Artist Spotlight: Salt Lake City
Spaces That Define
Andrew Rice at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
Andrew Rice’s new works, on exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s Projects Gallery, are filled with dark masses, scrubbed in black oil sticks, covering a rainbow of hues that struggle to emerge through the darkened planes. They define abstracted interior spaces, corners of large rooms, two-sometimes-three-stories high, with simple, cutout spaces suggesting doorways and windows. No person or thing inhabits these spaces. The works’ forlorn quality, the loneliness they suggest, belie the engaging person behind the work, this ski bum turned artist who is finding his professional stride this year.
A Colorado native, Rice grew up in the mountains. “My dad had me on skis before I could walk,” he says. After earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he was looking for the perfect place to live. Locales along the Colorado Front Range were too far from the slopes (one easily forgets that Denver is actually a prairie town) and the ski towns themselves were too small. So Rice headed west, to Salt Lake City. “It’s an urban center but so close to the mountains, these two things that speak to me, and I thrive in both. And where else can you find a city where the airport is five minutes away.”
Once here, he enrolled in the University of Utah’s MFA program, where he concentrated on printmaking. A recurring motif, which emerged in woodcuts, etchings and other media and that became, if for a short time, his signature, was an astronaut figure, enclosed in his spacesuit, in generally nondescript settings—a vast warehouse, a rustic cabin or simply the broad expanse of a white sheet of paper. The suit was a metaphor for our existential dilemma — the things that keep us safe, also keep us separate.
By 2013, when a couple of these works were featured in Artists of Utah’s last 35x35 exhibition, Rice was beginning to drift away from the figure, as well as expand into other media (see our video profile here). He was pulled toward drawing, especially with oil sticks, which gave him an immediacy that the laborious processes in printmaking lacked, and also allowed him to experiment with larger work.
His current body of works pushes these large oil-stick drawings back toward the early works. The astronaut, though, is absent, the spaces themselves fulfilling the same function. “Everyone needs or wants a space to call your own,” Rice says in his studio at Poor Yorick, surrounded by works both large and small. “But those same spaces are what separate you from your neighbors . . . they become constructed barriers, how we define ourselves by separating ourselves.”
They are suggestive spaces, generally defined by a corner, and a high vantage point. The lines are not exact, so the works give the sense of an interior space without accurately defining it from a strict architectural perspective. The doorways and windows are always open, allowing communication, but they are dwarfed by the black expanses of walls. “There’s a lot of unknowns that I’m still working with and that’s what’s really exciting about [this work]. . . things that repeat, ideas that I have that aren’t quite formed yet, they’re in the work but not in the front of my consciousness.”
In his earlier work, the astronaut figure created a narrative connection, generating a sense of empathy in the viewer who could remain, however, outside the narrative. The uninhabited spaces of the new work are more unnerving, engulfing the viewer and making her implicit in the space, these vast warehouses with no other function, apparently, than to enclose us.
The works do not completely give themselves over to desperation, however. They are shot through with the white stripes and negative spaces of blank paper created by masking. And especially as they appear at UMOCA, under bright spotlights, the diagonal lines that crisscross the spaces in a cubist manner allow the primary colors beneath the black to shine, holding their own with the black marks. The UMOCA installation is equally favorable to the textural quality of the work which makes the drawings appear to bulge forward even as the perspective lines draw the eye inward.
By temperament, Rice is warm and laid-back with an easy sense of humor, someone with whom you wouldn’t mind searching out fresh tracks on a powder day. Not, in other words, the type to use his art to scream his existential crisis. The approach is more anthropological than personal. “This hasn’t come out of a lot of personal emotion. It’s more about observation, a study or investigation into ideas.”
Rice is not a particularly lonely sort. “As a printmaker,” he says, “you work in a group, you don’t spend that much time solo. It’s a very collaborative process, someone is always looking at your work.” And for years Rice shared his studio, in the Poor Yorick building in South Salt Lake, with a variety of artists.
In the past year, however, he has been more on his own. With an increasing roster of exhibitions — he showed at the City Library with Justin Diggle this spring and in addition to the UMOCA exhibition is scheduled to exhibit smaller versions of the current work at The Granary in Ephraim in October — he needed more space, so as one studio mate left and then another, he didn’t bother to replace them. Before, he would never have been able to work on three or four large pieces as he does now.
In addition to his roster of exhibitions, Rice has been expanding his career by participating in artist residencies. His first was in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where the print studio had no electricity or running water. “I had two weeks of crunch time, so I was working with a lantern and a head lamp, hauling jugs of water.” In April of 2015 he traveled to Boise for a monthlong residency at Surel’s Place. He had proposed working on sculptures and an installation and had arrived with a mass of material collected from local D.I.s. But those materials never got unpacked. To warm himself up, he began playing around with some 2D work and it consumed him. “Sometimes it’s important to take the time,” he says, “to let the work work.” The first drawings for the current work emerged at that residency.
Rice is able to take a fortnight or a month off to pursue a residency or a new body of work because of the flexible schedule he’s been able to arrange in the gig economy. He works irregular shifts doing customer service for backcountry.com, bartends on the weekend, and even works on set design for Utah Opera. He also teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Utah, where he enjoys the benefits of the university’s printmaking studio, as well as the interaction with students. “We’re all narcissistic in the sense of no matter what we come across, we relate it to ourselves, so you’re always engaged in your own work even when you’re thinking or looking at other people’s work.” And, while time alone to think and process is important, he is continually drawn to interaction with a community. “If you’re disengaged from your community, you won’t have anything to say to them.”
For Rice, that community is Salt Lake City. It might not be the first place that comes to mind to launch an art career (though The Huffington Post did recently rank it #2 in the nation for “creatives”), but it does have its benefits: it’s a relatively cheap place to live, has a tight-knit artistic community, and as Rice’s career has proven this year, plenty of opportunities to exhibit.
UMOCA in Autumn . . . from page 1
The most direct architectural invocations are made by Leeza Meksin, who utilizes both the UMOCA building’s skylight and its exposed structural elements as foils that she drapes in textiles. In “Entry,” she subdivides the largest available wall space with lines of cordage that underscore the tension loads that any building must constantly bear throughout its life. The pleasure in seeing this is all in the head, and while the project achieves the huge scale so many current projects aim for, its resemblance to popular architecture makes it ephemeral. This is what is replacing art: buildings so interesting we are satisfied by looking at them instead.
Also not helping “Entry” is the best piece in the show. Tove Storch’s “Untitled” tower of steel bars and interleaved layers of paper art stands in front of “Entry,” where it is unmistakably a work of art, taking up space in spite of its smaller size in a way that Meksin’s spectacle doesn’t. Here we see aesthetics at work, the relation between the work’s height and the viewer’s doing double duty by invoking a sense of scale even as the changing angles of parallax set up a dazzling visual texture. It’s a strong example of how the old artistic values lie in wait to lend the viewer a jolt of pleasure.
Lizze Mäattälä offered a foretaste of her work here a few months ago at the Rio Gallery, where her small, salvaged steel grate pretty much stole the show. Paradoxically, 6 square feet or more of metal grid cannot have the riveting impact of that single square foot, but her work still aspires, as the title of her earlier show here has it, to go uphill not only both ways, but every way. She presents her materials more and more as themselves, even as she seems, on the one hand, to find rhythmic and sensual possibilities that completely surprise the viewer, while on the other they cannot be prevented from dissembling: invoking towering structures, manufactured and weathered panels, and the ambivalence of substances that misrepresent themselves with so much unreliable testimony. Like Meksin, Mäattälä shows how attention to traditional aesthetic properties, rather than mere nostalgia, can still deliver sensuously cerebral pleasures.
Olga Balema, on the other hand, shows that even a first-rate traditional artwork can be undercut by the addition of extraneous contemporary elements. Her six salvaged wooden feeding troughs, with their coat of heavy paint bringing out their resonant surface details, conjure architectural niches, graves, canoes, hoppers . . . and potentially anything that a rectangular container may suggest. Far away the most tactile works in the show, they prove irresistible to touch, which is still the best test of sculpture (museum guards notwithstanding). But where normally an artist allows the work to expand beyond her specific ideas, Balema chooses to narrow their content, painting them in John Deere’s familiar green and yellow to inject a contingent note of agricultural commentary. On the far side of that impulse her skillful placement of yellow details to emphasize the green forms animates them, but the obligatory, generic-feeling critique of industrial farming wrong–foots the viewer on the way through her otherwise luscious ensemble. Can’t we admire the genius of form following function without having to be reminded that on the modern farm it follows finance instead?
London resident and widely exhibited post–artist Gili Tal assembles bits and pieces of real life that, due to her selection, are presumed to play a role akin to that which high artworks used to play, but which are accessible more directly than those remote objects. On a shelf, three kitchen blenders mix colored yogurt so slowly that nothing appears to be happening. Only in the curator’s booklet do we learn that this is a comment on time zones, although what it says about these modern solutions to an ancient and inescapable predicament (the earth turns, making time everywhere instantaneous) isn’t clear. Next to them, a pair of photos of teenage fashions has been defamiliarized by turning one on its side. Then there are a couple of videos: one finds the camera aimed at the automatic doors of a German supermarket, watching without comment as they open and close to admit and excuse shoppers; the other could be in a variety of offices, but we are told it’s the waiting area of a commercial printer. I really liked the doors, but I doubt if Tal or her curators would approve of my mentally cataloging the reactions of both shoppers and passersby to the presence of artist and camera as they photographed this unlikely subject.
The problem with this juxtaposition of media and subject matter has been noted before. The mix of found objects (blenders), performance (the slowly mixing colors), 2-D images (the photos), and video creates a bewildering impression that isn’t helped by the bogus claim that they represent the reality of modern life. Even on its busiest day, an airport makes crystalline sense by comparison. The only thing that saves such a conglomeration is draping it in extraneous texts, whether on the wall, in a booklet, or (adding insult to injury) on an audio device viewers wear as they alternately stumble around the gallery and stand stock still, blocking the view of the work by those eager to see it with their own eyes. Kaprow and Kuspit have called this drapery of explanation the advertising, and of course they are right. It is advertising, deployed to sell the idea that what is on offer is more appealing than it is. Meanwhile, I find myself left with an observation of the titanic German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, who pointed out that when you read a great poem or hear a great piece of music, you know it immediately. You don’t have to analyze it first.
Although there are some captivating things in Object[ed], I might have left UMOCA feeling unfulfilled if I hadn’t wandered into the gallery almost hidden in the corner. There I found Sehnsucht, Cara Krebs’ collection of objects crafted so as to invoke contradictory, irreconcilable responses. The German title noun has no equivalent in English, neither yearning nor nostalgia being pervasive enough, though the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ has the properly pervasive feel. As is often the case when such words are invoked by artists, only the individual viewer can decide whether Krebs nails Sehnsucht; she might have been on firmer ground with Paradox, which has the additional virtue of being bilingual. Of course she wanted the title to inject an arguably missing emotional connotation, while what she’s actually done is manipulate a variety of plastic materials in ways that evoke some of the most characteristic domains of light. Thus a sparkling stream of colorful plastic wrappers and honey squeeze bottles running down a wall and onto the floor suggests the way past pleasure can both warmly beckon and coldly repel in the same breath.
Nearby, an assortment of blue-green Jell-O molds on silver serving stands exude something like the luxurious feel of jellyfish, possessors of elegance and elaborate beauty that are, at the same time, monstrous, machine-like creatures that are rendering the seas uninhabitable even as these words are written. The context refers to fine dining, but the uniform color of the molds brands them inedible. These are post-art readings, since I can’t imagine anyone feeling the doom of the Earth’s oceans as a personal tragedy, even if the oceans are all life’s universal mother. As Arthur Danto argued, post-art (though he never called it that) was a visible form of philosophy, and these, like so much else here, are philosophical games. Yet Krebs’ gift for evoking powerfully ambivalent feelings finally connects fully with viewers in a series of molded ecosystems, miniature aquatic environments in which her bravura plastic casting technique captures the feel of living water, the surface record of craft accidents forming lenses that dapple and fold light, bringing together the underwater view of a pond or river and its sylvan setting. This is an exquisite aesthetic achievement, fueled by her experimental technique and turbo-charged by environmental consciousness, but dependent on the old-fashioned representation to connect with the viewer.