hue reveals smaller sub-sections. The larger block pushes forward, while its underlying constituents pull it back.
For a long time now, her works have seemed to be strategies for getting the eye around the canvas, without letting it settle in any one place. "I break down compositions into manageable parts," she says, "then puzzle and rework them until they each find purpose and place.” Though their block-like framework might call to mind Tetrix, her paintings give the compositional pleasure of a Rubens, without the crucifixes and nymphs.
“The final outcome is never what was first intended, yet is discovered through a lengthy and labored 'patch & repair' process," she says of her working method. "Every composition here has reached a resolution." But these aren't resolved in the sense of fixed, static or tidied up. There's always a sense of unresolved tension about them. Edges are not always crisp and paint is frequently sanded to allow a rough interaction with underpainting. The natural balance of one section is thwarted by another, directing the gaze back and forth without a fixed resting point. It may be accomplished with line, which might disappear just when it feels like it should continue, or it may be with hue, for Taylor is as adroit with color as with composition — in "Resolution 1," the cool field of blues is disturbed by the earthy green in the left-hand margin: it's a strategy that might drive an interior designer crazy, but it's the sort of counterpoise that will reward repeated viewings.
Taylor's bright, juicy palette in these pieces brings together a body of work that is varied in its strategies. In a pair of works titled "Warehouse District," she's masking large sections in off-white and pale blue, foregoing the compositional dynamics of her interlocking blocks of color and looking, like Jules Olitski, to the edges of her paintings for the visual energy.
In the "Weave" works, her lines are arranged diagonally so that the paintings resemble a garden lattice. These seem less successful because they are not held together by some gravitational jostling, but send their energy evenly out of the picture plane.
In another series of works, the corners are curved to form an oval shape out of her rough textures. In an age of streamlined design and fashion-able aesthetics, they have a worn, analog look, like a remnant from the age of vinyl records.
Not that Taylor is suggesting a subject here. Or referencing, investigating or negotiating it. That's something we viewers do as a matter of course, looking to find connections to our own experience. Which can be fruitful. But with an artist like Sunny Taylor it's unnecessary, for line and color, tension and resolution are enough to compel a sustained gaze.
Exhibition Review: St. George
Textures of Life
Fiber art explores meaning and metaphor at Sears museum
Woven fiber encompasses both the mundane and the most sacred, technique intermingled with ritual. It is one of the most ancient and most common art forms in cultures the world over, yet, perhaps because of its subtlety, is rarely examined in the setting of a contemporary art gallery. Dixie University’s Textures of Life exhibit at the Robert and Peggy Sears Fine Art Gallery explores the breadth of this extraordinary, ubiquitous, and versatile medium June 17th through August 24th.
Curated by Sears Gallery director Kathy Cieslewicz and Southern Utah-based weaver Sandra Sandberg, the exhibit has several interesting aspects. Not surprisingly, given both the institutional setting and Sandberg’s long history as an educator in the art of weaving, there is a strong educational component in Textures of Life, including explanations and handouts on various methods of dying and weaving fiber. There are also looms, a drop spindle, and a spinning wheel, evoking the rich mythology surrounding weavers themselves, from Ancient Greece’s Arachne to the Navajo Spider Woman.
Also prevalent in the exhibit are the unique connections fiber art often has with its specific geography; many of the displayed pieces are created using dyes and techniques distinct to the weaver’s immediate cultural and physical environment. A charming practice somewhat unique to fiber art—especially in our post-industrial times—is to use naturally-occurring pigment that locally surrounds the artist, exemplified, among other pieces, in a beautiful Zapotec rug from Oaxaca, Mexico, part of Sandberg’s personal collection.
Taking the idea of connecting art to local ecology one step further is Doris Florig’s mimetic installation A Fiber Forest including “T?niko Trees,” referring to New Zealand’s traditional t?niko weaving technique, and “Aspen Trees.” The large, twisting trees are woven with fibers dyed by the fauna they model. Subtle variations in the color of the aspen leaves stem from not only variables in the different trees, but leaves collected in different seasons, suggesting an art in harmony with and celebratory of the diversity of the natural world.
In sharp contrast to Florig’s organic, colorful work is a precisely woven gray tapestry displaying geometric cattle brands titled “Cowboy Resume” by Karl Tippets, one of the few male weavers featured in the exhibit. According to Sandberg, Tippets’ tapestry was created using a very careful stick weaving technique, and dizzying arithmetic, resulting in a fitting homage to the hard work and persistence Tippets describes as “the contribution of the cowboy to our way of life.” Its simplicity calls to mind the more utilitarian articles of handmade weaving—blankets, shawls, bags, as in Jo Stolhand’s delicate “Evening Bag”—that are somehow sanctified by human time and touch as opposed to their mechanically-created counterparts.
One of the most intriguing sections of Textures of Life is a narrow wall hung with just three pieces that together read as a sort of three-paneled vanitas. Dominating the wall is Susan Gilgan’s apocalyptic “X-Ray du Soliel,” a quilt depicting the explosive activity on the surface of the sun. It is flanked by a delicate white christening blanket woven by Sandberg on the left, and an equally delicate white Tencel blanket by Janet Smith titled “Life’s Fibers Together – Always 1.” Sandberg and Smith’s white, lace-like cloth is strongly evocative of the many ways white cloth emerges in rituals of Western culture, including christening babies, marriage, even burial clothing and shrouds, again consecrated by the attentiveness of handmade cloth. The myriad ways that meaning is ascribed to woven fiber extends far beyond aesthetic appreciation.
Which is, quite possibly, the point one is most meant to ponder in viewing Textures of Life.