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May 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Cara Despain and Michael Ryan Handley . . . from page 1

“What dark, strange narratives are couched within the romantic depictions of the West?” Despain asks at the beginning of the field guide, and her constellation of castings points to two narratives, dark or strange. Fleshed out in the field guide text, in passages sometimes poetic sometimes prosaic, Despain’s castings point to the stories of miners and Mormons that brought Manifest Destiny to Utah. The golden spike, which symbolizes the railroads that brought both peoples to Utah in large numbers, is featured, as are boom towns turned ghost towns (embodying mostly a “Gentile” narrative, as Despain notes that the Mormons were relatively uninterested by mining). There’s also the granite quarry for the Salt Lake City Temple, the dark narratives of Topaz and Mountain Meadows, uranium mines in Capitol Reef (where Madame Curie makes a cameo), the Mount Carmel highway that cuts a swath through Zion National Park, the massive Bingham Copper mine, and the BLM land secured but left undisturbed by Terry and Brooke Williams.

The way the field notes are written presumes one would follow Despain’s route, rediscover her source material: she provides an image of the rock, helpful hints for navigating trails, and a legal disclaimer. Such trips are really unnecessary, however, for the rocks themselves have nothing intrinsic to say, though their ghostly presentation here may imbue them with a certain aura. They are placeholders for the narratives Despain explores in the field guide, where the writing is strongly literary, the scientific coordinates a misdirection from the poetic quality of the work. In addition to being an artist, Despain is both a writer and a curator and her skills at both are evident here: despite being simply a collection of concrete castings of mostly unremarkable stones, the show at CUAC does look good, especially the field guide; and her writing has verve. The work is really a hybrid of the literary and the visual. It may be that contemporary artistic practice has been as dependent on the word as the visual for some time now, but Despain’s exhibit underscores the point, making one stop to wonder about the power and purpose of visual art in the contemporary context.

If Despain’s visual exhibit may rely too much on a textual context, Michael Handley’s may suffer from its lack. Where Despain’s text is ultimately expository, Handley’s, in the form of a statement that appears on CUAC’s website, is purposely contradictory, though suggestive:

I am at a moment where I believe art about nature cannot be made with earthy materials. Stones. Water. Plants. Dirt.

I am at a moment where I believe art about nature can still be made with earthy materials. Stones. Water. Plants. Dirt.

Nature is managed in windowsills and tabletops. Experience is exchanged for image and myth. And yet, I sense a massive cultural need and desire for the ideological fusing of mankind and nature.

The dividing trench is deep and our moves seem to excavate and widen it. We are removing material, rather than adding.

I propose image and myth be exchanged for experience.

I wish for the familiar to become strange again.

With Despain, Handley struggles with the conflict between discourse and “experience,” revealing, perhaps, a sense of nostalgia, for the artist now removed from the direct experience of the West and left to consider it in conceptual forms. Or it may be an indication of the pervasive sense of estrangement that pervades all aspects of our overly media-ted lives.

The exhibit begins in a curtained-off section where a video projection displays a shimmering form of light on the floor, suggestive of a campfire, or, as the gallery attendant corrected, a star: either interpretation suggests creation and destruction as well as the elemental experience of the landscape, beneath a starry sky or around a shimmering campfire. Behind the curtain, a series of objects, sometimes simple, sometimes crude but definitely strange and perplexing, hang from the walls and the ceiling, and are spread across the floor. As one viewer suggested, in this space Handley has created a landscape: a bright yellow rectangle of a painting hung high to the ceiling suggests the sun, while three blue-and-white images on the north wall stand in for the weather cycle and the hard, painted objects on the floor suggest the rocky landscape of a place like the Colorado Plateau. A series of umbrellas turned upward, their canopies removed and their ribs clad in clay, become plant life thirsty for rain. Less easily identifiable are the two yellow cloth pieces suspended from the ceiling, and a matching pair of suspenders attached to the wall. The potted shrub, wrapped in plastic and protruding sideways from the wall, is equally perplexing.

While more poetry and less prose would be a boon to the art world in general, it’s difficult to tell if Handley’s disassociating strangeness comes together in this instance. A photograph promoting the exhibit shows the suspenders and the suspended yellow cloth as a whole, a set of overalls that here have been dismantled and repurposed, suggesting a narrative that isn’t quite clear. The wrapped shrub may stand in as a cloud in our landscape interpretation, but one can’t help but think it’s more — representative of a nonnative species, perhaps, that is out of place in its landscape.  Associations emerge but we can’t quite grasp them, so as we gaze ceiling-ward at the yellow cloth, we may notice the sections of yellow foam insulation surrounding the building’s pipes and wonder if they, too, are not part of the exhibit. Is this a happy (or unhappy) coincidence? Are they plugging a hole in the ozone? Or are they the reason no precipitation reaches the parched umbrella plants below? Maybe they are simply satisfying the demands of city building codes.

One senses there is an explanation here, but can’t quite access it. The strange has not been made quite familiar enough. Handley is a compelling if sometimes frustrating artist, his works strongly cerebral enterprises but charged with flashes of poetry. There is poetry here, but the cerebral part may still be too much in the own artist’s head. Art doesn’t need to come easy, and one viewer, even an attentive viewer, may not readily absorb, in the few minutes spent in a gallery, what an artist has presumably spent months creating; but when an exhibit fails to coalesce for multiple well-informed and well-disposed viewers, as was the case for this exhibit, something isn’t working.


Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Identity Retablos
Sarah May's search for self at Mestizo

From the moment we take our first breath to the dying exhalation of our last, we explore our individual identity in a larger world. Artists have wrestled for centuries with the deep desire to know who they are within societies that often see individuality as something to be ashamed of instead of celebrated, something to be contained rather than expressed. As a biracial artist, Sarah May knows firsthand the struggle of finding her unique voice within a local culture of racial profiling and stereotyping at quick glances. May’s exploration of self-identity is illustrated in her retablos-based art series entitled, Identity Retablos, featured May 16th – June 10th at the Mestizo Gallery in Salt Lake City.

May is an artist, photographer, curator, and writer based out of Salt Lake City. After graduating from the University of Utah with a BFA in Photography and Digital Imaging, she has concentrated her work in cyanotype, film, narrative photography, and curating fine art exhibits.  The motivation for the retablo series comes not only from May’s own journey for self-identity, but also from conversations with friends and family who share her Latin heritage. She highlights this heritage by using the traditional folk-art form of retablos to explore individual identity. In Hispanic cultures, traditional retablos hung over home altars and would generally depict Catholic saints, but May’s retablos pay an almost religious admiration to self-discovery and individuality, employing black-and-white snapshots of herself, family and friends, and iconic objects that reflect her Latin heritage as well as her American lifestyle. Her choice of black-and-white images framed in a wooden box bring a reflective nature to the pieces by acting as picture frames of snapshots from her life and the lives of those who want their single, unique voices to be heard. In a press release by Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, May comments about her inspiration for her retablos-themed series, “As a person who has been stereotyped and racially profiled, I wanted to explore my identity as a Latina, a woman, and being biracial, while acknowledging the perspectives and judgements given to me at a glance.” The press release also mentions her  “retablos-inspired boxes” symbolizing “the identity and soul of herself, and those who have more to their story than a first glance.”

In one box, a middle-aged woman is photographed in casual attire in her kitchen. A handwritten note reads, “I gave up everything I had to come to this country. I gave up the life I admired to become something more. My family is my everything.” The items surrounding the photo and note are ties to things left behind: a wooden spoon, a spool of thread tied around a brown medicinal bottle, and dried peppers from a home garden. But a final item, a family portrait, is not something left behind, but something she left her country for, a better life for her family.

In another, a young woman in a white-and-black striped dress sits on a leather couch, hands clasped in her lap, knees closed together, long black hair hanging down over her shoulders. A note hangs under the photo, the scribbled text says she wanders “between the world they define me forFOR ME?…” and the world she’s trying to find. A broken eggshell with a lightbulb rests in the right corner, and a small vase with red feathers sits in the left next to a locket with no chain. The red feathers in the small blue vase symbolize the culture the young woman is defined by by being separated by the birth of a new identity, one that will light her path to self-identity.

A third seems to bring the pair of works together. A middle-aged woman is seen from behind, in the kitchen. A second photograph, superimposed on the first, shows two young women in clothes that date them a generation back.  “I see a glimpse of the life my mother left behind,” the note below reads, as the young woman presumably imagines her own self at the age she sees her mother in the old photograph.

Elegant, simple, and powerful, May’s series of retablos-based pieces narrate the complex relationship between biracialism and discovering individuality while still holding true to a heritage that is constantly under attack by those who choose to see the stereotype as being the only trait of an individual when, in reality, we all have taken steps off the beaten path of our family that came before us. Sarah May has taken the step away from just being “Latina” into a path that shows not only her unique talents, but the individualism and variety that truly resides in culture and heritage.            





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