Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

In Search of a Generation: Exhibits by Bonnie Sucec, Trent Alvey, Darryl Erdmann and Cary Griffiths

A recent trip to the Springville Museum of Art, where I visited the In Memoriam exhibit dedicated to four recently deceased Utah artists, spurred in me, rather naturally, thoughts of mortality; in addition, I began to think of generations and their passing, particularly artists. Not that these four artists (Lee Deffebach, Ed Maryon, Francis Zimbeaux and Wallace Lee) really constitute an artistic generation. They are similar in age — all were born within seven years of each other — but they have little in common artistically.

Nevertheless, and this is how the train of thought works sometimes (without logical conclusion) I began to think of generations of Utah artists. Mostly I began to wonder if there are any. To search for a generation we could probably break living artists into four groups. First, the elder generation, the group approaching 70 plus, one from which we are unlikely to see any major shifts or changes and the one to which the four in the Springville show would belong. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the under thirty crowd, the students and emerging artists, what Kent Rigby recently called the young lions, artists who might be doing something interesting but likely have not yet found their true voice. The next and possibly most dynamic is the thirty to fifty crowd, the ones beginning to be shown seriously by galleries, occupying teaching positions, the ones who we watch eagerly to see where they will go after seeing, in some respects, where they have been. The last, what I call the mature artists, are in the 50 to 70 range; they have presumably achieved a certain status, their friends and contemporaries have finally earned enough power or money to seriously help them, and they come under the eye of curators and the like for major exhibitions and awards.

I have been on the lookout for this “generation,” though I should stop using the word because, like the four at In Memoriam, I have yet to find a common thread among the group of artists 50 to 70. Even if we narrow things, say to those born in the 1940s, few distinguishing trends can be detected. I wrote a couple of months ago on Frank McEntire, who would fit into this age group, though I don’t know of anyone working like him. Another of this hypothetical generation is Bonnie Sucec, who has been given an important one-person exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, up through January.

Bonnie Sucec, “Second Thoughts”

Bonnie Sucec’s Sideshow brings together three large oil paintings, a body of gouache on paper works and one collage painting that, frankly, seems completely out of place. Sucec has an MFA from the University of Utah (1985), was the recipient this year of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award (visual arts), and is hailed in the exhibition’s literature as a “prominent member of a select group of Utah’s leading contemporary artists,” though I’m not exactly sure what that means.

Sucec is well known in the community as an instructor, of children and the disabled as well as adults. Her aesthetic is informed by outsider art, modern color, an abstract play of forms and a nervous touch that creates a vibrating energy similar to the work of Frantisek Kupka. Her paintings in this show are characterized by the interaction of one or two large shapes on a dynamic ground. Sucec’s images are filled with birds, animals, and shaman-like figures, as well as inconclusive forms that can be read in multiple ways. In her work figures seems to always be floating on the surface, like skeeters on the skin of a stream. Many of the figures appear to be spitting out or sucking in smaller elements: birds, bugs, boats, coffins.

Sucec expresses an interest in the stories that get ignored in the greater stories, the periphery lost in the big picture. Her concern with death — coffins receding away to infinity, a series of sinking ships — reference war and tragedy but things are kept generalized so that no specific situation is evoked.

Trent Alvey, “Nuts and Bolts of Consciousness”

Moving down the hill from the UMFA, we can find another exhibit for our “generational” search. In Phillips Gallery‘s basement space, Trent Alvey’s Repetition, a combination of non-objective paintings and a couple of installation/sculpture pieces, explores a number of phenomenological themes while concentrating on such formal issues as structure, textures, and materials.

Alvey’s two installation pieces, “Non Linear/Grid,” a floor piece, and “The Nuts and Bolts of Consciousness”, three sculptures suspended from the ceiling, use materials from Home Depot but evoke a religious sensibility, like the interior of a Buddhist temple or Egyptian pyramid. The elements in “Nuts and Bolts” have the glow of a nightclub but evoke a liturgical structure, like a censer; three sheets of plexi, wrapped in bubble-wrap are suspended above a grill and plate that contain paint-covered nails. Alvey’s use of hardware store materials to examine questions of high thought (consciousness) calls into question the repetitive structures that make up our lives and the hierarchy of experience we assign them.

If Alvey has anything in common with Sucec it is her attention to surface — the paintings in this exhibit range from the dry and gritty “Repetition” series to the sumptuous qualities of the acqua and ochre “Quark” pictures. Like Sucec, Alvey’s themes are also largely explored in a universal way even when they comment on the processes of repetition in individual life.

Cary Griffiths

Cary Griffiths, showing for another couple of weeks at the design firm, Modern 8, is another artist who pays attention to surface. Though he is the same age as these other artists, Griffiths took time off from painting to raise a family. Now that he is retired and back to work on his art, he seems to be exhibiting regularly. Though mature, Griffiths still seems to be working through his influences, most of which come from the New York school. One large piece has the thick tactile quality of a Pierre Soulages, the drip application of a Pollock and the overall design of a Kline. Influences and even allusions are fine, but to be successful a work must break through these to achieve something unique. A couple of pieces in this exhibit have the Pollock influence of dripped paint but the colors have been allowed to meld into each other to create a haunting, fused quality. A few newer works allow the paint to bleed and stain the canvas creating some ethereal effects that are promising.|2| Griffiths may yet produce some startling images but his years away from painting show just how long it can take to “mature” into one’s own style.

The last exhibit I caught this month in my generational search is the two-person show of Darryl Erdmann and Steve Sheffield at Patrick Moore (because of age, only Erdmann gets in our discussion). Erdmann is a mature artist who, now that he has closed his Chroma Gallery, seems to be on a new threshold. I doubt we will see major changes in Erdmann’s work, but the work on display at Patrick Moore does speak favorably about what he is up to. In this recent group of works, Erdmann has worked in contour lines of nudes into his expressionist paint layering, playing with notions of ground and figure as well as the distinction of genres. His palette is reduced and toned down to soft, earth hues and some delicious oranges and tans. One might almost be inclined to call them interior design colors, though what Erdmann does with them is far too complicated to appeal to someone looking merely for something to match their couch. Erdmann seems aware of this dichotomy. In a couple of small collage pieces he has arranged color samples from a paint store (reminding me of Alvey’s use of materials) onto bare pine in minimalist design to create works that are both tongue-in-cheek and poetic.

All these artists seem to be working in modes that came of age when they were young children. They seem happy to explore the possibilities of late modernism, carving out worlds of their own that dwell on the general rather than the specific. Overall, though, I still don’t get a sense of having found “a generation,” unless, of course, the lack of a generation is what a generation can be about . . .

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