Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Twenty Artists Examine Our Common Predicament in Phillips Gallery Show

Liberty Blake, “Remnant Of Water,” collage on panel, 17 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.

Consider this familiar fact: we know that water arranges grains of sand more tightly together, so that when they dry, the sand has become solid, recalling the rock from which it was abraded. Pro sculptors, amateurs on holiday, and even children at play can carve the most remarkable things from it, but over stress it and it will crumble back into loose grains. This mirrors in brief the millions of years it took for ancient sands to become welded together into the almost indestructible Navajo Sandstone that helps make possible the cliffs and spires so emblematic of the West. For centuries of human passage, the desert’s often-crunchy surface was mistaken for such casually hardened sand, but about fifty years ago, signs began appearing in places like Arches National Monument, now one of America’s most popular National Parks, explaining that this was something altogether different. In fact, it’s the body of a living organism, Desert Crust, that constitutes one of the largest and most endangered living organisms on Earth: one we injure by our oblivious footfalls and destroy with our industry. It is this crust that Liberty Blake identifies at the heart of her “Tide Pool” series of collages. 

Water doesn’t just rise and fall with the ocean’s tides: it also moves vertically in soils, which is an essential factor in the lives of plants. The thin soil lining the rock pool Blake celebrates, which may lie dry and apparently lifeless for months or years, springs immediately to rich and complex life when a rare rainfall occurs. Such organisms, not unlike the salt-tolerant brine shrimp that drew Robert Smithson to build “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake — seen here in three of Ron Brown’s photographs — are adapted to live their life spans in hours or days, then leave their DNA to lie in the desiccated soil to await the next rain. 

Jean Arnold, “Intrepid Potash 1,” acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

Like every aspect of life on Earth, this ancient routine faces new challenges from humans who heedlessly walk through dry pools or wander off the trail into crusty soil. Even worse are the depredations of extractive industries. Those who have been to Dead Horse Point in recent years have no need of Jean Arnold’s title and statement in order to recognize her “Intrepid Potash Ponds,” a livid blue scar in the timeless red rock excavation carved out by the Colorado River as it sought a way to a sea it no longer reaches. There are two challenges for the mind to grasp in the place she depicts. One is that each year a billion gallons of water, two thirds of the area’s scarce supply, are consumed by this mining program. The other is the knowledge that this source of the mineral isn’t presently needed, but was found irresistible by those who saw an opportunity for profit otherwise perceived as going to waste beneath the land that covered it.

Humanity makes scant appearance in Our Fragile Ecosystem, which may reflect our hesitance to see ourselves implicated in it. Both Corinne Geertsen and Gini Pringle depict humans as clowns, though Pringle also lends a ghostly transparency to the woman in “Looking for the Lake,” a poignant reversal of the fate of a disappearing body of water. John Erickson’s “Bike” is meant to suggest a solution for some of what ails ecology, but the absence of a human agent may speak a greater, if ironic truth.  

Paul Vincent Bernard, “Tremblings,” oil on aluminum

Two contrasting themes primarily occupy Out Fragile Ecosystem. One is rock, which forms the muscular landscapes that have traditionally gleaned artistic attention, though it may be more accurately and characteristically seen in Paul Vincent Bernard’s penetrating views: “Tremblings” and “Beneath the Castle.” Recognizing that these geological events, like waterfalls and other attractions, are ultimately temporary allows seeing them more as  backdrops for the sand they become, which is the most common mineral on the Earth’s surface and which is captured in the gritty textures in Josanne Glass’s “El Desierto” and “Tormenta de Arena,” where the land bakes beneath a red hot sun. The latter title performs some linguistic alchemy, suggesting for English speakers the spectacle of combat as spectator sport, a public test between men, while its actual meaning, “sandstorm,” labels a far more commonplace challenge that confronts, and ought to unite, all the living things that constitute nature.

The other theme is the role of water, whether an abstraction, a visible presence, or an implicit, yet crucial partner in everything here. It plays its most integral role in Liberty Blake’s “Remnant of Water,” in which her precious, sought-after, and carefully allocated scraps of scavenged paper — characteristics shared with water in the desert — convey the littoral zone between the pool’s high-water mark and the dwindling traces that remain: recovery from the brink of oblivion and restoration into something precious, appropriate, and finally eloquent dramatically invoking the precise means by which life survives and reproduces itself in nature.

Downy Doxey-Marshall, “Taffy Pool,” oil on canvas, 36 x 32 in.

Downy Doxey-Marshall’s “Taffy Pool” exemplifies her long-standing foregrounding of open water as light’s enabling presence, best seen in the wetlands where life flourishes in contrast to its sparse presence nearby. Connie Borup, whose landscapes have always conjured intimate views of living places, has moved water’s edge to the center of works like “Lavender Openings” and “Tangled Reflections.” Like them, Tom Bettin’s works celebrate water by juxtaposing it with the plant life it makes possible. In a trio of innovative ceramic works she’s transferred from pedestal to wall, Heidi Moller Somson acknowledges the fresh perspective of water seen from above: long done by birds in flight, now done from drones and artificial satellites.

Water is presumed in Randee Levine’s not so much literal as literary presentations, while in Maureen O’Hara Ure’s whale’s tale, “True Story,” water assumes a narrative role. Jim Frazer captures the delicate fragility of ecological complexity in one of its briefest, but most noted achievements, while Hunter Jackson’s Icelandic photograph restores its primary mystery. Dan Toone’s giant teardrop could certainly fall for Wendy Van De Kamp bees, which are already victims of an agricultural indifference her images make all the harder to understand. Viewer’s might also struggle to imagine Kathy Minck’s smoky “Blocks of Sky” above Tom Howard’s “Spring City Canyon.”

Trent Alvey spontaneously evokes water in her monotype, “Trinity,” first by her fluid handling of the blue and yellow marks that structure it, then through the roiling and splashing abrasions that border and divide its dominant third color: black. Art today creates opportunities to make a variety of statements, and Alvey has used them all to reveal how she survived her radiation-pocked childhood in Sanpete County. Here she uses her statement’s words to attack plans to reproduce the radioactive proliferation that long ago befell her, which is now being proposed for infliction on a new generation of innocents. This time, instead of weapons, it’s in pursuit of another, even more dangerous, and still non-renewable source of energy: another water-guzzling technology being proposed for a land with not a drop to spare.

Trent Alvey, “Trinity,” monotype, 24 x 18 in.

The exhibition title, Our Fragile Ecosystem, displays a limit of language: it might imply that what’s under discussion belongs to us, when in fact we belong to it. Perhaps the only way anyone can see anything so essential as the truth about our living planet is a technique analogous to what artists call “Contour Drawing,” in which one fixates on the object to the complete exclusion of everything else, including the paper, the drawing instruments, and one’s self — own’s own hand — until the shape of the thing in question is visibly transferred to the page. What these twenty one artists have done, in works they’ve selected to represent what may be our closest approach to the comprehension of our predicament, is to look that long and hard at the delicate means that brought life into the Southwest, in heartfelt hope that it can somehow go on. 


Our Fragile Ecosystem, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Aug. 11

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