Art lovers and the general public alike have long been captivated by abstract art. The seemingly endless array of brushstrokes, scribbles, collages and color planes have beckoned labels ranging from grotesque to beautiful. Now, over a century after its explosion onto the cultural landscape, abstraction continues to assert its relevance.
An exhibition of abstract works is nothing new in the state of Utah. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) has boasted several abstract exhibitions over the years. The Springville Museum of Art houses a sizable collection of abstract paintings alongside their more traditional collection. In 1996, The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) — then known as the Salt Lake Art Center — hosted a major exhibit on abstraction in the state, and in 2008 returned to the theme, exploring abstraction through the eyes of local artists.
The Rio Gallery’s upcoming exhibition, entitled “Abstract,” follows the UMOCA’s model for using abstraction as a framework for uncovering the rich array of talented artists in this state. Curator and artist Bill Lee states that his motivation in organizing the show was simple — a passion for the genre itself. Of choosing relevant artists from which to draw source material, Lee affirms that “it has occurred to me on more than one occasion that, for its size, Salt Lake City seems to have a more vibrant art scene than some of the other similar or larger sized US cities I have been to.” The interest in putting together an exhibition devoted to abstract works then came from, “the last 30 years wandering galleries and gallery strolls, both here and in the Seattle area. The work of some of what I consider to be the best artists in Utah has always stuck with me. A couple of years ago it occurred to me that an exhibition showcasing as many as possible of them would be momentous.” Momentous this exhibition promises to be, with 37 artists included in the show, and plenty to visually entice viewers within the gallery space.
After getting the greenlight for his exhibition proposal in 2013, Lee set out on the expansive task of studio visits and selecting appropriate artwork for inclusion in the show. While many of the show’s pieces were selected based on a discussion between Lee and the artist, he states that, “I did not travel out of the valley. Those people who live in Southern Utah or out of state sent me digital files. However I soon learned that, once I had determined that a couple of pieces [fit the bill], I was much better off to let the artists make the final choice.”
Although the process can be considered a labor of love for Lee, the logistics of organizing an exhibition of this size has its challenges. As curator, Lee made sure to set some parameters for the works early on, namely that the exhibition would contain only paintings, and non-objective (or purely abstract) works. Of course, the nature of abstraction makes the latter rule somewhat subjective to gauge. As Lee states, “ There will be a degree of mixed media in some paintings and there are some of the artists who base their paintings on scenery. However I think the public will find that they can’t determine where I have ventured close to the line (or technically over it).” It is this ambiguity and complexity in regards to process and intention that makes abstraction often difficult to visually digest. Whereas realism provides an innate rubric by which to visually analyze works of art, abstraction is inherently more subjective. Instead of realism’s ability to conjure familiarity, abstraction creates a void of connotation that forces interactivity.
This exhibition hopes to affirm the importance of abstraction by inviting new viewers to see the genre’s merits. Instead of supplanting audiences with a lofty theoretical or art historical disclaimer, Lee maintains the immediacy and reliability of abstraction in historical terms. His framework for understanding abstraction is simple yet compelling, as he asserts that, “the majority of art historians might well agree that art grew out of mankind’s need to communicate. Whether the spoken word came first or not, at some point we felt the need to communicate without being able to speak directly with one another. I have little doubt that we began to critique those abilities as soon as the questions of viability and accuracy occurred to viewers. Eventually the ability to evoke an emotional response began to strike a chord. At some point the ability to visually convey the emotions most central to mankind was likely rewarded in the evolutionary process. And yet it isn’t hard to see that it would have taken quite a leap from there to evoking those same emotions without representing a scene that reminded [or directly depicted] an emotional experience.” These statements remind us that although we think of abstraction as stereotypically modern, perhaps there’s a deeper history that is far more innate and relatable than we ever thought possible.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.