Abstraction broke onto the art landscape of different countries at different times, but often as a response to disillusionment with the narrative art relied on previous knowledge of religious or mythical stories. Instead, abstraction provided a totally self-referential possibility, where an artist created their own code of line, form, color, and material, with their own identity dictating the direction of the abstraction. As the materials for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition puts it, “abstraction was about honesty — pure paint on canvas, free from illusion and artifice.” Art supposedly broke out of the need to serve a single social and cultural class of elites, aiming for communication with the universal human being. In Abstract is just a word, but I use it: A Survey of Abstraction in Utah, abstract artists bend media and concepts to create artistic syntax. The group show provides a breadth of talent that shows a wide range of practices in abstraction in the state today.
The first take on abstracting is on the gallery floor itself: lines of adhesive material snake around and up in “Monday Morning, Front Room.” Each of the colored adhesive lines represents the path of one member of Kelly Brooks’s family. Brooks’ technique abstracts her family’s movements around her house, using a pen, paper, and the blind contouring technique. She keeps the pen on the paper while watching, and the lengths of lines and pools of color correspond to time a person pauses. She’s been collecting these maps of family movements for 12 years. Brooks project is reminiscent of filmmaker Richard Linklater’s movie experiments, some featuring his own family, shot over decades. The difference between adult and child is visually expressed in both. Brooks’s line work asks us to remember the different ways we moved as children. The kids’ lines on the gallery floor skitter around at times, linger for ages at others. There’s more purpose in the adult paths, bee-lining for some important project or previous object. Looking down, you remember the feeling of wandering in your own childhood home. The shared experience, between the viewer and artist, is a sign of abstraction working as a translation effectively.
Brooks’ bright color palette is echoed around the main gallery room at UMOCA. The brightness and polyethylene-age quality of color is used both by 2D and 3D artists. On one wall, Peter Everett layers neon pink, red, black, and light green to create a beast that vibrates in “The Devil in My Dreams.” Here, the post-war chemical color can happily divorce itself from subject and become a language of feeling. Everett describes his paintings as showing the liminal places: border regions between sleep and wakefulness. In “White Out,” his second of three works, he uses the same layered line technique to create a background buzz of yellow strokes with dark brown marks and pops of white on the surface, looks like the popping of colors and patterns you can see on the inside of your eyelids.
Everett works with color to abstract feelings or moments that look very “now.” The intense brightness of acrylic and spray paints came with the manufacture of chemicals that ramped up in the 1970s. The pushing of color made graffiti and other street art possible, which have inspired several of the artists in A Survey of Abstraction in Utah.
Pico de Gallo and Jonathan Frioux call their work graffiti-like and they draw heavily on the aesthetic of hand-drawn Mexican signs, often found at markets. Colorful lettering that says “CocoMango” is visible on one strip of a painting, with “$130 pesos” in black Sharpie at the bottom. The streaks of color and scrambled words evoke the roadside stalls you stop at when driving through southern California or visit a market in a Latin American square. The language isn’t Spanish or English, as the show’s introduction says: “In a way, they have created their own coded language within the broader use of the term abstraction, in their own individualized dialect.” While both de Gallo and Frioux mention Latin heritage, their work also exists in the third space of the art world, where the abstraction in this non-place allows for inspection of the associations we have with our pasts and the cultures we live in.
From larger cultural identity to the most intimate experiences of artists within their homes and family, the exhibition presents abstract work that gives form to the seemingly inexpressible. One artist, Art Morrill, derives inspiration from the pain and difficulty of seeing his son undergo and recover from open heart surgery. In “Graft 2,” dozens of pieces of thinly cut cardboard form a jagged base layer onto which smooth, painted pieces of wood are attached. Light pink pieces of wood — criss-crossed with red, vein-like lines — have been sewn together into the shape of an anatomical heart. The floss sutchers break the clean puzzle-like assemblage, reflecting the brutal physical intervention of surgical tools on the human body. The same techniques are present in “Graft 1” but smoothed, oblong pieces of wood under more sutchered sections look like ribs or other bones and rounded red bits below resemble muscle fiber close up. These allow viewers to rethink the relationship between different parts of the body, bringing the fragile materiality our bodies, and the bodies of those we love, into focus.
Also viscerally imposing, the neon plastics of Cara Krebs’ giant, multi-material sculptures — she lists acetate, charcoal, bread, pulsing electroluminescent wire as media for “Whitebread” — give us textures viewers don’t often get to see in the gallery, abstracted into form or textural statements. A mass of colorful congealed worms pulsates in “Plum YUM Feeding Response.” The blob of invertebrates is spangled in glitter and ironically, this sparkle draws the viewer over to the work like the fish the original manufacturers had in mind. These dark plastic lures, used by fishermen in the objects’ utilitarian lives, are also never found on quite this scale. On a gallery wall, the gleam of the plastic wriggling in a mass gets its punch back. Krebs continues this play with abstraction and material in “untitled (bejeweled cheese).” The sculpture has a fleshy silicone body colored in a fatty yellow. Plastic diamonds are stuck into this glistening mass on the wall, the plastic surface reflecting the gallery lights. The unusual and unappetizing creation pulls you from one expectation to another, showing that contemporary artists can still make the usual bend towards the uncanny.
But even more subtle works like Hyunmee Lee’s deftly rendered acrylic “Inland Island No. 52” get across their roots in how the abstraction of language creation works, and how the act is one of humans’ fundamental creative potentials. Born in Seoul, Korea, Lee was trained in calligraphy and painting. The light yellow paint covers dark lines like a palimpsest. The streaks of paint covering the canvas in different thicknesses and shapes draws attention to the way that language transmission is dependent on the human and material interface.
Each of the many artists featured in Possibilities of the Abstract ask questions of the concept and history of abstraction that push pass the typical show of abstract art. Together, this survey brings together thoughtful approaches to how abstraction can translate what often gets lost in translation.
Abstraction is just a word but I use it: A Survey of Abstraction in Utah, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, through Jan. 4, 2020.
Hannah McBeth studied art history, classics, and Mediterranean archaeology before getting a Master’s at Cambridge University. She enjoys writing, hiking, and traveling to far-off places. Follow her on Twitter @hannahmcbee.