Art has long sought to capture the transitory and sensory in physical form. From the transformative capabilities of an artist’s two-dimensional canvas to contemporary art’s revolutionary experimentation with media, material doesn’t just inform art, it is art. Or as philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message.” Indeed, the artist’s use of materials shapes the very nature of our interactions with the artistic creation and endows the work’s creator with infinite possibilities.
And yet even the most durable materials face a certain enemy: time. While materials like stone often fool us with their guise of timelessness, they too are subject to the ravages of time; and the past century has demonstrated the unexpected nobility of those materials that boldly embrace their insecurity with time.
The Rio Gallery’s latest exhibition Time + Materials, featuring works by Heidi Moller Somsen, Jacqui Larsen, and Richard Gate, relishes in the liveliness and power of both concepts, however immense they may be.
Great art commands attention by interacting compellingly in the space in which it resides. Heidi Moller Somsen’s arresting sculptures of found objects and bodily vestiges impart a powerful and haunting effect. While some of the works relish in the materiality of encasing found items in sculptural form, the majority of her contributions experiment in some way with disembodied feet. Placed strategically throughout the gallery space, the works mandate a sort of close and captive attention. Each work possesses a flirtation between weight and weightlessness, surely made possible by the artist’s mastery over and curiosity with her materials.
“Concrete and resin are new materials for me, and I am enjoying learning their characteristics and limitations,” Somsen says. “Each material or found object has a personality.”
In some works, feet are bound to their concrete base, while in others the feet stand defiantly atop them. In “Arch Support,” the feet are tethered firmly to a pair of warped structures. The result is jarring in the greatest possible way. One can’t help but feel intrigued and perhaps disarmed by the forceful manner in which the smooth, mannequin-like feet are strapped to two misshapen sculptures. Conversely, “Equillibria II” depicts a pair of feet standing confidently atop a slickly glazed geometric base. “May the Clay Dance to Meet Your Lofty Stride” similarly shows bright feet made of gold leaf floating above a green, mountain-like structure at their base. The comparison between the bound and free feet demonstrates the magnetism of material — its power to convey decidedly psychological effects — and the effective nature of Somsen’s experimentation.
While Somsen’s fascination with material is evident, the connection to time is perhaps less obvious. The gallery’s press release sheds a bit of light on this, informing us that in Somsen work “the texture of things — the responsiveness of the clay, the resiliency of rubber inner tubes, the translucency of resin — act as catalysts in the attempt to make peace with time — to slow it down, be still, and preserve the moment.”
Jacqui Larsen’s dynamic collages and paintings also demand our full attention. Her work is materially diverse, ranging from collages, found photographs, paint and sewn stitching. Like in Somsen’s sculptures, a striking psychological force is evident in her work, albeit through the use of photographic and textual markers from the past.
Striking three-dimensional works like “Beauty Archive”demonstrate the true possibilities of multimedia sculpture. In each, Larsen combines geometric patterns with found images to form a lively origami-esque creation. In “Quotidian,” Larsen artfully incorporates a series of book covers into her geometric formation, showcasing the beautiful artistry of books from decades passed. “Almanac of Hope (+Despair),” a larger scale iteration of this geometric low relief, is not to be missed. In “Accidental Constellation” and “Negative Capability in Five Acts,” Larsen incorporates found objects into a series of stitched collages. In each, circular holes with sewn edges dissect the work and amputate the photograph’s figures while small round mirrors are nestled within the collages so as to invite us to reflect on them. The old photographs capture, in a ghostly fashion, the intricacies of past lives and summons viewers to closely inspect their contents and the delicately ornate artistry that Larsen frames them with.
It’s easy to see the connection between Larsen’s experiments in collage and low relief and what Somsen is doing with sculpture. According to Larsen, “the idea for this show began as I was thinking about the many ongoing experiments lying around my studio,” including “sewn collages, wood constructions made from destroyed paintings and cut up found photographs.”
Larsen’s use of old photographs renders the exhibition’s connection to time properly tangible. “I thought about why I am so drawn to these artifacts from the past — discarded family photographs, paper ephemera, even my own sanded down paintings,” she says. To Larsen, the collages and sculptures are her way of “understand[ing] this whole business of mortality — the physicality and decay of all the things we make and touch, how time and memory factor into who we are individually, right now, at any given moment.”
In a series of works comprised of graphite and paint, the underlying theme of Richard Gates’s work relates to a deep captivation with prehistorical symbols. His works, ranging in style and scale, seem to ground the three-dimensional works of Somsen and Larsen. In his series of untitled graphite works, Gates sequesters the large panel into various geometric sections, each comprised of petroglyphs and archetypal symbols and patterns. The works are striking and monochromatic, reading like an ancient text of visual codes. Elsewhere in the show, Gates replicates the patterned works into smaller 12 x 12 inch pieces. While the association between Somsen and Larsen is logical, Gate’s connection to the two is less obvious. With material as a driving and evident force in both Somsen and Larsen’s work, applying the theme to Gate’s inclusions requires additional elaboration and context, particularly when considering the painted portraits geometrically aligned and numerous, along a wall prominently facing the exhibition’s entry. To the extent that Gate’s work relishes in symbols of the past, the time prong of the exhibition’s theme is satisfied, yet we’re left perhaps less clear on how materials factor into the equation.
As a whole, it is the artists’ use of material that renders the exhibition a visual feast. It’s easy to get lost in the work of each artist, particularly in one’s attempt to decipher their meaning and ponder the process undertaken by each artist to arrive at the result. In an image-saturated culture based on immediate visual satisfaction, it’s refreshing to work for our artistic satisfaction and to relish the labor and power of materials.
Time + Materials, Rio Gallery, Salt Lake City, June 21 – Aug. 30.
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.