However illogical, it’s probably human nature to assume that the worst challenges and disasters happen rarely, while those that occur every day must be trivial. That said, nature cannot be made to follow our thinking. One example: Covid-19, a close relative of the common cold, touched the lives of everyone even as it went about upending jobs and educations and ending millions of lives. Similarly, two of the most common mental illnesses, depression and anxiety, can cause some of the worst suffering while robbing victims of the desire to go on living. Sara Naylor is a printmaker whose technical skill makes this most exacting and difficult medium look easy, and whose ability to think in three dimensions, despite having only two to work with, shows uncanny conceptual power. Naylor knows only too well about such psychological trojan horses as anxiety, and here in The Unseen Struggle has focused her art on conveying a universalizing message about what an uncontrolled fear of loss feels like.
In “Collage,” which is hung outside the gallery in the Main Library, a light green field on which darker green vines climb towards sunlight forms the background. In a second layer, sixteen black hands arrange themselves around the perimeter. Their purpose is unclear, but they interact with a third layer, on which a sinuous yellow line — suggestive of a certain brick road? — winds like a path. Black insects — bees or wasps, it seems likely — follow or cling to and possibly assail the path. Unlike the hands, which are articulated by incised line drawing that gives them distinct orientations, the bugs are pure black, so nothing certain can be known about their intentions. The yellow line passes over the hands but the bugs fly all around it. These elements from nature convey a kind of terror: a fright not brought about by anything a person can deal with directly, but fear the mind cannot easily eradicate because its sources dwell in the nervous system itself.
Proceeding into the gallery, where ten prints stretch across two walls, it becomes more apparent who’s who in this psychodrama. The hands must represent the protagonist, while elements from nature often play the part of the enemy, but can also symbolize progress. In “Alleviate,” a core of three hands in three levels of visibility — one positive, a second ghostly, and a third entirely made of negative space — clasp each other and reach together towards an arch of flowers while being menaced by horned centipedes and quivering green spears. In “Constrained,” a pair of hands — the hands always appear in pairs, it turns out — are bound together by a green vine and surrounded by more wasps. It’s a picture of panic. Nearby, though, in “Release (Version IV),” a rectangular, floral vine frames a pair of hands that gesture encouragement to several dozen moths — or are they butterflies? — as they escape and fly upwards.
Naylor draws insects like someone who has spent time looking at them. In perhaps the oddest and most ambivalent image, “Like Flies to Honey,” a bright yellow fluid drips through the fingers of hands that form a bowl, while an army of flies with what seems to be the same purpose swarms below. There’s a suggestion here that protagonists may bring on their own suffering, a possibility underlined by the pale yellow octagon visible in the background. It could just be an organizing, abstract shape, but it’s association with a Stop sign has become about as universal a symbol as can be found on earth. Either way, it reads like a warning.
Not content to employ her graphic skills in personal, artistic statements, Sara Naylor also produced a handy, pocket-sized Zine, which is available free to anyone touring the exhibition. Titled “Mental Health,” this tidy little booklet describes mental illness in words and statistics, then lists contact information for readers who recognize themselves, friends, or relatives in what it says. While she clearly believes in the power of the image to clarify feelings, she also knows the value of a phone number or URL kept handy in a pocket or backpack.
Sara Naylor: The Unseen Struggle, Gallery at Library Square, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 22