Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Layered Realities: The Symbiotic Art of Dahl and Vita at FICE Gallery

A view of FICE Gallery and Boutique with works by Vita and Trevor Dahl on the walls. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

A stroll to FICE Gallery and Boutique offers the observant visitor a live experience of historical Utah, albeit not so much the “Wild West” of fantasy as the gritty, urban jungle of black-and-white Noir films from the 1930s. This downtown neighborhood is a rare survivor of a lost era that somehow escaped demolition by developers. Crowded, small antique facades and narrow alleyways make it easy to become disoriented and find yourself walking south when you meant to go north. Stories of hikers lost in labyrinthine canyons come to mind. Then there’s the layout of FICE itself, its interior layered in the geologic manner of canyon walls: at plank-floor level, expansive bench-like seating for gazing at art or trying on Air Jordans, which line the lower shelves separated by racks of clothing and sophisticated art books; above are the paintings, stitching together an illusory horizon that separates the visually busy boutique below from the open space overhead.

Trevor Dahl, “The Field of Love,” 2023, oil on canvas, 44 x 36 in. 

In a sense, this journey into rediscovered history prepares viewers for the paintings of Trevor Dahl, who plumbs his psyche for plangent images of cultural life, then encodes them in a variety of familiar modes: comics, cartoons and computer game styles mix it up in his complex compositions, wherein everything happens at once but each glyph has its own place. An embroidered sampler, an esoteric cult’s billboard and collected tattoos are some of the connections made by “The Field Of Love,” in which a stained glass window floats in the sky above a lake, seen between two trees, the branches of which support a webwork of flamelike colors, birds and a birdhouse. Filling the sky are clouds, an angel, a gnome in a nightcap, an open door leading to a night sky, a rainbow, and a duck being stung by lightning. Just for starters. Distant mountains and moonlight reflected on the water do not contradict the mood, in which an elk with a sacred heart and his mate browse on the shore, the spaces set off by his antlers filled with humanoid skulls. Good art should involve inexhaustibility: not seeing all it has to offer in one look. A Dahl proposes to fill a lifetime of looking.

Consider “The Beast Within,” an unhappy-looking, but not particularly intimidating, spotted-green lizard lying on its belly amidst digital trees and plump flowers. Instead of a dungeon or swamp, it rests in full sunshine, casting its shadow along with those of the rocks and birds around it. One can only wonder: were it to escape, might the most danger come from its desire to make a friend and never leave? And then there’s “Integration,” in which a truly unpleasant, even slavering, multi-eyed monster with half-a-dozen spikes on its back submits to one of them serving as a perch for a presumably contented, even happy bluebird.

Trevor Dahl, “The Beast Within,” 2023, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in.

Archival prints of works by Vita (top) and Trevor Dahl (middle) share space with FICE’s line of streetwear. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Some images promise drama, like the final battle between good and evil shown in “The Vanquishing of Hell,” with its heroic angel—the only species to have both wings and arms to hold a sword and a cheerful bluebird, this one singing—neatly centered between cloudy arena seats full of cheering angels and a menagerie of Biblical and other beasts. Others slip into the whimsical, like the saxophone-slash-flowerpot of “Sax Magic,” which pauses in midair to better show off the ornamental filigree that its animated valve mechanism has become. In the psychic universe of Trevor Dahl, where nothing is too far out to fit in, it seems those two internal states have much in common.

Vita, “Wellspring VII,”

Meanwhile, the artist Vita, being a fox rather than a hedgehog, knows many things. She knows about living things, and about the earth and waters they live in and on or fly over, and especially about the light that makes life and so much else possible. She knows, above all, that “we are all made of the same stuff that’s been around for eternity,” and so understands how a landscape can reveal so much about the creatures that will live in it: how gravity builds up continents and erosion wears them down, just as evolution casually scatters life forms and extinction refines them. Neatly interspaced between Trevor Dahl’s living pageants are Vita’s ecologically aware landscapes: “WellspringVII” focuses on a waterfall that pours over rocks that seem to melt and flow too, only more slowly, as though to remind us that a waterfall is as brief as a life in geologic time, and the mountain, too, will succumb to gravity.

Even though “Wellspring I” recalls a Chinese landscape, with rocks dancing every bit as actively as the water, the artist dedicates it to her focus on Utah’s water scarcity, which predates recent shortage and management plans that won’t change it. To see the land in this way is to bring viewers closer to the mind-numbingly slow process by which the Colorado river carved out the canyons and valleys of the Southwest over millions of years.

Those who pay close attention to Utah’s cliffs, canyons and arches know that wind and sand also sculpt the landscape. In “Safe Harbor,“ where dancing zephyrs carve spires around a body of water, Vita urges viewers to contemplate how wind in the desert is like breath in the body. The shell of running shoes running under such an image may help runners to see their exercise as a matter not only of personal survival, but of global health. These two artists would remind us that the sources from which we come are vast: nature, for Vita, and culture for Trevor Dahl, are able to supply what we require—so long as we don’t forget we are part of something so very much older and larger than ourselves.

Vita’s “Safe Harbor” at FICE Gallery. Image credit: Geoff Wichert


Vita & Trevor Dahl, FICE Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Apr. 4


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