Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Frank McEntire: Through a Narrow (and rapidly closing) Window

This essay was published in conjunction with Frank McEntire’s exhibit Through a Narrow Window: our impact on the environment, Snow College Art Gallery, Aug. 29 – Oct. 14, 2022. All images: installation views from the exhibit, courtesy the artist.

These jars were provided by scientists, artists, philosophers, historians, writers, and others …

So begins the introduction to one of sculptor Frank McEntire’s more advanced works of art — groundbreaking, even, in that it began with an open invitation to his friends and associates (those enumerated above) to take home a Utah household staple, a canning jar, and bring it back to him filled with something that expressed for them:

… their passion for nature and threats to it, such as pollution, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and radiation and plastics embedded into the geological record.

These jars, gathered together and displayed so as to have an impact neither McEntire himself nor any of his collaborators could achieve acting alone, represent a newly expanded boundary of his art, in that he feels it should communicate with every person it can reach, in as much as every person on Earth, along with every animal and every plant, is threatened by human-caused planetary changes, which include, but are not limited to, a warming climate. While McEntire addresses himself above to a specific part of his intended audience, it should be clear that his concern for the welfare of the planet makes no distinction among its inhabitants.

To be sure, there are any number of mental escape routes by which we manage to go about our daily lives as though the inevitable penalty for the way those lives are lived will not have to be paid, or not paid by us. We divide the world into north and south, or rich and poor, or animal and human, and tell ourselves that someone or something else will suffer the worst consequences.

Then there is what certainly constitutes the most popular way out: the almost universal faith that “something or someone will come along,” and in particular that “someone will save us.” But this belief in a savior whom we can count on is belief in vain. If anyone saves us, it will have to be us, and among those who remind us of this fact are those perennial “canaries in the coal mine” — our artists.

Frank McEntire has always taken his subjects from the concerns of the day: not so long ago from the impact of terrorism, and now the long anticipated environmental disaster. His Spontaneous Memorial, which views our shared plight through the experiences of the first responders who volunteer to risk violent danger, whether natural or man-made, may best exemplify his mature work prior to the present moment.

But now he’s taken on a far larger subject: not just America, not just humanity, but all life that we know of. To understand how the national tour of Spontaneous Memorial led to Silent Spring and the Anthropocene at BYU and then Through a Narrow Window at Snow College, it’s necessary to briefly revisit the steps on his life and career paths.

McEntire recalls a particular uncle who often took him along to estate sales and second-hand stores, where various utilitarian and decorative objects waited to be found by new owners or else ended up as junk. They fascinated young Frank, who filled his windowsills and other places with the most visually satisfying ones, while the less interesting in themselves he often recombined in evocatively intriguing ways, a practice that he continues today.

“My work in assemblage began before I knew it was called that,” McEntire has said, tracing the discovery and subsequent development of what became his primary artistic method to this invention he’d spontaneously made, on his own, while in high school. Soon after, in college, a friend directed him to the then little known, but now popular boxes of Joseph Cornell. “I realized then that what I was doing had a place in the art making world, and so did I.”

A great many artists were similarly inspired by Cornell, but only a few took it as far as McEntire, who discovered that recombining found objects, regardless of their sources, gave his finished art works an evocative power that traditional, raw materials could not match. Familiar and yet strange at the same time, they operated on the twin faculties of memory and imagination in novel, powerful ways. “I have come to think of Frank McEntire,” acknowledged Jim Edwards, nationally recognized author and curator, “as one of our country’s most outstanding assemblage artists. He has joined the ranks of Ed and Nancy Kienholtz and Bette Saar, American artists who have also devoted their art to issues dealing with social justice, politics, religion, and spirituality.” (Spontaneous Memorial catalog, Houston Baptist University, 2013)

In time, McEntire formally, if playfully, stated some of the personal principles he found operating in assemblage art, in something he calls his Six McSutras, “sutra” being a Sanskrit word for rule or aphorism. The second McSutra encourages belief in “the potential of ordinary objects to communicate extraordinary narrative,” while another urges that we “approach second-hand stores and antique shops as temples of innovation,” and “flea markets and garage and estate sales as aesthetic pilgrimage sites.”

It’s essential to understand here that McEntire’s mischievous sense of humor takes nothing away from the serious content of such statements, or of his art. He would surely agree with Monty Python member John Cleese, who tirelessly defends comedy with the argument that “serious” does not mean the same thing as “somber.” This is especially important in the twenty-first century, in which suspicion of authority has become a rule, which in turn has made the ability to undermine pretense and self-importance vital. McEntire’s art, including such religiously inflected works as the McSutras, are routinely light-hearted and frequently cross over into the realm of satire, but it should be clear that in addition to anyone who takes advantage of another’s sincere devotion, his targets include any pretensions he might succumb to. What he would not mock are the beliefs that frauds and opportunists exploit in seeking after wealth or power.

So what had earlier been a largely undirected outlet for his aesthetic impulses became the maturing artist’s organizing principle, and his urge to collect interesting, powerfully suggestive objects, finally given a motive, took off. His studio became a fascinating trove of evocative cast-offs, and the art he produced there took on a unique character. Pieces of refined machinery came together in ways that seemed meaningful, yet mysterious. Functional boundaries were violated in evocative ways. Fragmentary parts joined up to become new entities. Another of the McSutras describes how this felt to the one doing the combining: “Recognize that objects are ‘found’ when they present or reveal themselves — you don’t find them, they find you.” It was an experience of intimate and personal magic, and the cross-fertilization that resulted, like that deliberately done with plants and animals by agricultural interests, led to new varieties of objects that reveal previously unseen truths.

This unique approach was to define the art of Frank McEntire for decades during which he revealed and commented on the effects of human culture through recombination of those things that found their ways to him. Due to the strongly commercialized nature of American culture, many of the objects he encountered became metaphors for the many ways desire for things ends up limiting freedom of choice and self-expression. One can only get out of a supply line what someone else has put into it, a context in which the old standard of self-reliance no longer has any meaning. This essay, for example, can provide only a prescribed view of the variety of possible insights available to the audience through the works of art that follow.

It stands to reason that it was his reverence for the natural order of things that led McEntire to recognize the worsening threats to the environment: threats that thereafter led to the work he has been making and showing ever since and represented in Through a Narrow Window. Here again he modestly points to outside influences, as he did at previous pivotal moments. Like many avid Western readers, he recalls the “rowdy escapades” of Ed Abbey, among others. His major influence, though, is Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and one of the earliest conservationists, whose ethical views, presented most clearly in a book published shortly before her untimely death, made its title, Silent Spring, the universal metaphor and code word for the damage being done to the delicate balance of nature by human activity. Carson’s conviction that all life was equally important connected with spiritual values and practical convictions from every corner of the globe, reasserting its timeless primacy over the pragmatism of supposedly advanced cultures that saw human desire as the ultimate good. And it gave sculptor Frank McEntire a singular focus for his efforts to express a universal condition in visual terms.

Carson’s world-wide impact was due in part to her scientific expertise and foresight, but even more to her poetic and moving way of expressing herself. Her books about life in the ocean were best-sellers because of their literary quality, and when he read her words, their quality meant something important to McEntire. He knew that the objects he used drew their power from their identities more than what he made of them, so viewers often missed his aesthetic connections. In Carson’s writing, though, he found an artist who could transcend her own literal meaning and reach her audience on a higher plane, just as McEntire strove to do in his sculpture.

Rachel Carson foresaw much of our present predicament over 60 years ago, and did so with remarkable clarity of vision and expression. Her insights and diction suffuse McEntire’s work today. As a scientist and writer, she saw and described a world that disturbed her deeply. Nothing in the art of McEntire is so conventional as her writings; he knows how to draw and paint the visible world just as she knew how to write it, but chooses rather to bring actual pieces of that world into his studio and the gallery. A globe inexplicably printed long ago with black seas now represents their pollution by petroleum, or even the extinction of life in the oceans, as it that had been anticipated when the spherical map was made. In this, he is part of a paradigm shift in the arts, one the internationally renowned British artist, Banksy, has characterized this way:

I’ve learned from experience that a painting isn’t finished when you put down your brush — that’s when it starts. The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it.

Many artists and critics today would agree with this, and add that Banksy’s street art is a way of putting the idea into practice. But McEntire has taken it a step further, so that in his jars and other examples in Through a Narrow Window he allows the public to not only receive his message, but add their own voices to it. This is where art comes off the wall and goes back into the world it came from. Life, however, comes before art, and anyone who knows Frank McEntire should agree that the generous and peaceful nature that underlies his art does so much more than just that.

Through a Narrow Window: our impact on the environment, an exhibition by Frank McEntire, Snow College Art Gallery (Humanities & Arts Building, 150 College Avenue, Ephraim, UT 84627; 435-283-7416; Monday-Friday, 9:00 am-5:00 pm) through Oct. 14.

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4 replies »

  1. Thanks, Geoff, for this thoughtful review, not only about the artwork, but digging deeper into our world of wonder, threats to it, and how art can make a difference.

  2. There ought to be a better way to thank the artists who tirelessly, usually at their own expense, track our progress or lack thereof, and keep us informed about how well, or more often how poorly we’re doing. I always think of the man on TV at the height of the Three Mile Island disaster, crying into the camera and asking ‘Why didn’t they tell us this could happen?’ The answer, of course, is someone did . . . the artists and independent thinkers tried to tell you, but you would not listen. We need to shake off our fears and start listening to those who have made themselves alert to what’s going on around us. Frank McEntire is a modern day prophet: a real one. Hear him, please, for yourselves and your children’s sake.

  3. What a brilliant review of a brilliant exhibition. “There ought to be a better way to thank the artists [and reviewers]” who lift our spirits and broaden our minds while deepening out commitment to shaping a more habitable and sustainable world. Thanks to you both

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