His show now up at Fice is not the one Chuck Landvatter wanted to hang. There were technical glitches — evasive studs, hardware failures, a broken TV — so that the piece he was most proud of, a video collaboration with Eric Overton, ended up precariously propped on a shelf above a row of sneakers. It was clear to only a few that it was part of the show. The rest of the work — a couple of digital collages and some large scale portraits — was something of a hodgepodge. Some of it thrown together last minute. This was not the work Landvatter had planned for his first solo show in a decade, not the new direction he had been wrestling with in the studio and hoping to exhibit. “The day before the show I woke up and thought, I don’t want that in the show,” Landvatter says. “I had a panic attack.”
If you live in Salt Lake City, you’ve likely seen Landvatter’s work, even if you’ve never stepped inside a gallery. There are multiple murals around town, a few of them several stories tall. Go to evo Campus, the massive retail and sports warehouse in the Granary district, and you may lounge, post-climb, beneath one of his more recent pieces. A digital collage commissioned by the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and printed on vinyl runs along the corridor of The Link at City Creek. Walk along downtown Main Street and if you look closely through the mess of construction you might just glimpse a portion of a mural he did on the south side of the Kearns building. You may have seen any number of these and recognized they were by the same artist: Landvatter has an identifiable style, a combination of the geometric and the figurative — with a particular focus on heads and hands — executed in a smooth, flowing line that is soft and elegant, at times elastic, serving whatever plastic ends the artist might be pursuing. He’s Ingres with an aerosol can.
Landvatter started making art at five, when his mother put him in classes with Bryan Drury, a Salt Lake City artist who has since relocated to New York (where he has made a name for himself as a portrait artist). Like a piano student sneaking jazz or blues into his classical repertoire, Landvatter began experimenting with graffiti and tagging in junior high. “I was a pretty straight-laced Mormon kid who hung out with a lot of the partiers and graffiti writers and skaters,” he says of those teenage years. Graffiti was his indulgence. And his community: he has remained friends with many of the people he spent time with painting on the streets, artists like Dave Doman and Trent Call (who is also Landvatter’s cousin and showing at Finch Lane in October). In high school he continued to pursue both his figurative training and his street mischief. Oddly enough, it was on a proselytizing mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that he married the two styles.
Painting portrait commissions was one way Landvatter helped pay for his two-year mission to Maryland and the itch in his fingers never quite left him during that time. One day, he and his companion were looking to meet new people to teach (“tracting” in mission parlance), when they struck up a conversation with the owner of a row house in downtown Baltimore. Landvatter spoke of his art, so the gentleman invited him to paint a mural on his building — which is not your typical missionary activity, especially in 2000, when LDS missionaries still abided by a strict dress code and highly regulated activities. All the same, Landvatter approached his mission president with the improbable project. “Well why don’t you put an advertisement for the Book of Mormon at the bottom,” was the reply. The building had three large window areas, so Landvatter conceived of a mural with three faces: doubt and faith on either side, and the pondering soul caught in the middle. Behind these portraits, in his graffiti style, he wrote the words “Faith” and “Doubt.” And in the bottom right hand corner, an invitation to receive a copy of the Book of Mormon. Painting the mural was a welcome break from the normal missionary work of knocking on doors. And it was a community project: referring to a group of missionaries who work together in a city or neighborhood, he says, “My whole district helped me with the lettering and the fill in.”
Once shed of his suit and tie, Landvatter enrolled at the University of Utah, where he earned a degree in interpersonal communications — a cross between a social sciences and a communications degree. It seems a natural fit for Landvatter, an engaged listener and thoughtful speaker who seems to know every shop and cafe owner in town. (As well as their staff.) Along his way towards the BA he took lots of art classes, some of them — especially those with John Erickson — twice. The U’s art department had a strong figurative program at the time, with the likes of David Dornan, Paul Davis and Tony Smith. When these decamped for less formal instruction at their Helper workshops, Landvatter followed. While still in school, he began showing at retail places like Slow Train and Pillar. He interned, and then worked as a freelancer illustrator, for Axiom Design. And he continued to paint outside, mostly legal walls like garages or the sides of friend’s houses. Then there was 337, Adam Price’s ephemeral community project that transformed a derelict downtown building into a giant art project. “That was definitely a kind of tipping point, it felt like, in Salt Lake culture and public art,” Landvatter says. It was his kind of scene: university-trained artists and graffiti painters mixing it up in one place.
Landvatter graduated soon after the 337 Project, and with a nudge from Zach Proctor, another U art grad, applied for a masters program at Utah State University. He continued to paint outdoors. The mural scene was still small, but was growing. There were the old time murals, ones that dated to the ’70s. Kim Martinez at the University of Utah was creating her murals at places like Bonwood Bowling and Utah Arts & Museum’s storage facility near the Rio Grande. The Ave Maria mural went up at Fice in 2009. And there were any number of walls, known to the cognoscenti, still being painted on the sly. The gang of artists Landvatter had come up with were finding more walls where they could paint legally. In 2010, Salt Lake Running Company commissioned Landvatter, Dave Habben, Dan Christofferson, Trent Call, Ben Wiemeyer and Gailon Justus to paint a mural on their buiding on 700 East. It has since been painted over, as have several other murals Landvatter worked on (the one in Baltimore is still up, he believes). The mural on the side of Squatter’s, set up by UMOCA’s curator Jared Steffensen and painted by Call, Landvatter, Mike Murdock and Mackinzie Donovan in 2014 for the brewery’s 25th anniversary, is the oldest extant mural Landvatter has worked on. In 2013, Landvatter earned his MFA and, having started a family, began following the institutional track as an instructor, which eventually took him to Southern Arkansas University. But he returned to Utah when his marriage fell apart. He was teaching at USU when, in the spring of 2019, he decided he was going to become a full-time artist.
He was able to make this leap because what had previously been a niche and sometimes suspect endeavor had turned into a mainstream phenomenon. The mural craze began around 2018, the year Juxtapoz magazine commissioned Landvatter, Habben, Doman, Call, and Mike Murdock to paint a mural on Salt Lake City’s west side, and has since swept almost every municipality in Utah: now every BFA and graphic designer who can use a projector to transfer their work to brick and cinder block is painting a mural. That was the same year The Mural Fest began in South Salt Lake. Now, dozens of new murals go up across Utah every year. Landvatter remarks that a lot of the people he used to paint with, especially the graffiti artists, chose not to catch the wave. “You know how longboarding and skateboarding don’t always mesh? I think it’s like that,” he says. “There’s definitely a mentality among a lot of graff writers, that [the mural scene] is just kind of dorky. They hate it. I think they resist it for social reasons … but I also think they’re not going to do it, because, you know, they’re ‘reprobates,’ they’re not going to do the professional thing.”
Wherever Landvatter falls on the reprobate spectrum, he has made the professional thing work. He was one of the first to do a large-scale mural on the many apartment buildings now going up with a fury around Salt Lake City, creating for himself a three-story calling card. “Everybody thinks it’s Joseph Smith or Shakespeare or Mozart or Beethoven; that’s the gamut,” he says of the North Sixth Apartments mural in the Marmalade district. “The funny thing about it is it’s a woman.” Originally, Landvatter’s subject was going to be May Swenson, the midcentury American poet who was born and raised in Logan; but midway through the project he was asked if he could switch the portrait to Thelma McDonald, the landlord who originally developed the area. He says the face is “painted from a composite of a slew of terrible photographs.” The result? The family thought it was spot on. “Everyone else thinks it’s a dude.”
Street murals have become art-world institutional — the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and Utah Museum of Fine Art both dedicated exhibitions to them in 2021 (the latter’s is still up in their Grand Hall) — but they have also become, or it might be better to say, have remained, commercial advertising. It can be hard to tell what is art and what is advertisement, what is simply placemaking and what is artmaking. “Clients want to know exactly what something is going to look like,” Landvatter says about the process of working on these big-budget projects. “It’s a hard sell but I tell them there’s always room for improvisation. When I get up there I’d like to make decisions on the fly. … A huge part of my art process is spontaneity. That’s where my best ideas happen, not on my computer at home.” Landvatter has had to navigate the tricky line between making a living and making art. He doesn’t generally like doing murals for businesses, because they become advertising or commercial projects that limit what he can do. “Sometimes it’s a gray space,” he says about the decisions. “If I need the money or it’s for a friend, that will tip me over.” Earlier this year he completed a mural on Red Moose Cafe, a coffee shop near Westminster College. He knows the owner and the mural allowed him to incorporate an homage to a friend who died recently. Other retail spaces have included Thread and Shades Brewery. He recently completed a mural for a Vietnamese restaurant, not yet opened. He’s excited about it: “They let me do what I wanted.”
One of his best murals is one few may see. It’s behind lock and key in an old building near Pioneer Park. The mural runs up either side of a stairwell and continues as the stairs end and the passage takes a pair of 90-degree turns. Working in this tight space, Landvatter kept the figures large, more than life size. The mural is close, on top of you; you never see all of it in one view, but rather must piece together the whole in your mind. It’s less the billboard-like murals we see around town and more like an early Renaissance chapel by Giotto or Masaccio (a feeling enhanced by the fact that the overhead light at the top of the stairs doesn’t work). It’s a mural about the place the artist has grown up in. On the left, there’s an image of Mr. Mac, the Salt Lake City clothing empresario known for his outstretched arms and thick shoulder pads, as well as his package offers for prospective LDS missionaries; at the top right, Delicate Arch is being whitewashed — to match the bland interiors of our HGTV age — as it vaults over a surgically enhanced female figure perched on a pedestal. On the right stairwell two figures embrace, a nod to the lesbian daughter of the building’s owner. There’s more, Landvatter explains, to the man with the key who has let us in — the proprietor of a private basement club that attracts celebrities from across the country — one image relates to the next and then the next and the next.
As good as the mural wave has been for the artist (he completes up to six a year), Landvatter fears for its future: both for the quality of the murals and the whole economic enterprise. “There’s such an influx [of artists] now, which is really exciting on the one hand, but I think in their major formative years … where they’re trying to explore new things I think what they default to is murals that are high on Instagram or high on Pinterest and they all end up looking very familiar, very similar,” he says. “And it’s always affirmation and positivity and it’s very banal. It’s boring.”
“I love the people trying to do these things,” he says about the organizers of the various mural festivals that have both embraced and fueled the movement. But he wonders if their practices are sustainable. “There’s limited real estate to paint walls on and at the rate they’re putting them up it’s not sustainable until you start painting over things. Is that something you want to do?” He’d like to see fewer murals, highlighting local artists and giving them longer to do them.
Pay is a major concern. He says the industry standard pre-inflation was between 15 and 35 dollars a square-foot “And that’s just scraping by.” Mural festivals, he points out, are paying between two and six dollars a square foot. “Right now, they’re more interested in an event than in art. Because of that you’re going to have a real stark difference in quality.” And the artists aren’t helping themselves by doing work for cheap. He cites one instance where he and another artist got to talking about a recent proposal they were both approached about and put a bid on: two walls for the same local developer. Separately, each artist had come up with a similar budget, hovering around 48 thousand dollars. The winning bid went to someone for 17 grand. “They got what they paid for,” Landvatter says of the result.
“It’s this opportunity that is being missed by Salt Lake as a whole to identify ourselves as our own unique place … Instead of quality work we can look at, we’ve got something I’ve seen so many times. There’s nothing interesting about it.” Artists, always struggling to make a living in a market as small as Salt Lake City’s, aren’t looking at the long term. “Artists are hyping it up, talking about how beautiful it makes neighborhoods … They don’t really investigate what that means; it’s not healthy … businesses and municipalities are depending on our love of making art to exploit us.”
Maybe this unease with the future of the mural scene is why Landvatter seems increasingly drawn to the studio. But making that sort of transition, from the sure money and the well-known path of commissioned work to the more experimental things that can happen in a studio but that nobody has asked or agreed to pay for, is not always easy. As Landvatter learned with the Fice show. He’s not specific about the new work he meant to show, but he’s honest about what he did exhibit. “It’s a show that relies on technical proficiency and not much else,” he says. Several of the pieces were large portraits in a style people will recognize from his murals, done just days before the opening. “There’s nothing behind it but comfort and security. … I’m not saying anything with any of this stuff, not really.”
He seems most excited about what he curated in the back. The alley and parking area behind Fice have been the city’s street art mecca for years. As part of Neon Rodeo, he chose 22 artists to create work in the area. It was a return of sorts to the 337 Project: graff writers, street artists, installation and video artists, gallery artists all working in one space. Fice owner Corey Bullough calls Landvatter a wizard for what he was able to pull off, and one suspects that with Landvatter’s interests (not to mention that interpersonal communication degree), curatorial work could be in his future.
New works behind Fice Gallery and Boutique in Salt Lake City, curated by Landvatter as part of Neon Rodeo, 2023.
Meantime, he’s back in the studio, a garage behind the house he rents not far from where his two children, 8 and 11, go to school. As one might suspect, there are boxes of color-sorted aerosol cans; but there are also tubes of recently used oil paint spread across a table. He shares the garage with the tenants of the house’s basement apartment, so his space is not large. It seems a far cry from three-story murals and boom lifts and blue skies. Much better suited for more intimate work. One imagines, though, on the outside, if there were enough space, a version of Landvatter’s Baltimore mural: faith and doubt on either side and a portrait of the pondering artist, with his broad forehead and bright shock of blond hair, in between.
All images courtesy Shawn Rossiter, unless otherwise noted.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.