This month Kirby will be the featured artist at William’s Fine Art, in its new home at 132 E Street —in the F. Weixler Co Gallery, which sells furniture, rugs, and pottery, and now Williams’s personal collection of fine art and works by represented artists. The exhibition will feature 11 major paintings, 10 of which are new, of the utmost iconographic complexity and associated significance on a grand scale of very large and dazzlingly naif style hyper-charged with color and form as well as implicit meaningful significance.
“Family Portrait,” the single older painting in the exhibit, is one Kirby materialized at the age of twenty-one, and what solidified Kirby's desires to become a practicing artist. It might have been painted last week, though, since her aesthetic methodology as an artist has been so true from the beginning and remained so consistent. The painting is the very embodiment of eccentricity, but considering it was painted at twenty-one, this is reflective of a youth that eccentricity—and talent—only begin to describe.
Read compositionally, the painting has centrally a “rani,” an Indian princess, Kirby’s mother. She is dressed in a mint-green sheath exotically draping beyond full length with strands of pearls, a plumed mint green turban sitting monarchical on her royal blue Eero Saarinen “womb chair.” To her right sits a lady of luxury, Kirby’s younger sister, wearing a shift of leopard skin on a grand wicker chair with a Siamese cat at her side. A younger lady lounges inconspicuously to her right, Kirby’s youngest sister, with a decorative red and blue full-length shift with hair simplified to shape rather than to style. Beneath this trio is a magnificent oriental rug of the utmost quality dominated by violet and accentuated with stunning, colorful, stylized, graphic flora. Opposite is a young woman, Kirby herself. Her hair again a mere shape, she has the golden eye shadow of the sixties and wears a maxi of red with yellow stars. In her lap sits a white “magic” rabbit. Two other cats, a tabby and a black cat, are to her rear. To her rear left and towards the “rani” stands a prosperous looking aging gentleman, Kirby’s father, in his dressing robe. Garnishing the scene is a Tiffany & Co lampshade suspended above the “rani,” large decorative pots with tall palms and ferns filling all spaces, and from bottom left to bottom right arches a massive rainbow that touches the top centrally, ensconcing this most curious of compositions.
Every particular in this composition exists only as it relates to the other, from a dressing robe to the plumed turban, a “magic” rabbit in a lap to a grand Tiffany & Co lamp, a rainbow to a grandiose oriental rug, an almost imperceptible young girl in shift happy in her anonymity to the yellow eye-shadowed face, cats, cats, and more cats to ubiquitous palms and ferns. These relationships suggests an ironic humor that is a light spirited approach to life, an absurdity that is recognized and not only accepted but appreciated for its level of eccentricity, the complexity that are the dynamics of the personalities in the Kirby family, and essential beauty, which is an aim in all things especially art, a natural curiosity of this unique family, and finally wonderment, the very stuff of exoticism, eclecticism, and eccentricity.
The painting is a vibrant reflection of Kirby’s upbringing, which was anything but conventional. Her mother was intensively creative and her dad a writer. She traveled very much when young, crossing the country in a VW van, eventually settling in the home where she still lives today. The walls of what I term the “Crystalline Palace” — for its sheer magnificence and exoticism, its difference from everyday reality of Utah county, there being no home interior like it, anywhere — are now lined with Kirby’s paintings, where once they had been lined with Lee Deffebach’s and Don Olson’s and other. Kirby’s parents were not only great patrons and collectors of the art community but great friends of the great artists and the “Crystalline Palace” was the gathering place for the major artists of the time. Olson and Ralph Scholfield sat at the bar drinking with Kirby Sr., while Kirby Jr. strung beads with Deffebach. It was during one of these many bohemian gatherings, two-years from when Kirby painted “Family Portrait” that Olson said to her, “You know what you’re doing.”
Four decades later she continues to do it, producing one marvelously intricate and vibrant work after another. Her “Cat and Amaryllis” combines a realist twist of inventiveness, making the iconography expansive. What we first understand compositionally as a solid structure of iconographic form, in actuality features Kirby’s cat, set upon the tabletop that is directly in front of an older monumental composition as a backdrop. This realism that abstracts the reality of the composition can be related to a comparable trompe l’oeil effect, here presenting the three-dimensional and alive camouflaged against the two-dimensional very present being of art. The connectivity can be understood as affinity, as art for its own sake, as complement, and as dimension. The affinity is created when we view the presence of the cat after realizing what is being looked at, and are reconciled with its seamless presence, with the backdrop composition. For its own sake, Kirby is creating an inventive combination of painterly presentations that complement and resonate between each other making the work a far more sophisticated naïveism than the vast majority. This sophistication is only compounded by the reality of the living cat and the real art presence of the canvas and the dimension that is articulated between the two creates a conceptual symmetry that reflect and play one against the other.
“Artist Exposed,” one of her newer works, is perhaps less iconographically loaded than most of Kirby’s work, but as such, this iconography resonates boldly. The focus is on Kirby herself, at the bottom left, very exposed, standing stripped to the flesh and completely nude in an open field of grass. To the left is a full stubby tree loaded with blossoms with a snake coiled round it. Behind is the massive structure of the Salt Lake City Temple. In the distance an azure sky full of sinewy clouds looks over Ensign Peak, while in front the famous Lion House is depicted with every detail, and on the grass, closer to Kirby, is an ancestor of hers, a once wife of Brigham Young and a would-be suffragette.
Consider the nude and the field of grass, the sign reading “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and Kirby herself, and finally the Lion House and the ancestor. The nude and the field is a relationship of “otherness,” “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and Kirby is a relationship of “optimism,” the Lion House and the ancestor is a relationship of “tradition.” Thus we find that an artist such as Kirby who will forever be true and will never sell out will perpetually find herself in a state of otherness, this being something self-perceived, or an actuality that is certifiable, but there is optimism in the 20th to 21st century progression of the strength and position of women in this world where expression of this kind is not merely tolerated but greatly appreciated and admired for acute sensitivity and sensibility. And the tradition established prior to Kirby, not only that of Utah, but from Utah’s connection back to Classical Greece, it is a noble one where artists are given total freedom to express whatever is their artistic voice, the art world today being one of the strongest platforms for women to voice their inner being.
Another definitive and exciting piece, distinctively similar to “Family Portrait,” is ''Artist’s Last Supper.” Among the 20 icons represented, the major focus is on Coco Chanel, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, Andy Warhol, a Damian Hirst formaldehyde sculpture with shark, and Susan Kirby herself wearing a leopard shift. It is naïveism at its most obscure yet again… supercharged and ready to be explored for content. Coco Chanel and Bubbles is a relationship of quantifiable difference, the shark in formaldehyde and Warhol, post-Modernity, and Michael Jackson to Kirby, a relationship of complete and utter ironic detachment. Thus, one might read the significance in this painting as the timelessness of style meets the most archaic of being, the personification of naïve painting. Post-Modernity makes naïveism an allowable art form, to progress and advance, and the ironic detachment is part of the reality of Susan Kirby who, through the usage of the plurality via subjectivity manifested in the post-Modern paradigm, is able to express her thoughts, her dreams, her visions, her ideas, her loves, her passions, her sorrows, her pain, her inspirations, her every creative impulse, as well as her irritations.
That early Parisian epiphany continues to bear fruit in the works on exhibit this month at Williams Fine Art. Susan Kirby’s work has too much to express, too much to reveal about her for her art to be glanced over. With some careful attention to just what the subject might mean and consideration of the iconography that constitutes the parts to the whole, each masterful composition offers a wealth of meaning, a universe of understanding, and a sensitive and spirited vantage point on life as seen through the inner vision of Susan Kirby, unlike anybody else.
Gallery Spotlight: Salt Lake City
The New West on the Block
Modern West Fine Art opens on 2nd & 2nd
Salt Lake City boasts many diverse and culturally vibrant quarters—including Sugarhouse, the historic Avenues, and 9th and 9th. A new spot has now been added to this list. Conveniently located along Salt Lake City’s grid system, 200 South and 200 East is generating renewed attention due to the inclusion of a new gallery, Modern West Fine Art (MWFA). This intersection of streets is already home to Salt Lake’s most prominent contemporary art gallery, CUAC, and the Guthrie artist studios are across the street. The convenience of this location creates an apt juncture of life and culture in downtown Salt Lake City.
Modern West Fine Art is the brainchild of art collector and philanthropist Diane Stewart and curator Donna Poulton. The collaboration arose from a shared interest in not only Western art, but a desire to present it in a new and innovative fashion. As a passionate art lover, Stewart has amassed a large gathering of Western works over the years, eliciting various opportunities for Poulton to mine and curate her collection.
One such occasion occurred while Poulton worked as the Curator of Art of the American West at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, a position she held from 2006 to 2014. The two quickly realized their shared affinity for art of the American West. Modern West Fine Art was born from a desire to expand this visual trope. Stewart maintains that in order to understand the West as an artistic theme, one must first uncover the historical context that drove countless artists to gravitate towards this rich and continually diverse subject. Recognizing the visual history of the American West is a basis for understanding its contemporary manifestations. It is here that MWFA stands apart from its competitors—critically situating the West and its landscapes within the confines of contemporary artistic practice.
With this intention in mind, Stewart and Poulton solicited the help of Mark Hoeffling, a film set designer who helped implement their vision of a space steeped in both design and utility. The gallery manages to combine sleek sophistication with a comfortable environment. In the “Keva Room,” paintings are paired with a wooden coffee table dressed with jewelry and books and comfortable seating for guests to enjoy in between roaming the gallery space. Stewart describes this as an attempt to contextualize art in a domestic setting-allowing visitors to envision how art functions within the personal realm. This facet of the gallery’s design creates a more relaxed and comfortable locale for those wary of the typically sterile museum environment.
In addition to creating comfort within the gallery setting, Stewart and Poulton recognize the significance of their downtown location. The space was once home to the Salt Lake City Bicycle Company, who in an attempt to reduce their blueprint, moved to a smaller space. MWFA seized the opportunity to set up shop in the coveted corner of 2nd and 2nd, next door to CUAC. From the outset, the objective has been to create an active collaboration between the two institutions and to attract a larger congregation of downtown art seekers. The two galleries already plan to organize events simultaneously and have envisioned art fairs in the near future. Stewart cites the strong local reaction to CUAC, and the visibility of its street gallery as an indication that 2nd and 2nd has the potential to be a hub of artistic interaction, a walking quarter easily accessible to large and diverse sectors of Salt Lake’s population. The foot traffic alone has brought in new visitors to the gallery, which has attracted roughly 50 people per day since its opening.
While Stewart acknowledges the strength of various Utah galleries of Western art, she affirms that Modern West is exceptional in Salt Lake City. Through her extensive philanthropic contributions to Utah’s art scene, Stewart has assisted institutions in garnering artistic visions that may never have gained exposure otherwise. She acknowledges the difficulties of pushing art-related agendas through the state legislature, especially in times of economic stress. She upholds that, “Utah has a remarkable amount of talented artists and Salt Lake City has a population big enough to support galleries of diverse voices, indicating an exciting legacy to come.”
Stewart and Poulton sustain that Utah’s history is a rich palette by which to draw multiple artistic perspectives. By and large, Utah is excluded from the various hubs of Western art in the surrounding states of New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado. As such, MWFA attempts to include Utah within this conversation, and to confirm that commercial galleries are capable of facilitating an intellectual dialogue. MWFA is not concerned with promoting a particular agenda, but rather exposing the wonders of art to the largest possible audience. Artistic institutions are slowly changing national—and often internal—stereotypes of Utah as a shut off cultural bubble absent from a larger discourse of the American West. By exhibiting a range of voices and visual practices, MWFA is helping to create a more nuanced view of Utah as a culturally rich artistic landscape in its own right.
Gallery Spotlights: Ephraim & Torrey
The Granary Art Center and Gallery 24 in Torrey
Modern West Fine Art is not the only new gallery opening this month. After a year and a half of planning, coordinating, partnering, and building, the Granary Art Center will open on Friday, April 4 in the space formerly occupied by the Central Utah Art Center. The Granary Art Center has already been operating as a non-profit for months, providing workshops and school activities to the local community. This week's opening marks the beginning of their exhibition cycle, with a mix of contemporary and traditional exhibits, including local Kathleen Peterson, and an exhibit of works exploring Land and Place, curated by Laura Hurtado (see page 3).
And in Torrey, on April 11, Gallery 24 will begin its 2014 season with an exhibition of gallery regulars that takes advantage of an adjacent space for the display of more artwork. A Grand Opening reception will be held on Saturday, April 19 from 5 to 7 pm. Gallery 24 features contemporary southwest art, including painting, sculpture, jewelry, photography, and ceramics. The gallery is located at 135 E. Main Street in Torrey. Regular hours through October will be Friday through Monday from 11 to 5, or by special appointment.