Exhibition Review: Provo & Salt Lake City
That Thing You Love
Painting and Preserving the National Parks
Ever think you might be killing the thing you love by telling people about it? That if you let all the high rollers at Deer Valley and all the ski snobs with Alta passes know how great Brighton is (because the night skiing extends the season by a third) pretty soon the runs on top of Big Cottonwood Canyon will be filled with bad skiers in overpriced equipment or the lift lines clogged with skittish patrons afraid to get cooties from a snowboarder? Or that if you write a passionate article about the magical solitude to be found hiking S___________ Canyon, you’ll soon become a grumbling misanthrope rather than a contented Taoist with your own little happy place? Something similar probably happens to all those landscape painters and backcountry photographers who celebrate the majesty of our national parks and monuments: they’ve done such a good job we’re now considering a ticketed system for entering Arches.
On the other hand, had writers and painters not described and depicted the natural wonders to be found in places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zions and Canyonlands, those places might now be filled with oil rigs and timber companies. When the young American nation flexed its muscles westward, it was interested in very American things, like science and commerce, but the public was also fascinated by stories of exotic lands. And when artists tagged along with expeditions into the country’s undiscovered reaches, serving as documentarians, they also became publicists for lands marked by physical wonders and majestic light. The grand paintings by Hudson River School painters like Thomas Moran captivated, even while they could be suspected of hyperbole; but the 1871 photographs of Yellowstone by William H. Jackson convinced Americans that this land of wonder was the real deal. And the National Park System—which currently protects and manages 59 parks and 300 monuments—was born.
Pulled mainly from collections within our state, Brigham Young University Museum of Art’s Capturing the Canyons: Artists in the National Parks highlights the artistic celebration of the parks within Utah — Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands — but also features work by artists like Moran and Jackson from nearby parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite, which serve to establish and fill out the story of the National Park System.
It’s no surprise that the park system was born within the decade after 1869, when the continent was united by the intercontinental railroad, and spurs to all points of the compass brought access to natural resources as well as natural wonders. When Albert Bierstadt first visited Yosemite in 1863 the trip took him several weeks, by train, stagecoach and horse, but in 1871 the same trip, all on rails, took him six days. Gilded-age wealth brought the desire for adventure and tourism, and artists’ images of places like Yosemite Valley and the activism of people like John Muir helped preserve these places (so that tourists soon could flood them and ruin the views).
Though Utah is now known for its national parks— it’s at the heart of the Grand Circle Tour that attracts millions every year— they were rather late in coming. Thomas Moran helped popularize Yellowstone for the magazine-reading public with his wonderfully detailed chromolithographs, a number of which are on exhibit at BYU. He tried to do the same for Zion Canyon, which he visited in 1873 with a John Wesley Powell expedition (his sketchbook from that trip is on display). In 1876 he created the chromolithograph “The Valley of the Babbling Waters,” a composite of beautiful perspectives in what is now Zion National Park. It was the same year Utah artist Alfred Lambourne’s “Temples of the Rio Virgin,” which opens Capturing the Canyons, was exhibited at America's Centennial World's Fair in Philadelphia. Lambourne’s technique is not as accomplished as that of Moran, whom he idolized, but his majestic view of a lone fisherman bathed in twilight beneath majestic cliffs exposed a national audience to the spectacular scenery in Utah’s southwest corner. It wasn’t until 1919, however, that the area was declared a national park. Infrastructure soon followed, especially during the WPA years of the Great Depression, and numerous artists began visiting the park. Bryce followed a decade later, but Canyonlands (‘64) Capitol Reef and Arches (‘71) were all designated within the past generation.
Utah artists abound in this exhibit. Lynn Fausset, J.B. Fairbanks, LeConte Stewart, Lewis Ramsey, Ranch Kimball and Mabel Frazier are all here. As are later, more modern artists like Doug Snow and Lee Deffebach, and living artists like Mark Knudsen. And none of the works are tough to look at: it’s really hard to miss the artistic mark when the colors and forms of your subjects are so dynamic. Lambourne’s friend and colleague H.L.A. Culmer was a great adventurer—he was one of the first to climb Sierra Point in Yosemite, and also one of the first to paint the Alaskan interior and Utah’s natural bridges—and his traveling sketchbooks of detailed yet economic watercolors are a joy, despite their size and preliminary nature.
Three works in the exhibit were provided by David Dee Fine Art: a view of Zion’s Watchman by Franz Bischoff, James Everett Stuart’s oil painting of geysers in Yellowstone, and Frederick Dellenbaugh’s small painting of Grand Canyon; and the Salt Lake City gallery has hung their own show, National Parks of the West, to coincide with the BYU exhibit (they’ve added Glacier National Park to their list of locales). There’s a Moran chromolithograph of the Grand Canyon (which would have fit nicely with the others at BYU) that manages to look down past multiple planes of rocks, toward the water at the bottom of the canyon, as well as upward toward the clouds. Thomas Hill’s view of Yellowstone geysers seems like a companion piece to Stuart’s: both are a bit clumsy and include figures in the landscape to give scale to the erupting geysers. Hiroshi Yoshida’s 1925 woodblock print of the Grand Canyon is a wonderfully delicate winter scene, and an indication of the park’s early international draw (surprisingly the Grand Canyon was only named a park in 1919). The Swedish painter Gunnar Widforss is represented by two detailed watercolors of the Grand Canyon that capture the effects of aerial perspective that abounds at the site, as well as a painting of Angel’s Landing in Zion whose brilliance has unfortunately faded. These delicate works are in sharp contrast to those of painter Conrad Buff. Though his locations are unspecified, one imagines they are in a national monument, or should be. In bright, flat colors that eschew the perspective studies that dominated early scenes of these places, he creates works where one can almost feel the cool air rising from the deeply shaded canyon walls.
What is almost entirely absent from these exhibits is the perspective of the people for whom these lands were ancestral home rather than eye-popping novelty. The National Park System, after all, has largely been a white-man’s affair. Federal policies and attitudes have shifted over the years, but even the increasing inclusion of Native American voices hasn’t been without its obstacles: we currently find native groups on both sides of the controversy over the possible designation of Bears Ears Monument in southeastern Utah. Once again, it’s a double-edged sword that protects these natural landmarks. Without the park system, various sacred spots might have been completely (rather than just partially) ruined by the voracious thrust of Manifest Destiny; but that may be cold comfort to those who see these places as land stolen rather than land protected. And “protected” is a provisionary term. As Navajo photographer Will Wilson’s work “Autoimmune Response #2” reminds us, while we can build a fence around the land, the air is something much harder to protect. And one wonders how many people who flocked to the pristine vistas of Zion or the Grand Canyon in the Cold War era can now only observe the view from the cancer ward.
“Capturing the Canyons: Artists in the National Parks,” Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, through Aug.20; “National Parks of the West,” David Dee Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, through June 10.
Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Janell James layers her trees through Plexiglas at Green Loft
Like the intricate, alluring trees she paints, Utah artist Janell James experiences seasons of change and growth. In her debut for this spring, the artist has branched out to a new medium by moving from her familiar oil and canvas to acrylic and Plexiglas. The transition is a natural extension of her studio practice, giving her landscape work a three-dimensional look by layering the trees she paints – but not the negative space – and then adding a glaze, which refracts light so it dances through her paintings the way sunshine plays in the leaves of trees.
Her desire to tease out an even greater multidimensional effect through her work brought her to Plexiglas. “I wanted to see more of those layers, and I had been trying how to create a painting where a viewer can see all of them from the very bottom to the top,” she says. She compares the process to assembling a puzzle because she has to figure out how much paint to put on the first layer of Plexiglas and add subsequent layers with just the right amount of detail to achieve a complete picture. The Plexiglas at the base has the most paint on it, and as she moves to the outer layers, an increasingly minimal amount of paint is applied. And therein lies one of the bigger challenges of working in this new medium, “As I move forward on each piece, I have to make sure I’m painting less and less,” she says. With as many as six Plexiglas layers in one piece, she has to construct the puzzle carefully and deliberately.
This approach remains true to James’ work as it builds a bridge between classical and contemporary art. She uses a technique known as reverse painting, which has been used as far back as the Middle Ages. An artist would paint a subject on the back side of glass and turn it over throughout the process to see how the finished product would look. James does this with each layer of Plexiglas, but also paints on all sides of the material.
The finished product is one she compares to stained glass or a kaleidoscope. The layers of Plexiglas reflect light in a way that adds depth and compels a person to keep looking at the picture because viewing it from different angles brings out new shapes and colors. “The work aims to tease, tantalize, tempt, and tap into the viewer’s imagination a little more because they can almost see everything that’s going on behind the scenes,” she says.
The end result is a more contemporary look than some of her previous paintings, and, for James, the work ultimately feels more playful, which is a new conversation she’s having with the viewer. “I feel that trees are very grounding, and that this series is a call to action to just take life less seriously, and to have fun and enjoy it. It is about looking into, as seen through these many layers, what is really important in life…looking into one’s self and always striving to become something more evolved: better humans etc. I think my trees are so reflective of the human condition in many ways, and also just provide the most simple reminder to breathe in, take it all in, and just be,” she says.
Much like the human condition, the experience is a constant work in progress. “I’m still trying to perfect this technique because I’m still exploring, having fun, getting to know it, and trying to master it – as if art can be mastered,” she says with a laugh. As she explores and plays with her budding new medium, the pieces are still distinct and easily recognized as work by Janell James because they capture the vibrant sense of awe and reverence felt by people when standing in nature surrounded by trees.
Organization Spotlight: South Salt Lake
Keeping Up with the Joneses?
South Salt Lake joins Gallery Stroll with rock, beer, and art
“Full Moon Friday.” “Night on Commonwealth.” It all sounds kind of creepy and “Where’s Freddy?” until you know what’s really going down.
It’s South Salt Lake’s first time participating in Salt Lake Gallery Stroll and they’re doing it up right. Rock ‘n’ Roll. Food trucks. Beer Garden. So get down to Commonwealth Avenue from 6-10 p.m. on May 20 and imbibe (in some good art, of course). Photographer Lars Call at Cre8 Studio; painter Jimmi Toro at Shades of Pale; artist Kat Martin—known for her altered landscapes—at The Rock Church (where all the good food and beer is happening, along with jam music by Mokie); mixed media at The Commonwealth Building.
The big event is giant photographs displayed on the outside of buildings scattered throughout the neighborhood (discovering them is kind of the fun of it, says Lesly Allen, arts council coordinator). In her pic, Leia Bell is holding a frame (signifying Signed & Numbered, her shop in the ‘hood'); Chris Brunstetter of GoldCoast Skateboards is holding one of those – we’d guess a cruiser, but what do we know?
South Salt Lake has a big master plan creating an artistic and creative district in the Commonwealth Area that will allow artists to be able to afford to stay as the downtown develops, says Allen. ZAP funds allow for a part-time dedicated arts council coordinator to work on the project. “I am the dedicated staff,” says Allen with a laugh. She has a master’s in arts administration from Westminster, is on the board of the Utah Arts Alliance and is the artist marketplace coordinator for the Urban Arts Festival, which just won a prestigious Our Town Grant from the NEA, funds allowing them, among other things, to expand to a second day at their new Gallivan Center location.
The Commonwealth Arts District runs from West Temple to Utopia Avenue and Commonwealth to 2100 South and the city has big plans for it. “We envision South Salt Lake having the potential to be unlike anything else in Utah,” Allen says, mentioning the underutilized space, the warehouses, and more affordable rents for artists.
The City Master Plan reads, in part: “The Commonwealth Arts District is a part of the downtown identity and economic success. This neighborhood fosters many small, local and independent businesses that produce art and cultural goods. This master plan proposes creating and protecting an arts district for these creative uses and experiences. . . .”
There is Poor Yorick and Spectrum Studios, of course, and a lot of talk about other studios, says Allen, but nothing like that as yet. But, she points out, there are breweries, ski companies, animators, tile makers, furniture makers, two distilleries, Signed and Numbered, SugarPost Metal (they take repurposed and reclaimed metal and make art sculptures), Counterpoint Studios run by the Utah Arts Alliance — a state of the art recording studio with its own label, Midnight Records. She mentions Pat’s BBQ and Vertical Diner as other places in the area that put South Salt Lake on the map.