What is identity to an artist? In cosmopolitan Europe, it was often where you came from: Leonardo from Vinci — a village outside Florence. El Greco: “the Greek,” Spain’s most popular painter. Johannes Vermeer of Delft, a successful trading city, eager to show off its luxury goods. In the American West, however, in the barely-begun third millennium, a mythology comprised of alienation and self-invention struggles against traditional identities. At the Kimball Art Center in Park City, midway through a year-long, three-part exhibition on the theme of Between Life and Land, curator Nancy Stoaks has chosen to open with one artist’s “best shot” — a collection of the personal property Americans have chosen to carry into the desert and abandon after violently destroying it with their new, signature idol: military-style guns.
It’s hard to imagine a bolder or more blatant claim of identity than those Jaclyn Wright captures in “High Visibility (Blaze Orange).” In a pair of photo collages, she identifies the title color, a signature of an age when computer-driven, social media have blown apart the precious human legacy of tiny-but-effective communities (groups that despite their small size managed to build things like Stonehenge, now the most popular tourist attraction in Britain) so that only desperate measures, like the most attention-grabbing orange dyes, assembled into hundreds of insistent arrows or defiantly prohibitive grids, reliably garner our attention. These, though, only introduce her killer argument: an oxymoronic collage of dismantled targets gathered from public lands, where they and so many other possessions, many of them (like refrigerators and cars) too bulky or too damaged to carry into the gallery, have been left like post-modern Kilroys — the World War II signature graffito, a universal signifier during America’s last unifying crusade that clearly stated, “We Were Here.”
What, then, might artists have to say about life in a land where capitalist marauders roam freely, despoiling the people’s government and taking aim at the Moon and Mars? Stoaks recommends the work of Ann Böttcher, a Swedish artist whose works foreground finely detailed drawings of nature interspersed with the results of her various research projects. Her research notes on “Bodenständige,” which she translates as “rooted to the soil,” refer to the relation between the landscape and roads built in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. The Autobahn, envied in the US for including sections with no speed limits, was previously associated with the National Socialists: the Nazis. But before the automobile, Germany was one source of the Romantic movement. Poets and especially the painter Caspar David Friedrich taught the world to associate cloudy mountain tops, icy seas and shores, dark forests, and chapel ruins with the creative solitude found in nature. From this movement would come the Nazis’ impulse to build an Autobahn that followed the contours of the land it crossed, rather than plowing through it like the famously unbending Roman versions. Later, American highway engineers would follow their lead, lining their roads with trees and dividing them with lush medians. Will we ever again be able to follow the better idea no matter who agreed with it?
Around the corner from this inquiry into roads, Al Denyer’s portraits of six mountains advance the narrative through two additional centuries. These six promontories were the landmarks chosen by Howard Stansbury in 1849 to anchor the first complete survey of the Great Salt Lake and its environs, using the newly invented technique of triangular surveying. What Denyer had done over several years was to adapt another land measure, the curving contour lines that follow altitude and so reveal how water’s erosion and drainage shape the land’s surface. She did this first to depict the Earth as seen from an aerial perspective, like the hugely popular drone views that have swept the worlds of aerial imagery and motion pictures, but using an artist’s skill to eliminate the visual clutter that photography cannot avoid. Having seen how effectively linear, high-def views can reveal the Earth’s surface on which we all dwell, she then rotated her perspective 90 degrees, turning them into white-on-black portraits of mountains and valleys. The way people live on the land is directly influenced by how they comprehend it, which makes a particular way of perceiving the Earth’s surface crucial.
It’s often said that the boundaries of good taste can be exceeded so long as the transgression is funny. Whether that’s true or not, recently its inverse was proven by a celebrated figure whose deliberately edgy images, which were meant to entertain, offended those they supposedly meant to amuse. Wendy Red Star, a self-described Apsáalooke Feminist as well as a contemporary multimedia artist, need not fear having that problem. By skillfully taking back control of Native American images that were purloined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, often with good intentions, but taken none the less, and adding her own tongue-in-cheek captions, titles, juxtapositions, and shifts in perspective, Red Star avoids the mistaken assumptions about her audience that trip up would-be backslapping members of the power elite. “Runs in the Valley,” her larger-than-life buffalo skull, which looks like it was carved from stone before being pierced by an even larger, golden railroad spike, mocks the sentiments engraved on the famous, 24-Karat original. Jokes notoriously resist explanation, but this one almost certainly refers, with spike literally in cheek, to the notorious pretense that the railroad brought progress to a world it was actually bringing to a close in order to take its place.
Not all progress is bad, of course. Advances in the arts often break down genres or bridge the gaps between them the way the railroad meant to bridge a continent. Arts presentations divide roughly between visual forms that receive static exhibition and performances, which are staged live or recorded for remote watching. The most successful recorded performances seen in gallery settings are videos, but in spite of expressions of faith in them by gallerists, they don’t work all that well. A striking alternative is offered by Diné-American composer and musician Raven Chacon, who presents his score for “American Ledger No. 1,” a collaborative, mixed-format “creation story of the founding of the United States,” through a narrative score printed on a blanket. Here episodes including “moments of contact, enactment of laws, events of violence, the building of cities, and erasure of land and worldview” are evoked by graphic notation that will be “realized by sustaining and percussive instruments, coins, axe and wood, a police whistle, and a match.” The story, which should be familiar, is represented by plangent suggestions including water, gunfire, and the symbols of religion, readings which viewers can supply from their own imaginations. The use of a blanket to support a score is particularly apt for this story, blankets having served as shelter, gifts, artworks, objects of trade, and even weapons when contaminated and used to clear “unwanted” populations.
Land shapes the lives lived on it, and in turn is shaped by its occupants. Sometimes this leads to aesthetics and metaphor, while at others the relation is more literal. Adam Bateman, scion of one of Sanpete County’s artistic families and director of the Central Utah Art Center for a decade, became a prolific creator not of traditional art, but of Contemporary works inspired by the example of Robert Smithson, with detailed examinations of nature foregrounded, an emphasis on the character of a site, and monumental scale employed from concept to material fabrication. The origami log cabin he created in “Homestead” is an artifact that solves its dilemma: that this is the only work here actually made of land. The struggle over land rights and usage is a grand, universal story that includes the legal theft known as adverse possession, and Bateman, ever known to want to check all the boxes, has included it in what is easily the largest work here.
Jerrin Wagstaff describes his recent paintings as products of mental processes he likens to Venn diagrams. He credits a recent series of seemingly imaginary landscapes, including “Ultrascape 20,” to a uniquely American cocktail of spectacle, absurdity, and desire. But he also traces them back to such familiar, ambitious 19th century landscape painters as Albert Bierstadt, darling of the railroad barons and descendent of the German Romantics mentioned earlier. Landscape was invented in France, but wasn’t truly challenged until artists encountered first the Hudson River Valley, and then the incomparable West.
London’s Blue Curry, whose media include Installation, which includes paint, takes a very different approach to hospitality than Bierstadt’s invitations to come see Yosemite Valley with your own eyes. His entryway to the Kimball creates a kind of hallucinatory blue lake, from which the center’s actual water fountain seems to rise like a mythic figure of welcome. Nor are mythic figures and myths, themselves, out of place here. Levi Jackson, who documents his travels around the West in “The States Project: Utah,” attempts to use his camera to reconcile historical perspectives with how things look today, and in his recent photographs seek to evoke and locate a mythic quality in a very real landscape.
In “What Has Been Will Be Again,” Jared Ragland focuses on photographing his home state, Alabama, as a crossroads of history, from its “discovery” by de Soto to the Trail of Tears, followed by the simultaneous foundations of Southern Gothic sensibility and American Exceptionalism. The alienation, isolation, and violence he finds there now are not local phenomena, but somehow mark the late stage of very many American communities.
The influence of Richard Misrach comes not only from his own photography, but from the many more photographers he’s influenced. In his “Outdoor Dining, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah,” viewers sense the contrasting feelings — so like a clash of love and hate — he evokes between the wonder of the antique, inland sea floor, the relic of an ancient past that is miraculously renewed every year by seasonal flooding, and the convenient irony of its human use as a dining room floor. As incisive a teacher as he is a maker of iconic photographs, Misrach has observed that the images he sets out intending to create never work out; rather, success comes from careful attention to the mere accidents taking place all around him. Nor is it a lesson just for artists, but possibly sound advice on how human ingenuity might best be employed everywhere.
Another body of work based on photographic surveys made when the camera was a new cultural presence, Daniel George’s “God to Go West” finds him re-photographing historic sites that were named by Mormon settlers who had little or no idea what they may have meant to the previous residents. Of course this has to do with more than just names; in Hawaii, beaches and promontories were reserved for shared rituals, while most of the same sites are now occupied by hotels that exclude all but paying guests. George’s otherworldly Manti Temple floats on a hilltop above ranks of folding chairs that may not signify a change of spiritual use so much as they open the possibility that a participatory act, like ascending, has been replaced by a spectacle for a passive audience. Then again, it cuts both ways; what would a people who didn’t believe land could be owned make of the piece of it newcomers gave the name “Jerusalem?”
So what is identity to an artist? Rashawn Griffin, who is known for colorful, outsized textiles, contributed a black-and-white banner emblazoned with his name, so large it drapes across the floor and must be stepped on or stepped around. It’s common today to think of identity as one’s own secret quality, but really it’s more a matter of what’s out there that draws one forth. What one identifies with. As Griffin reminds us, humor, simple truths, and a sense of perspective are good things, both in art and in life. There’s no great discovery in the realization that the worse the times, the more we need artists in order to see clearly.
Between Life and Land: Identity, Kimball Art Center, Park City, through July 9