Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Lost in Transit: Additions to Kimball’s Between Life and Land Not to Be Missed

Guillermo Gómez-Peña in “A Song Often Played On The Radio,” by Cristóbal Martínez and Raven Chacon. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

Touring Broadway shows, rock bands, and blockbuster art shows schedule venues and acts years in advance. That’s great for events that take place over decades or even centuries, but contemporary art hasn’t that luxury. So when the Kimball Art Center’s curator, Nancy Stokes, undertook to survey the evolution of Land Art as it enters its second half-century, in a program envisioned as three separate shows extending over an entire year, she faced challenges from two directions. The Kimball, a fixture in Park City since 1976, when the Spiral Jetty was just beginning its initial submersion in Great Salt Lake, has obligations that extend throughout the year. On the other hand, securing fragile and recent art works, some necessarily promised even before they’re finished, over the long distances required even within Utah, calls on resources not everyone has.

Scheduling is often more for the convenience of advertisers than those who advertise. Museums remove and replace art works all the time: where we expect to find an old favorite, instead a label reads “Removed for __________,” which blank might be filled with “restoration” or “loan,” but frustratingly is often not even filled in. So when a conflict arises between adding or subtracting works as circumstances allow, versus omitting a work because it can’t be present for the entirety of an exhibition, the greater good calls for the former. The result, in a case like Identity, part 2 of Between Life and Land, is a show that may not not be all there at the same time.

One entrant that Kimball director Aldy Milliken strongly recommends is Ann Böttcher, a Swedish artist who, inspired in this case by Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, focuses on making exquisitely detailed drawings of trees. Like Utah’s own Kathleen Peterson, Böttcher reveals strong connections between trees and people, not just in their upright postures, but in various performative and symbolic roles trees play in human society. To that end, she researches their historical roles, then often presents both drawings and research side-by-side. So it was puzzling that, during the first month of Part 2, only a single drawing accompanied an array of texts and images that seemed almost more significant than the art. It later turned out that four drawings had been sent, but the frames of three were damaged in shipping. The necessary repairs completed, the project can now be seen as intended.

Another exciting project, not all of which made it for the opening, was Diné-American composer Raven Chacon’s “American Ledger No. 1,” a mixed format — rather than mixed media — collaboration telling the creation story of the United States. While an actual performance of the music was eventually scheduled, an explanation of the witty score, which gently satirizes musical notation, appeared later. It explains that “the score is to be displayed as a flag, a wall, a blanket, a billboard, or a door.” (Surely it’s an accident that Dürer, the artist’s name mentioned above, means “Door Maker.”) The instructions continue:

For at least 13 minutes.
For any number of musicians with any number of non-musicians.
Each line is a minute or longer.
Line 1 is for both percussive and bendable tones.
Line 2 begins with a warbly long tone crossfading into waves of harmonic or dynamic increases. X = chop wood.
Line 3 is for police whistle(s). Other instruments may join.
Line 4 is for coins to be thrown. Two instruments may accompany.
Line 5 is a line.
Line 6 is a grand decelerando ending with the striking of a match.
Line 7 is for acknowledging groupings of 5’s and 4’s. Chop wood.
End with everyone and everything.

The point, if one is needed, might be summarized as saying that the United States is in the difficult process of becoming a new country — the one it was supposed to be in the first place — and could use a new life story and an original symbolic (musical) language in which to tell it.

The Kimball Center is committed to making its resources available to the community, such as for the show of art made in local schools that occupied its video theater room during parts of April and May. This required postponing the portion of Identity that was intended for that room. Now that the student show, which upended assumptions about what young and untrained artists can accomplish, has ended, part two of Between Life and Land can be completed with another, more conventional, if still original and challenging, story with music by Raven Chacon, in collaboration with Cristóbal Martínez.

There are two enigmatic characters in “A Song Often Played On The Radio,” each of whom enters on horseback, seeking, we are told ,the Seven Cities of Cibola, only to confront a conundrum that, if not actually prepared for them, was left by some anonymous power to be entered upon and possibly solved. The first character is played by the immortal Guillermo Gómez-Peña, surely among the first Mexican-American artists to extensively explore the boundaries of identity on any border. In those days, when identities were die-cut along the lines of Hollywood formulas, GP, as he was often called, rejected the single identity people often fight for today. He knew, and played on, not only the differences between a European American and a Mexican Indian, but even between a Mexican and a Chicano. His art saw him dress like a homeless person and lie down on the streets to prove that by doing so he became invisible, as the homeless were as well. He often paired with young women, like the Cuban-American artist and scholar, Coco Fusco, and of course Emily Hicks, with whom he exchanged wedding vows through the border wall in San Diego, expressing a thwarted wish that their two neighboring cultures could set aside their differences and unite on the basis of common humanity.

Close observers will have noticed another sign of fluid identity that GP modeled, that only much later came to be labeled “non-binary gender.” In “A Song,” his shirt comes and goes and is replaced by a jacket, but he always has a skirt and either ruffs or opera sleeves on his arms. Another of his frequent, early themes that can be caught in the monologue here refers to the “doppelgänger,” a German word referring to the concept that instead of being unique, each person has a double. A double of sorts does appear in alternating scenes of “A Song.” New Mexico composer and singer Nacha Mendez, known for her theatrical trouser roles here plays another black-clad rider. This equally mysterious search ends in a mysterious, seemingly abandoned ranch house. Here Mendez finds and plays a guitar, singing “Corazones No Sabemos,” which unites the two episodes by poetically repeating many of the disparate observations made earlier in what were almost certainly the thoughts of Gómez-Peña’s character. Mendez’s finding of a home and a way to express herself contrasts with the doppelgänger’s increasingly frantic behavior.

Nacha Mendez in “A Song Often Played On The Radio,” by Cristóbal Martínez and Raven Chacon. Image credit: Geoff Wichert

The Kimball staff and curator Stokes have assembled another strong show, bookended by works that, at the opening, reveals what can happen when a dominant culture fears that its privileges are in jeopardy, and on the other end shows what happens when an inclusive society listens to all its members. Nothing has been removed from Identity, but the additions make it worth the trip, whether returning or for the first time.

Between Life and Land: IdentityKimball Art Center, Park City, through July 9

See our initial review of the exhibition here.

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