Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

December Doldrums: Utah Exhibitions During the Holidays

Phillips Gallery

It’s December, which means that all along the Wasatch Front they are packing them in the malls and on the walls.

While masses of frenzied consumers sandwich themselves between Old Navy and Barnes & Noble, gallery owners are busy packing as much art as possible on their walls. December is the month of group holiday shows that prove that as much as Art may try to hold itself up as something pristine, it too must bow to the demands of a shopping season that begins some time after Labor Day. It seems everyone thinks they will cash in on consumerized Christmas by providing small, “affordable” art at December holiday shows. As if you’re going to slip a painting into Aunt Edna’s stocking.

Usually December is one of the few times a year you get to take a peek at the 100 plus artists that Phillips Gallery represents and who usually lie hidden within the basement. While under normal circumstances Phillips is one of the best galleries for treating art as art — they actually hang shows and give art room to breathe — the holidays change everything. The salon style, a euphemism for stacking paintings, sneaks in — which is why we actually get to see so many of their artists. This year, however, Phillips took one step further toward caving in to the demands of a consumer market with their “Over the Sofa” show. They marketed their exhibition as an “installation” piece but all that was installed were some couches, brightly colored walls and presumably the mailing lists of the six decorators invited to create the show.

The A gallery’s holiday showing is wall-to-wall, but this is nothing new for this gallery. The A gallery seems to be doing a lot of business lately, and what’s more, they are displaying a lot of fine art. Overall, there seems a very decorative feel to the works at A gallery. Many of them share a common palette that is bright without being garish. The pieces they hang deserve the attention of some decent space around them — something they don’t get anytime of the year. But if you stop to ask yourself what the gallery would not have shown to display some individual pieces better, it is hard to argue with their plan.

One of the most striking artists at the gallery is Brandon Cook, whose sweeping color forms have so much more to do with a love of paint than with the “landscape” references he frequently makes. A clump of trees, an indiscriminate foreground, and a hill and sky are what usually constitute the subject matter. I can’t help but think that his paintings would be better off losing the “references” to concentrate on the paint with which he seems so intimate.

Kate Mooth is one artist who has left reference to go strictly abstract. Her carved out forms are a loose push and pull, floating blocks of color that collide within the confines of her canvases. She could well do with a show of her own.

By far the most exciting thing going on during the holidays is the one show that is not billing itself as a holiday show. Chroma Gallery, located in Sugar House, somewhat off the beaten path and not associated with the gallery stroll, bucked the trend of packed holiday shows, filled with small works perfect for consumption. Their exhibition, Size Matters, displays nine Utah artists, working in large and small formats. The premise of the show was to explore the importance of scale, with each artist providing a piece over four feet and another under six inches. I’m not sure the show is convincing that size matters, but the works certainly do.

Darryl Erdmann, who operates the gallery, paints colorful abstract pieces, which are stunning in and of themselves. The works take on a wholly unique quality because he paints them on stainless steel, leaving about twenty percent of the metal untouched as a sort of frame around the pieces. Their reflective quality gives the works a completely different nuance, whether he makes them four feet or six inch square.

Shawn Rossiter, who is displaying two sets of works for the show (one abstract the other landscape) falls into one of my pet peeves — the Janus-faced artist who just can’t decide what he wants to do. The large landscape, a gray/mauve towering butte, is striking, as are the small landscape studies that accompany it. I generally like Rossiter’s work and occasionally one of his landscapes can be quite beautiful, but when I see them next to a large abstract that seems to have nothing to do with his other work, I wonder if he really knows what he is trying to do. His abstract piece, a series of interlocking, aggressive black and white strokes, doesn’t allow him to play with color, one of his stronger points. Unfortunately, it relies on an accompanying text explaining the significance of the title of the work to carry the piece.

John Bell’s pieces come the closest to showing how size — or at least number — matters. For his large piece, Bell has arranged 18 photographs shot at the Burning Man festival. Shown alone, a few of the pieces might have been interesting, but they only really make sense read together, as a collage of an experience of the festival.

Mark England’s large graphite drawings and collage work are always interesting, though I notice that neither of his large pieces is recent. His smaller works — music boxes and nativity boxes — are certainly charming.

The show as a whole may not have come completely together to fit the premise but the mix of works in the show — including Karl Pace, Trent Alvey, Andrew Smith, Holly Pendergast and Brad Slaugh — makes it one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a long time. I must not have been alone, as the crowds of people who attended the opening over Thanksgiving weekend attest to.

In the end, I wonder if all these holiday shows are worth it. Do people even buy that much of the small art? People are actually out and about during the holidays, looking for things to do with family and friends. Their choices are the new Harry Potter, the Nutcracker for the umpteenth time or shopping in the packed malls. And all the visual art community gives them is one more mall experience. If at any time art can show its importance, it can do so when we are stuffed, overloaded and ready to burst from commercialism. For the holidays people need exhibitions not sales. People are looking for solace in art, not for one more gift option for Aunt Edna.

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