With an unknown number works of art accepted, the Spring Salon at the Springville Museum of Art — far and away the exemplary annual show, at the definitive repository of homegrown Utah art and artists — defies imagination. Because it occupies almost the entire main floor, flowing from room to room to room, it’s impossible to survey it all at once, but I began to understand what I’d taken on when, as I was viewing my third room, a staff member told me, excitedly, that 230 works were for sale. I’ve never attempted to review such a large show — never, in fact, seen one so large like it, meaning a competitive exhibition, where the works were all certified by a jury of leading experts to be of the finest quality. Such facts and numbers may convince a visitor that the Salon includes every medium, every topic and theme, and every level of difficulty to be found on the walls of the schools, galleries, and the extensive assortment of art venues that can be found across the state. But spend enough time criss-crossing this vast territory and it soon becomes apparent that there is no single, universally popular Utah school of art. Art forms a portrait of the community that creates and supports it, and there are substantial differences between what fills a gallery in rural Cache County, or near the Salt Lake, or in Park City, along the Wasatch Front, in Moab, or somewhere in between.
Given such a broad selection, with such high quality of conception and execution, it would seem impossible to find a single, stand-out work. And yet, even before the labor of placing all the works was complete, one painting had seemingly captured the staff’s enthusiasm: Clinton Whiting’s “Audible Gasp.” Taking its cue from the sound so often heard at the point where a sought-after bit of scenery comes into view, “Audible Gasp” presents a rock-solid view of that icon of icons in a state that boasts so many indelible landscapes — Delicate Arch —supporting a carnivalesque hallucination of multi-colored fantasy tourists. Here the artist has taken on a complaint frequently heard among our inveterately outdoor-oriented population: that there are now so many enthusiasts out there that it’s become impossible to find the solitude that typically drew us here in the first place. Whiting desires to make two points: that seeing the source of even the most familiar copy does vital work in assuring us that it’s real — that some things are true, and that we’re not alone in our appetites: that appreciating grandeur and majesty in nature proves that, at heart, we all have something vital in common.
Seeing “Audible Gasp,” and the lift it gave this hard-working crew as they neared the end of a long slog, it suddenly seemed possible to convey a sense of the Spring Salon, if only a glimpse. These ten works will not necessarily represent the best, which in any event is a completely subjective ideal. But they will include works that are rooted in traditional values and techniques, but which have taken new approaches to familiar subject matter, thereby giving those topics a fresh twist worth taking a moment to appreciate. Even there, they will not exhaust the works that are so described.
Carel Brest van Campen is a master of nature in detail — the first subject ever painted. Yet his “Undocumented” encourages thinking deeply about recent events. A bird resting on a razor wire fence relates social and political controversies, with their widely discussed human costs, with repercussions among plants and animals. This year, in show after show, Utah artists revealed deep anxieties concerning the environment. Van Campen is no exception, though he may also suggest that the natural order has a way of slipping through human misapprehensions.
The Salon’s jurors—musician, 15 Bytes veteran, and broad-spectrum arts and culture figure Laura Durham, and BYU arts professor and multi-cultural scion Fidalis Buehler — navigated their way through an estimated thousand submissions, avoiding overly familiar themes and worn out treatments, to provide this steady diet of new and interesting visual experiences, one after another. A more domesticated example is Lana Gloschat’s “Cookies with Grandma,” which embodies the separate realities of age and youth in an antique-style, fine china teacup filled with the relative novelty of macarons. The contrast in subject matter is matched by a similar technical substitution: Gloschat employed the traditional oil painters trio of imprimatura, grisaille, and color glaze, only using colored pencils in place of paint. The result, physically flat on the paper in a way oils never are, strikes the eye in a manner as novel as the first sight of macarons in a Parisian bakery window once did.
Anyone who has studied the history of photography, not in the inadequate form of modern textbook reproductions, but through original examples, knows that even as the machinery of production — cameras and so forth — have grown ever more convenient and accessible, the quality of the actual photographs has gone inexorably and irreversibly downhill. It’s hard to see the differences between individuals in a world increasingly given to viewing everything in high-contrast, where only a few gradations can be represented. Madison Casagranda’s tintype, a direct-positive process used in most photographs of the Civil War and the era that immediately followed, perceives and captures the hair and skin of her subject, Alex, with an intense, life-like accuracy that more directly conveys just who Alex is.
Indeed, identity, while always in the background of artistic expression, has seen its usefulness as subject rise with the Romans and the Renaissance, only to fall in times and places of spiritual concern. Recently, identity has once again proved a resonant, useful theme among the arts: one that requires acknowledgement of the past alongside recognition of the present. Aïsha Lehmann’s “My Roots, Your Roots” employs lithography, the oldest and still most-employed mass-printing process, to depict what looks to be an excerpt from a larger collection of images. Like the paintings of Degas, which invoked the impact of the camera by cutting off parts of the picture that fell, seemingly accidentally, outside the lens’s coverage, Lehmann’s fanciful and ambiguous figures, juxtaposed upon outsized examples of familiar plant life, suggests that roots, heritage, and their implications matter and are telling, far beyond the limits of any one point of view.
In the 19th century, painters impressed by the vast American spaces they beheld were encouraged to give their landscapes a similar grandeur, as it to say that even as mankind was conquering nature, yet nature was deemed a worthy adversary. It was less a matter of “men to match the mountains” and more about “mountains to match the men.” How much more credible is the farm depicted by Jeffery Pugh in “The Thunder Rolls On.” Roughly manipulating his paint using an industrial tool, essentially a modified putty knife, Pugh captures the awesome verticality of the sky pressing down, which contrasts with the vast, level plane of the land beneath it, while between them the narrow band of human industry — their trees, their barn, their home — survives and is even a source of pride. For the moment. This is not to minimize the farmer’s achievement; if anything, it genuinely ennobles it, but firmly staked in a more realistic view of the challenges and the odds.
Collage, bas-relief, and translucent oil paint — three conventions, combined in a new way, represent one of the oldest places on earth. Dead Horse Point is where the Colorado River, which sculpted the Grand Canyon, became trapped behind a mountain range and cut down through the ancient sea floor, producing views both horizontal, across the giant loops and switchbacks created as the river sought an escape, and vertical, literally down through millions of years of sediments. Luke Anderson’s “Chasm” is all about light: from the direct sun on the yellow high ground up close, past the deep shadows in cleft stone, to the blue in the far distance. The weathered textures are molded directly into the work, while with few other clues, atmospheric perspective tells the rest of the story.
In few places does the possibility for what is obsolete to be reborn into new life hold out more promise than in art, where styles succeed each other according to arbitrary patterns and the now is always primary, and yet one successful, important work can upend a century of what appeared to be progress. Encaustic, or pigment in wax instead of egg whites or linseed oil, was the medium of choice in Classical Greece and Egypt, but was largely forgotten until Jasper Johns made it the apparent future of art in the 1950s. By choosing to depict Ephesus in encaustic, Cynthia Clark makes her argument that “Old Things Become New.” A Greek city in Turkey that fell on hard times and was finally abandoned during the Renaissance, Ephesus is valued once again today for the quality and completeness of its Classic ruins, while encaustic is valued for its light-capturing translucence and ability to convincingly convey elusive depths, both suggestive and real.
Political movements like Black Lives Matter and Me, Too, powered by their adroit use of visual images, can bring about radical changes in society. Change can also come about through the gradual evolution of thinking, or even mental images of what is taken for real, if only because such transformations more closely match the speed of human accommodation. Art can and often does play a role, sometimes rapidly, as in the beginning of the Romantic movement in the 18th century, but more often gradually, by asserting gentle, but firm pressure. Lynde Mott considers such a shift in “Divine Feminine,” wherein she envisions a Heavenly Mother as someone viewers can relate to. In her vision, Mott controls the direction of the light and employs magnolia flowers, the figure’s hand positions, and an external accessory, a veil, to locate her divinity in an implied narrative: real events that take place over time, while the veil’s intrusion into the viewers’ space suggests that they, too, have a part to play.
In the 21st century, artists have attempted to create interactive art: works that would respond to the presence of a viewer. Early on, many took the form of elaborate electronic devices that, for instance, became active on sensing a nearby body. Many of those quickly broke down, but in truth, most of them had already failed, since the interplay of artwork and audience was limited to a few narrow, repetitious dimensions. Heather Rison came up with a way for artwork and patron to work together that is mechanically foolproof. She asks that the viewer take a photo of her painting — at one time a forbidden violation — and, on returning home again, play a piece of music while further contemplating the image. It’s not hard to imagine collaborators going through their entire music collection and more, seeing how their contribution makes Rison’s “Shine” look different, depending on the mood and lyrics of the songs they choose. Here, at least, control of the interaction is democratically determined.
In the unlikely event that none of these works does what’s desired, take comfort in knowing that at least 270 more can be found in Springville. Fans of Grant Wood may check out Peg Wheeler’s “Day of Gathering.” Lovers of large-bore whimsy may seek out Cassandra Barney’s “Trophies I Made for Myself.” Frank McEntire’s “Troublesome” celebrates the sublime beauty of a firefighter’s tool, even as it asks us to remember those who died in fast-moving fires driven by a changing climate. If this isn’t something for everyone, it comes close.
98th Annual Spring Salon, Springville Museum of Art, Springville, through July 2.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.