Namon Bills is an exception to the quotidian norms of the professional curator. Driven not by ambition, but to curate solely based on strong convictions, the artist’s desire to organize exhibitions has transformed into a devotion for something in which he is now expert. Call him amateur, he does not mind. “I like the word amateur,” says Bills unapologetically. “I learned that it comes from the root words for ‘love of’ and I like that.”
“I have always wanted to be an artist,” says Bills, who received his MFA from Utah State University after doing his undergraduate work at BYU. “Curation came organically and developed on its own.” This development was grounded “on strong convictions” that have come to affect every aspect of his curatorial process. This involves encouraging freedom in each artist, involvement from all throughout the project, and an overall spirit of unity. “One of the most exciting things for me as a curator is to come up with ideas, and then find what the artists come up with,” Bills relates. “To let them take it and run with it — to see their creativity in a way they choose to interpret the concept and where they choose to take it.”
This helps explains why his current exhibit, That Thing You Hate at Salt Lake’s Alice Gallery, is so successful. It’s his seventh major curatorial group show, dating to 2008 with “The State Street Project,” a very auspiciou endeavour. Each exhibit has had a core concept, and a gestalt experience emerges from Bills’ curatorial practice, as each show goes beyond form to function on an idea that creates a fabric of meaning.
In the current show, three artists were paired with three other artists, the first group being the mentees, the second the mentors. Each of the mentees — Namon Bills, Linnie Brown and Justin Wheatley — were asked to consider an artistic style outside of their comfortable milieu. “We each chose something that we see as having value but don’t like to do, but we recognize that if we were to dedicate ourselves to this thing it would probably be useful for us,” Bills says. The mentors chosen were Jeff Pugh, Chris Terry and Casey Childs.
Each team was encouraged to engage in a tutorial, a learning experience, but the extent of this and how much the mentor’s personal method and style would influence the mentees, was up to each individual group
One of the most striking compositions in the show is Jeff Pugh’s “Flooded Field.”|1| Pugh has a singular manner of creating lush canvases thick with rich hue. Elementally, Pugh has an affinity with geometry, and as bold as are his colors and as vast as are his vistas, they are characteristically reduced. There is a lack of nuance, and what we see are exciting shapes and motifs that are closer in style and substance to Paul Cezanne than they are to LeConte Stewart.
One result of this collaboration is Bills’ “Plane.”|2| It shares the same long horiztonals of the Pugh piece but otherwise is completely different. Bills’ work is, true to his nature, experimental, and reductive on a different level completely. Here, a larger upper plane that takes up five-sixths of the canvas gradates from powder blue at the top to white at the bottom. Here it hits a low-lying horizon line, beneath which lies a section full of varied tones of green and patches of blue. This is neo-Minimalism at its boldest and with it comes a strong response.
“Unveil” is a stunning figurative composition by Childs.|3| He beautifully leaves his brushwork open, definite enough to convey a striking and definite figure, but loose enough to allow a multiplicity of responses from the viewer’s emotional and cognitive sensibilities. The most striking elements are the contrasts: the teal blue background, executed in rough and coarse brushstrokes, accentuates the softness of the sitter’s skin, which is rendered in shades of ivory and milky white; this in turn accentuates the sitter’s deep chestnut hair, interspersed with streaks of red and pulled back in a flare of chestnut brown and crimson red. In the classical style, the model has her lower portion loosely draped and even here bold contrasts appear in the rich folds of pomegranate red. It is a marvelous portrait rendered in a classic mode with splashes of contemporary flavor.
How does any of this translate into the mixed media postmodern works of Linnie Brown? Brown’s style is very much her own, but most certainly the mentorship was a successful one. Displayed are unique creations of mixed media with only portions of hand drawing, yet all of Brown’s works succeed in the academic requirements of figural rendering. “Figure #26” is intriguing; as goes contemporary mixed media, this work stands apart.|4| It is a brilliant play of raw materials using only the barest traces of the hand, and compiled into form remarkably similar to Kurt Schwitters getting a hold of paper dolls. Although left to the pure medium of collage, the subject is rendered fluidly with a high degree of naturalism.
From still life virtuoso Christopher Terry comes a work of technical near-perfection — “Fluorescent Halo.”|5| Not a minutia of detail is left to the imagination: every fragment is rendered with a draftsman’s precision. The folds on the tablecloth have a satiny sheen, which is reflected on the polished smooth floor, and the objects on the table are perfectly arranged and ordered centrally, while a “fluorescent halo” casts the ideal light to create the illusions of depth, light, shadow and space.
Although not one to choose still life as a preferred artistic mode, Wheatley’s “Camille’s Kenmore” is so compelling it might initiate a new direction for the artist.|6| Wheatley has chosen a vintage sewing machine as his subject matter, and true to his signature form, it has palpable gravity and weight. Instead of shying away from the example of Terry, Wheatley meets it, albeit in his own manner. The two compositions are not dissimilar: both have a central squared structure occupying the lower half of the canvas; both subjects appear on a flat smooth surface and are activated by bold play of light. Using this formula and appropriate precision, Wheatley creates a backdrop of smoky white, lit from either side. The focal shape is rendered with accuracy and exactitude, but Wheatley is not aiming towards illusion, he is seeking the reality of the piece. He focuses, like a neo-Cubist, on the many planes of the machine set at various angles and differentiated only by contrasting intensities of tonality, lending a Modernist lack of similitude and implied depth; it is an analytic approach decidedly not of traditional illusionistic representation.
The concept driving That Thing You Hate is not esoteric, but meaningful as it motivates the artists to traverse their sphere of comfort, to transcend their personal boundaries, and attempt something new and expansive. This raison d’être, the type that is a fundamental quality of Bills’ curatorial projects, is a benefit to the artist, unique from the benefit of the patron. These are opportunistic challenges to self-imposed norms of artistic and aesthetic limitation enabling growth and liberation.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.