Language, the search for the perfect expression or the correct interpretation, cannot only fail to convey precise meaning, but can actually camouflage sense and prevent communication. Yet as a society we learn to focus on the message and not to trust the messenger: to decode a sequence of symbols while filtering out the medium that carries them. Then the text itself may prove difficult, forcing us to bypass those words in favor of an abstract, of words even further removed. We do this in spite of experience that teaches that content and form are equally important to full and authentic understanding. Children perceive that love delivered with a slap is not love at all, and yet what follows is often the visual equivalent of “do what I say, not what I do.”
Clearly, the right people to address this dilemma are artists: people who hold onto and develop skills drilled out of their peers. Their resistance begins with the prohibition on looking too closely, staring even, and goes on to include a preference for vision over cognition: in the words of Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, seeing over knowing. The eight artists participating in Don’t Read This (at the City Library from the end of January till mid-March) are drawn from the latest generation of Utah artists and their teachers, practiced in observing and copying nature creatively, anchoring their contemporary visions in something more solid than mere imagination. All work to some degree in multimedia techniques like collage and assemblage, incorporating the found world into their drawings, paintings, installations, and performances. Most are too young to be household names yet, but all have shown locally, individually and at times together in elaborately-mounted installations curated by Namon Bills.
In Don’t Read This, these eight artists will attempt to explore incorporating the verbal content of a message into the way it’s presented without allowing text to hijack the image. Trying to anticipate how an artist will address a thematic issue is a fool’s errand, but those who go see the show can expect to see the artists’ characteristic voices. Here are some individual mannerisms to watch for.
After graduating from BYU, Aundrea Frahm went on to study in Chicago and show a wide range of works in New York and Prague. In her installations, performances, and videos, she investigates perception as it occurs over time. Perhaps her most clever work is Impermanence, in which 2,264 photos taken in 2013 are arranged in the familiar Mac interface—think of all your album covers or selfies parading like books on a shelf across the desktop from right to left, each pausing briefly at the center of the screen. While it’s possible to pause and study these thumbnails, their individual inconsequentiality combines with the speed of scanning to suggest the flickering by of life’s parade and the way even significant moments subside into memory. In her installations and performances, meanwhile, eggs represent life’s transitions: briefly a daughter, then awhile a mother. In addition to building installations around them, she has cooked and served them as part of a performance.
BYU Professor Gary Barton pursues a narrower range of materials, usually in traditional media like painting and printmaking, but he uses them in ways that rupture rather than reinforce the past. His crisply drawn abstract paintings affect the look of collage, one of the 20th century’s premier contributions to art. This layered, mixed media effect becomes even more pronounced in his prints, which give rise to boxes containing imagery in multiple levels. It’s become a cliché to refer boxes back to Joseph Cornell, but Barton’s feel more like scientific displays than Cornell’s, which were inspired by boardwalk vending machines.
Another member of BYU’s art faculty, Joe Ostraff’s reticent canvases often suggest inscription in unknown languages: a field of outlined hexagons or circles exhibiting non-sequential variations, not unlike so many unreadable symbols comprising such a text. His artist’s books similarly foreground the sequential character of bound pages and cumulative transmission. Plant and animal forms recall the struggle of lexicographers to see past those perceptive images of wildlife, keeping them from seeing that Mayan glyphs represented sounds spelling out words, rather than depicting their subjects. The way the title A2Z is formatted might conceal its literal meaning from an observer, but the resemblance to a two-page spread in an open book is unmistakable.
In his paintings, Salt Lake resident Justin Wheatley idealizes the natural or manmade environment, scenes constructed in vanishing point-free perspective and rendered without local details. This schematic version of the visible world works like an X-ray, revealing an underlying psychological or spiritual tension. In his mixed media representation of urban Salt Lake City, on the other hand, the gritty realism of photographed street scenes is interrupted and challenged by graphic color bars where otherworldly rules apply. It is in his 3-D works that he picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Contemporary Art, pushing his technique almost into kitsch, tearing visual field apart from representational matrix, leaving content floating free like a parallel universe wherein it shares the same space as the artwork, but with little interaction. This split is heightened almost to madness by coincidences between the shapes of the ”canvases” and the loosely distributed subject matter. In “Sidewise,” part of Don’t Read This, Wheatley crosses his mixed media and 3-D approaches, using a photo of the library and replacing the color bars with fragmented letters, while the textured ground of his 3-D technique presents a tactile as well as visual experience.
Having graduated Magna cum Laude from BYU, Linnie Brown became one of Utah’s more prolific painters, to which she adds numerous public projects and works done with her K-12 students. Recently what excites her is collaboration with her father, Marinus Wolf, an unusual team effort in that, while they agree up front on a theme, they work independently, seeing the result only when both are finished. In a possible portent of Don’t Read This, they explored the visual qualities of crossword puzzles, making pairs of paintings where, in each pair, one image encodes the clue while the other painter attempts the answer. ‘Not good to run one’ is answered on the next panel by ‘Fever,’ while ‘Leave port’ begets ‘Sail.’ While these colorful pairings don’t employ letter forms per se, they feel ready to embrace them. Additionally, her former mechanical engineer father’s bold line and clean patterns, made into flat planes like early Cubism, contrast with her collage-like canvases, pieced together harmoniously from a riot of textures and shapes that convey perceptual complexity and challenge direct reading. Where he shows the plan, she gives us awareness unfiltered.
One fellow artist mentioned frequently by the artists in Don’t Read This is Namon Bills, an influential colleague who has helped build their sense of community by curating collective exhibitions of their works. He also displays atypical intellectual gravitas; in spite of his often playful images—or perhaps as a complement to them—he likes to cite the philosopher Hegel’s emphasis on synthesis. For Bills, this means combining multiple mediums, but also resolving issues of positive and negative space, representation versus other approaches, and of course attention to the balance of content and form. In a series of drawings done a few years ago, he sought to integrate classical Egyptian portraits with birds and non-mimetic symbols like letters and numbers. In the upcoming Don’t Read This he takes a direct approach to the theme, breaking texts down into fragments that almost disappear into harmonious collages built from their sources.
If there’s a paradox here—a challenge to the collective theme—it might be the presence of Nick Stephens, who has quoted a colleague’s assertion that all art should ‘glorify God.’ Spirituality is one staple of art, but religions often view the real world as a mystery that is revealed in a holy text that the faithful need help in reading. Dogmatic statements, such as ones begging ‘all art should . . .’ are staples of a point of view that holds truth to precede its coming into being. This reliance on text seems to conflict with asking artists and audience alike not to prefer word to image. Stephens employs a multi media, figure and ground technique built on a kind of grid, like the ultimate reality the faithful believe underlies, and often clashes with, the misleading surface of the physical world. One of the more intriguing questions in advance of Don’t Read Thiswill be to see whether and how Stephens handles this dilemma.
Many of Marcel Duchamp’s innovations became popular with artists by the end of the 20th century: installation, performance, found art, and wrapped objects are among the tropes of today’s art that can be traced back to him. His less popular ideas took control away from the artist: random and arbitrary choices required a surrender that artists found hard to accept. Randal Marsh, who focuses on how art evolves over time, departs radically from the dominant, genius-centered paradigm of post-renaissance art. Not so much creating art as creating systems that generate art doesn’t prevent his having a lot of control over the final product, but the self-referential quality of the works lends them an ironic quality and makes him seem to belong particularly in the present moment.
As a nation, we seem to have arrived at a moment in history when civility—what George Orwell likened to the mortar that holds the bricks of society together—is in short supply. Utah is one of the few places where we feel we can still hold a civil conversation. But what if that’s just an illusion, possible because we all share a smattering of words, a few powerful concepts? When, for example, our public figures speak, do we focus on key words and phrases that excite us, rather than open our minds to flaws in the speaker’s reasoning? Do certain specific words frustrate the intuitive ability to understand a text accurately? Does listening this way produce not only a dangerously literal-minded listener, but a credulous one as well? Contemporary Art often has an activist’s agenda, asking viewers to think about social and political questions. Don’t Read This seeks to promote contemplation of a broader issue, asking us to reflect on how we look at and react to more than just art. The uncertain hope that artists in general, and these eight artists in particular, have something helpful to say on the matter makes this one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the new year.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.