Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

New Wine in Old Bottles: A Conversation at the Springville Museum of Art

By David and Sara Lindsay (with frequent additions by their children)

Since moving to Utah, we have noted several characteristics and peculiarities of the art in the state. We found that the Springville Museum of Art’s 96th Annual Spring Salon highlights some of these peculiarities. On our visit to this exhibit, we recorded our family’s observations. Many of the prize-winning works at the Salon grapple with timely political or social issues. We found that the themes these artists wrestle with are often more contemporary than the aesthetic forms that are employed to illustrate them, and thus, New Wine in Old Bottles.

Shari King, “Portrait of Kris and Grace,” oil on panel, 20″ x 15″

 D. I wanted to start with this diptych because it addresses similar issues to an artist that you and I like very much …

S. … Felix Gonzalez-Torres

D. Exactly. In this work, Sheri King focuses on the relationship between two people that, at the time and place, is outside of the norm, similar to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work. I think that both King’s work and those of Gonzalez-Torres are trying to create empathy for that relationship. The difference is that this work uses a very traditional painting style while Gonzalez-Torres uses piles of candy or broken clocks.

S. This work won first place in the exhibit. It is extremely well painted and very traditional. But in this work, there are some things at are not very traditional.

D. Okay …

S. First, the portrait on the right, which I think is Grace, she is holding herself in a way that looks insecure. She holds herself tightly, almost as if she is uncomfortable. Maybe this is not the setting that she is used to displaying herself in. Whereas Kris is allowing themselves to look bored. So one looks vulnerable and the other looks bored.

D. Or maybe defiant?

S. Yes. Which is not what you would usually see in a set of traditionally-painted portraits like this.

D. Isn’t that the point of this discussion? This interpretation of subject matter (the pose, expression, etc.) is typical for this traditional art, and people feel very comfortable making those kinds of interpretations of traditional realism. Whereas if you had a pile of candy here, people may not know how to read it.

S. Yes. You look at this painting and say “l know that pose, it is very realistic, I’ve been there. I understand those feelings.” It is easy for me to understand.

D. So do you feel that this genre of artwork is too easy to deal with these complex social issues?

S. These are very complex issues. And both artistic expressions are valid. But I do wonder if this is the only way that this kind of conversation can happen in this gallery environment? Would Utah Valley be ready for a different kind of conversation in art? Or is this the only way to let it creep in, through very traditional forms?

Julie Strong, “Pandemic Portrait,” 2020, hand wet-felted wool and silk, hand embroidery and hand beading, 41″ x 46″

S. It is really hard to be in this museum and find something that is not lovely

D. That is interesting, why do you say that?

S. The show has a very strange aesthetic, and we are finding beauty in everything that we see here, it is almost too easy to find.

D. One thing that I have heard you say about art in Utah is that everything is very …

S. … Tidy.

D. Yes, tidy, meaning that it has a very tight aesthetic polish to it. There is almost a fear of making messy, or dirty, or difficult work, work that doesn’t fit well on a pedestal or in a frame.

S. Yes.

D. But do you think this work is starting to approach that? A canvas that has been embroidered with different threads and felted fabric. It is called “Pandemic Portrait,” so it is trying to grapple with some timely subject matter.

S. But in this case, if it is dealing with the pandemic, I would have to say that the pandemic is something beautiful. It is almost impossible for me to see something not beautiful here. This pandemic is not spinning out of control for me. It looks like a gorgeous web being woven together.

D. “Gorgeous” is a good word for this work.

S. And I don’t think that I would call the pandemic gorgeous.

D. So do you feel like this work fits within the conversation we are having? It is not really a new format, although it is taken in an abstract direction. The work is trying to grapple with contemporary issues, but in a very pleasing, aesthetic way.

S. We are attracted to it because it is beautiful, and yes it is in a spinning motion. But to me it looks like a nebula. It is lovely. In this way, it fits that whole tidy aesthetic. It shows that beauty is king in this land. Although this is a gorgeous piece, or maybe because of that, it is hard to see this as really talking about the pandemic in a serious way.

D. It reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with the curator of the Sacramento Museum of Art. He was talking about the history of contemporary art in California. He said that in the ’60s, while the artists on the East Coast were creating conceptual works that set aside or transcended the physicality of the artwork, California artists, at the same time, were having “a hard time leaving the object.” Do you think that is part of the zeitgeist here in Utah, that it is hard to let go of the beauty, as an essential element in art?

S. I definitely agree. I feel like when you leave Utah you will see beauty play a lesser role in a lot of artworks in trying to communicate ideas. Beauty is not a part of the hierarchy of meaning.

Megan Knobloch Geilman, “Madonna & Child,” digital collage, 48″ x 36″

D. We are looking at Meghan Geilman’s work, “Madonna and Child.” I like her work very much. It is really interesting photography.

S. And it definitely stands out in the show. It doesn’t really fit the aesthetic of the rest of the show, except that it is “tidy” and beautiful.

D. Yes, but it feels like the beauty in this work is trying to be slightly subversive: a golden dinner plate plays the role of the halo, the blood-red nail polish on the Madonna, and the accumulation of gold objects at her feet, baby shoes, an apple — like King Midas was having a field-day. So it is taking the expectation of a certain aesthetic and subverting it in a playful way. It feels like Cindy Sherman. Can you see that?

S. Yes.

D. Like a conscious play-acting is going on in this work for a purpose that is just outside of the image.

S. Or the artist Eliza Brighthead at the Tate who is also recreating old portraits with everyday objects.

D. Yes, they both use a painterly aesthetic. So do you feel that this is the reason that this work fits so well within the rest of the exhibit, that it has traditional painterly aesthetic?

S. And composition … and look at that frame.

(Both admire the gaudy frame)

D. In that way, she is subversive. It is not a painting, but she presents it like one in this ornate frame.

S. In that context of photography and painting, it does push boundaries.

Stephanie Deer, “I Dissent,” mixed media, 36″ x 30″

D. (Talking to the kids) This is one of the judges of the United States Supreme Court that just passed away. Everyone admires her for the great work that she did in her lifetime. There were paintings like this up all over the internet for weeks after her passing.

S. Paintings or pictures?

D. Both, I saw a lot of homages by artists.

C#4. So, what did she do?

D. That is a good question. On the Supreme Court, she did a lot of things for women’s rights and gender equality …

S. This is a painting of someone that we are all familiar with, so it is very easy to evoke meanings that we connect to her. But in the artist’s statement, it lists, “This is what she did, this is why she is important.” It is interesting that all we have to do is a likeness of her face to tell us why she is important. Would it be more effective if we used some other materials, subject matter, format, or something else, and entitled the work “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” Could there be something else, other than just a portrait of the face that tells us why this person is so important and why we are grateful for her work? Rather than just pulling a picture off the internet and painting from it?

D. So, the question that our daughter asked was the best one: What did she do? If she led this very meaningful life, and accomplished a lot of great things, is a portrait the best way to represent that?

S. Exactly.

C#2. In this painting, since it is a close up of the face, we can see all of the details. Maybe it is a reminder to look at all of the details in her life, to see what she has done.

D. I like that.

S. In this show you can see a lot of political or social issues brought up. It feels as if making beautiful paintings is the only way to bring up these complex issues.

D. This work makes me think of fan art: the internet is covered with images of Pokémon and anime. A lot of it is fan art. I wonder if this is high-brow fan art? Without a better way to pay homage to the actions of a person, you find an image and do a portrait of that person.

S. I would hope that when I die, I don’t have fan art.

D. You want to be remembered as more than your face?

S. I hope so, there is so much more to speak about in a person’s life. There is so much depth to speak about, that someone would do more than just a face.

Rod Heiss, “Cracked Ice #2,” acrylic on board, 40″ x 84″

D. This work [Rod Heiss’ “Cracked Ice #2] stands out in the exhibition because it is abstract, it is very painterly, almost sculptural, the way he uses the paint.

S. It looks to me like a Gerhardt Richter abstraction, without any color.

D. From the statement, he is looking at Japanese Art. It is painting that is about painting. It is not trying to take on difficult political or social issues. It also fits that descriptor of “tidy.” It is a very slick, beautiful painting. Do you think it fits that idea we have been talking about, that it cannot address difficult social issues?

S. The difficult issues can only be addressed with beauty, in this show.

D. So there is a kind of politeness to the aesthetic. If you are going to affront the viewer by making artwork abstract, or gross, or messy, then you are breaking the pact of politeness?

S. I agree.

C#1. I think that the art here tries not to offend anyone, and it sometimes goes out of its way not to offend anyone.

S. When you are talking about difficult issues: let’s make it beautiful, so you are attracted to it.

C#1. Yes, almost sugar coating things

S. If it is a difficult issue, it needs to entice you in a way that you feel comfortable with first, before you can consider the message

C#1. Maybe because it is consumer-driven? People want sellable things and they want people to like their artwork. So artists don’t really feel a drive to make things that would be repulsive.

D. What she is saying is that there is an economic aspect to this. Which our family is not immune from, either. We want to make a living like every artist does, part of doing that is trying not to offend your community.

S. This is true. This exhibit is illustrating the community.

D. I was thinking that right now in our country, wedged between political correctness, BLM, the #metoo movement, and backlash to the president’s offensive actions, we have all become much more sensitive to offense.

S. Very much so.

D. The internet culture has increased that as well. In that way, this exhibit in Springville is on the cutting edge, because it is being very careful not to offend!

S. (Laughs) I think that we limit ourselves from moving forward if we are always thinking how our art will offend someone. Of course no one wants to offend on purpose. But how can you speak from your heart if you are constantly thinking how it will affect someone?

D. And in the public realm, people are constantly on the lookout to receive offense. That is what makes a museum director’s job so difficult.

C#1. Cutting edge doesn’t mean the best things, if it is reflecting society. It brings up the question, if art is supposed to reflect or to change society.

S. Hopefully it’s moving society forward.

D. But it does feel like there is a self-consciousness in this exhibit.

Jason Lanegan, “Summer Picnic Relic,” mixed media, 20″ x 20″

D. So you can see inside this painting. There is a cut-out space in the painting in which a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich sits. Yogi bear stands next to it on the painted surface. In the statement, this artist is talking about hunger and urges, and powerful societal expressions of food. But this is a tempered way to show hunger or physical urges. When I think of hunger, I think of powerful human desires. I mean, there is this bright Cadmium red color in the painting, but besides that, this work feels … like the aesthetics and the meaning are fighting against each other, and the aesthetics are winning. I would like to see the peanut butter and jelly oozing out of the sandwich and curling down onto the painting, staining it. That might start to talk about urges and hunger. But it is in a tidy little box, partially eaten by a toy Yogi bear.

S. Is it the toy or is the toy an advertisement?

D. What do you mean?

S. The representation of Yogi bear seems like a representation of daily consumer products: you can count on the cartoons that you see on Saturday mornings. There is like a nostalgic feeling about this. Who really eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches anymore? It’s our generation. It was our generation that ate them every day, on Saturday mornings. So, you see Yogi, the sandwich, and think happy thoughts. I don’t really think of hunger.

D. Or primal urges for food.

C#1. I didn’t know that was Yogi bear; that is a cultural icon that I totally don’t get, that is not part of my generation.

S. Nor are peanut butter and jelly sandwiches … maybe uncrustables?

C#1. Also, I am super distracted by why the bread is not molding. It feels like it should be.

S. To be fair, your mom makes artwork that molds.

C#1. That’s true

S. My artwork is disgusting at times, and I have complaints about the fruit flies swarming around it … it is interesting because we have three or four things depicted here on this painting and how they connect is a little unclear. It looks more like a collage of iconic childhood images and less of the statement he is trying to make. Because the tidiness of the painting is winning. Beauty is the winner in this show.

Stacy Weitz Minch, “Letting Go,” oil on linen, 48″ x 24″

C#4. Interesting, the name of it is “Letting Go;” if you read about it, it talks about the objects that are important to you, when you are young. In the painting, she is holding a stuffed animal.

D. This is a very traditional work and follows a very long line of traditional symbolic figurative painting. If you were to go to Italy, you would see this same painting, but instead of the little girl, you would see Psyche and instead of a stuffed animal she would be letting go of …

S. … Mortality.

D. Yes, something like that. Then Stacy Minch would not have to write this whole statement because most of the people in Renaissance Italy would understand what the symbolism is, and would get the whole idea. So, I wonder if, for artists here, there is a confrontation between the artist statement which has to sound like it is dealing with deep ideas, and the work of art which is mostly just trying to be beautiful?

S. The title, “Letting Go,” is enough information for anyone to make it what they want it to be, because it is a beautiful painting, very delicately done. We have all experienced childhood and had to let go of it. So in a beautiful painting like this, you are already attracted to it, but it might be more effective if the viewer is allowed to take more ownership of how it is interpreted.

C#1. Everything about the subject is extremely iconic: her pose, her look, barely hanging onto the stuffed animal. It is a very classic pose.

S. In that sense too, if you look around, the rest of this painting is kind of unconsidered. It feels like she is standing on a soft mattress. It feels soft and weird. We don’t have any idea of what the future holds for this girl because there is nothing to tease us. She is saying, “I am going to let go of this stuffed animal and stand here and be pretty.” There is no forward thinking.

D. The artist statement mentions the year 2020 twice. In that way, this painting describes our year pretty well. Doesn’t it?

S. That we don’t know where we are going? That’s true. And we can look pretty while we are waiting.

D. So, is it forward-looking or is it nihilistic?

C#2. Going along with that, she doesn’t have her shoes on, so she is not really prepared to go anywhere.

(Laughter)

D. And she doesn’t have a mask on, so she can’t go anywhere.

S. Even though the painting is about letting go, this image is preserving the moment in this person’s life. You are letting go, but we are presenting ourself as pristine in this moment,

D. That is a great point. One of the purposes of this kind of traditional portraiture is to commemorate. In this year of turmoil, maybe the best we can to is try to remember a little bright spot.

(Outside of the museum, the conversation continued …)

D. So you were saying, that when you enter in the museum … what was on the wall?

C#1. “A sanctuary of beauty.”

D. And, “Temple of contemplation.” So in an art world where beauty might be seen as passé …

S. Are you able to have these contemporary discussions, is beauty the best medium for grappling with those?

D. Does beauty limit you in how you are able to converse?

S. And is beauty always something that is visual? In the museum, we saw a lot of visual beauty. Much artwork has helped me to understand the beauty of ideas, using the grotesque to get me to that place.

D. Those words on the museum wall are a part of a quote from [then LDS Church apostle] David O. McKay, when the building was dedicated. The 20th century is filled with examples where beauty is used in very subversive ways. We can think of Nazi propaganda as an example of that. And even today, advertisements that try to push a standard of beauty that is so unattainable that it makes people starve themselves and do terrible things to their body. Is the beauty that we were talking about just an outward appearance, or is there more importance that needs to be given to the idea of beauty right now, as a concept?

C#1. I think that beauty and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think sometimes one is sacrificed at the expense of the other. Not always, but it happens a lot. The answer is not to avoid making beautiful things, but to not focus on making beautiful things.

S. Think about the movie “Life is Beautiful.” They spell it out. It is a horrible story, but it is also the most beautiful story. The way that we are able to see that beauty comes from sacrifice, laying down your life, making yourself uncomfortable. These are things that are not necessarily visually beautiful, but they offer so much beauty in ways that cannot be painted. It is about sacrificing and pain, how pain can often be beautiful.

D. It offers us a depth of emotional or spiritual beauty that I think artists understand, just by nature of the turbulent career that we give ourselves to. But then, it always gets back to that issue of what do the people want to see. I don’t know that people want to have difficult things on display in their homes.

S. But they should be offered in museums.

96th Annual Spring Salon (Fall Edition), Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through January 13, 2021.

 

David Lindsay is an artist and director of Sites Set for Knowledge, a nonprofit arts organization which oversees the Popwalk exhibit platform. David has exhibited all over the country and in Europe. He moved to Utah from Texas in 2019.

Sara Lindsay is an artist and mother of six. She has exhibited all over the United States and Europe and is currently completing her Master of Fine Arts degree at BYU. Her work is characterized by her identity as a mother and artist, and how these overlap.

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