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March 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Exhibition Review: Spring City
Call of the Local
Ten Sanpete printmakers at Spring City Arts

Before artists had ample opportunity for travel, their styles were usually associated with specific regions, towns or royal courts. As a new exhibit of printmakers in Spring City suggests, Sanpete County continues, in a way, this sort of regional identity, with many of these works by area printmakers revealing stylistic and thematic resemblances; but there is pleasant variety on display as well, with prints that technically range from lithographs to woodcuts and thematically from the simple to the surreal.

One style on display here is that (as yet) unnamed but popular school of Utah art that is flat, figural and frequently domestic. Lee Udall Bennion and Kathy Peterson, two of the better-known practitioners of the style (Brian Kershisnik is perhaps the best known). Both live in Sanpete and each displays here etchings/aquatints that reflect in a different medium the aesthetic qualities that have made their paintings well-loved and in high demand. A pair of Peterson’s etchings, in which Pacific Islander women fill the frame, appear beguilingly simple, but the patterns in the women’s dresses and in the foliage surrounding “Malia” create dynamic forces that push and pull the seemingly flat surfaces carved out by Peterson’s elegant line. In the pair of etchings that depict female readers, her line is less sensual and the patterns more uniform, achieving a more subdued and stately if less exciting effect. This handful of etchings is rounded out by a horizontal view of five sheep in a nondescript, chiaroscuro setting, a work in which Peterson shows her skills at creating dynamic works with reduced means, even when depicting the ubiquitous fauna of the region.

Bennion’s engravings, done in 2013 and accentuated with watercolor, display two of her cherished subjects: her horses and her children. “The Bath” is a delightful etching in which the study in contrasts, between the straight lines of the wainscoting and the curving lines of a sloping shoulder and freestanding tub, serve to guide the viewer’s attention to the finely wrought detail in the bather’s splayed fingers. The subject is presumably Adah, the artist’s daughter and frequent model, who also appears in “Adah @ 21,” framed by gladiolas and looking wistful, and in “Horse Girls,” lovingly caressing two horses.

The mother’s model has become an artist in her own right, evidenced here by four woodblock prints. It is intriguing to see the model so often depicted by her mother now depicting herself in a work like “Self at 26.” The similarities are apparent—the flat frontal look, the engaging gaze, a penchant for patterns and pets—but the daughter’s indebtedness to Art Nouveau, to which the mother’s work is related though more distantly, is evident—especially in her “Measuring,” where the subject’s flowing tresses, about to be cut, form a half moon around her body.

Though once common, it is rare these days to see artistic lineages follow such genetic lines. More often we see artistic DNA passed from teacher to pupil, an artist’s alma mater frequently evident in their postgraduate work. Snow College Professor Adam Larsen’s woodcuts are immediately recognizable, both for their striking graphic quality and for their inventive narrative play, and they must be a tempting source for students to copy when working out their own artistic chops. He likes blending a nostalgic style (his prints frequently have a carnival quality to them, something out of the ‘30s and ’40s) with visuals that are driven by the wordplay of his titles. They can be disarmingly cute even when the issues they explore are multilayered and difficult. In one print on display, the adverbial part of the title “Overprotective” becomes a preposition when it is placed above a mezzotint image of nestlike folds of cloth enwrapping two unopened gumball-machine prizes—a blue airplane and a pink shoe. The piece admonishes the helicopter parents of this generation generally, but can also be read from the more nuanced angle of gender politics. His print “A Party Favor,” in which the donkey and elephant of the two dominant political parties are joined at the hip, ready to collapse together at the push of a button, has been exhibited previously (the first time we reviewed it was in 2008), but it takes on new relevance in this election cycle, in which voter dissatisfaction with both parties has propelled two fringe candidates to center stage.

A teacher with such a strong graphic style would be hard for emerging artists not to mimic, and “Eye Winker, Tom Tinker,” by former student Holly Hooper, displays a definite influence. Two small rabbits, one holding a spool of thread, look up at a doe-headed housewife who, bent at the hip, seems momentarily dazed. The title comes from a Mother Goose nursery rhyme full of nonsense words, which aptly evokes the look of the worn-out, wind-up mother encircled by the thread of her duties. Hooper is now an art teacher at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, and one assumes that the markedly different etchings also on display—an unfortunately pedestrian view of a barn but also a delicate examination of a bird’s nest—are more indicative of the style she is pursuing now that she’s out of school.

Zane Anderson also studied at Snow College and a title like “Food for Thought” could easily have been lifted out of one of Larsen’s notebooks, but the strange aquatic figure in this piece, and the surreal figures of his “White Noise” and “Tongue and Fly 2,” are more likely indebted to Brian Hoover at SUU, where Anderson finished his education in 2015. To note an influence is by no means meant to dismiss an artist: Hoover and Larsen are both fine artists and one could do worse than be influenced by either. One looks, then, for what direction the artist will take this influence, and Anderson brings to his pieces a lively sense of humor and a narrative flair. The fat pink tongue reaching out of a bleached jawbone in “Tongue and Fly” will make you both laugh and think twice the next time you come across an old carcass in the hills; and the wheel-drawn head in its counterpart, “Tongue and Fly 2,” creates plenty of narrative intrigue.

Abe Kimball, the man responsible for bringing all these artists together, announces some of his influences in the title of his hand-colored lithograph “Ovis Aries, after Zurburan and Van Gogh.” He borrows a sacrificial lamb from the Spanish artist and a starry sky from the Dutch, but there’s also something about the vertical format and the tablecloth that calls to mind a more local artist: Ron Richmond. This association is abetted in no small part by the inclusion of three of Richmond’s prints, hung next to Kimball’s work. Two are versions of Richmond’s recurring “Robe” motif—a pile of folded cloth hanging off a table—executed through different techniques, the hand-tinted drypoint coming much closer than the woodblock to mimicking the ethereal light of the artist’s paintings. It doesn’t take much to see Kimball’s lamb in the place of the robe. All artists borrow, and every artist is in conversation with others, and it may be no less interesting if that happens with someone down the street rather than across the world; and when our fetish for “originality” persuades us to dismiss artists working in a similar vein, we deprive ourselves the pleasure of enjoying the nuanced differences and similarities that arise in these conversations.

Kimball also shares with Larsen and Anderson a penchant for play between visuals and titles. “Relics of A’Tilla and His Hun” is a rural Utah riff on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (with Kimball opting to age the female character sufficiently so there’s no doubt she’s the farmer’s wife and not daughter).  Lest we miss the joke, a tiller has been superimposed on the image and left uncolored so it pops out of the piece. This is a technique Kimball uses in other works, whether it be in a classical still life, to call attention to the “Empty Bread Basket” of the work’s title and purposefully break the illusion of realism, or to make iconic the farmer and hound in “ Guck and Equerry.”

For the viewer looking for them, the exhibit offers other connections. Animal motifs abound and overlap in this exhibition of rural artists. Karin Jones shares Bennion’s love of horses. In a 1961 lithograph (when she was Karin Nelson), a light horse and a dark horse prance about in a wooded scene where the encircling branches mimic the swishing tails and curved bodies of the two “Companions.” An even earlier woodcut (1957)  shows a much more graphic approach to the subject, with long negative lines carving out the equine figure. Kimball also celebrates the equine in his “Kanthanka,” where Siddhartha’s favorite horse is represented by four variously colored lithographs of a horse’s skull against a Pop-inspired background. Look across the room and the jawbone of Anderson’s “Tongue and Fly” might easily fit into these skulls. But these are more coincidences than relationships of consequence and certainly not all the artist on display fit neatly into a narrative of influence.

Robert De Groff’s masterful etchings and mezzotints call to mind the magical age of bookmaking, when delicately rendered prints like these illustrated books printed on luxurious linen paper, and his steam punk aesthetic that blend past and future in .  In “Insulae Parvae” a man on the shore frames the view of the island of the title, a large spiraling structure not unlike Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, but made of concrete that is falling apart, so that it feels like both an ancient and a contemporary ruin. “Lighter than Air” blends elements of Egyptian or Arabian fantasies with a futuristic feel, as if we are witnessing the mysterious building project from some Jules Verne novel.  “Cone of Vision” does something similar, though closer to home, where a mysterious object is being investigated by men in contemporary western clothes against the backdrop of the type of  Lombardy poplar that dots the central Utah landscape that De Groff calls home.

The entire exhibit has a pervading sense of home, of the rootedness of place and the call of the local. That call continues to be felt by many Utah artists, who flock to Spring City and the surrounding communities. They are places to work with few distractions, but as this exhibit demonstrates, the artistic conversations can still be plentiful. And fruitful.

Exhibition Spotlight: St. George
Cultivating Printmaking in Southern Utah
Abraham McCowan returns to his roots

For the first time since the 1980s, Dixie State University’s art department will be offering an introductory course in printmaking in the fall and adjunct Professor Abraham McCowan has big hopes for what it will mean about the future of printmaking in southern Utah. “I have a lot of non-students wanting to participate,” he says.

In a show at Dixie University’s North Plaza Gallery, the St. George native is currently exhibiting a series of mixed-media drawings, but his real love is printmaking, something he discovered as an undergrad at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. He found the attitude toward printmaking in the East markedly different than in the West, particularly Utah.  “Out East, printmaking is it,” McCowan says. “They’re nuts about it.”

Mccowan became drawn to woodblock printmaking. The direct nature of the medium as well as the meditative gesture of carving appealed to him. That preference was cemented when he was introduced to printmakers Tom Huck and Karen Kunc at a Southern Graphics Council Conference in 2007. Both were doing large-scale relief printmaking, and Mccowan was impressed by Kunc’s work, especially. “[Kunc] changed what I thought was possible in printmaking,” McCowan says.

For his graduate work, McCowan studied under a student of Kunc, Utah State University Professor Kathy Puzey. She encouraged Mccowan to start working in a larger format, resulting in impressive woodcut prints—some 8 feet long—depicting desert flora of southern Utah and northern Mexico.

McCowan’s large botanicals, some of which were on exhibit last year at Salt Lake City’s Saltgrass Printmakers, are more expressive than illustrative, and exhibit a curious wonder of the strange and diverse plants of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. His graphic style has a writhing quality, with the details of the plants embellished and exaggerated by McCowan’s own imagination. “Desert plants, especially in the Sonoran Desert, are animated,” McCowan says. “The saguaros with their arms twisting around each other, the organ pipe cactus… The desert is a crazy, sacred, beautiful place.”

Still wanting to work big, but without access to a large press since finishing graduate school, McCowan has turned to mixed-media drawings on paper mounted on wood panels. As we see in the DSU exhibit entitled Thunder Crashing Above Us, which also features Cache Valley artist Lisie Beck Brundage, McCowan’s new works are more gestural, more spontaneous. While woodcuts are still present, most are small, almost studies, with a few botanicals floating amid nonobjective works. “The little woodcuts are informing the big drawings right now, rather than the other way around,” McCowan explains. While he hopes to return to large format printmaking, he feels that the mixed media offers an opportunity to explore mark-making. It will be interesting to see where this experimentation leads when McCowan gets around a large press again.

It is hard not to think of parallels between the tenacious desert flora that inspire McCowan’s graphic oeuvre and his own perseverance as an advocate of printmaking. Despite a strong tradition of landscape and realism in St. George, McCowan believes there is a need and a place for artists who are outside of that mold, and cited recent efforts by various St. George-area printmakers to network with one another via social media. Mccowan is also reaching out to printmakers in Kanab, and will be teaching a relief printmaking workshop and showing at Raven’s Heart Gallery there in the summer. With printmakers coming out of the woodwork, so to speak, Mccowan hopes a printmaking studio will evolve in St. George. “I definitely think we could have something like Saltgrass in St. George,” he says. “Teaching a course on printmaking is a good start.”

Here’s hoping his words turn out to be prophetic.

Exhibition Review: Ephraim

The Code of Silence
Sandy Brunvand at the Granary Art Center

Sandy Brunvand will consider just about anything as a matrix or component for her printmaking practice: dog hair, staples, rusted metals have all made their way into her works. For her most recent series of prints, now on exhibit at The Granary Art Center in Ephraim, Brunvand has turned to the player piano, or rather to the scrolls that were fed to them to create music in homes and saloons at the turn of the last century.

Coding has become a ubiquitous if invisible part of our everyday lives, the holy spirit of a secular age: billions of ones and zeros now churn through the small devices we carry on our bodies like necessary appendages. So it may be hard to conceive of a time only a half-century ago when computers were large machines that filled entire rooms, fed with clumsy punch cards that were akin to the player piano scrolls from a half century before. But that's what these scrolls of negative spaces, dashes and dots call to mind.

Several are displayed as individual sheets, the size and appearance of a regular print, but others hang on the wall as long scrolls falling to the ground, read vertically as the head moves from ceiling to floor. They float off the wall, creating a ghost print of shadow on the white wall behind. The aged nature of the paper adds a patina of warmth and beauty, but also threatens corruption and disintegration. They are presented simply, as themselves, or backdrops for the artist's personal imprint.

We see these dots and dashes and imagine notes, witness the blank paper and hear silence. The marks encode and decode an undefined sensory experience, evoking time and sound, mystery and language, all while hanging silently on a wall.

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