Exhibition Review: Salt Lake CityTo non-specialists, the timeline of art history is marked by long periods when nothing happens, punctuated by sudden expansion. About half a million years ago, our part-ape, part-human ancestors noticed that certain things—rocks, branches, bits of bone—resembled other things, like faces or the bodies of animals, and took to carrying them around as personal property, even having themselves buried with them. Much later, something like thirty thousand years ago, our cave-dwelling ancestors began to sculpt and paint such images deliberately, and fidelity to appearances became the principal goal. About a century ago, the hegemony of verisimilitude cracked, and artists began to pour through the breach, finding themselves in territory that came to be called Abstraction. As happens often in art nomenclature—‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ come to mind—a universal, even a defining quality of all art had its name hijacked for use as a narrow label, implying in this case that there is a work of art, somewhere, that is not abstract.
Starting from Scratch
Mark by Mark at Alice Gallery
The occasion for this reflection is a superb three-woman show at the Alice Gallery, a small annex attached to the Utah Division of Arts and Museums home office on South Temple. Here Al Denyer, Lydia Gravis, and K Stevenson (in alphabetical order) are showing a total of 21 mostly large drawings that, while they delight the senses, also make the cognitive point that even deliberately non-representational marks will, once a certain information density is achieved, permit eye and mind to project structure, organization, meaning, and aesthetic impact onto them. The escape into ‘abstraction’ leads back into representation, if only because that’s what our perceptual system seeks. On the way, though, we may enjoy a journey that begins from terra incognita, creates something that never previously existed, offers the suspense of placing ourselves in what we hope are the artist’s capable hands, and ideally ends with the satisfaction of ending up in a place that feels like we knew it all along.
Each of these three artists presents multiple distinct patterns of mark-making; each body of work contrasts as well with the other two. Yet what emerges is an impression of overall cohesion, far more so here than in many group shows, where despite a unifying theme, juxtaposition just exaggerates the disparate artists’ idiosyncrasies. Seeing why this is true is key to understanding one of the great strengths of what we must agree to call ‘abstract’ art. Comparing Mark by Mark with Spirit of Place (reviewed in our February 2014 edition), shown in February at Phillips Gallery, it becomes clear that traditional subjects like landscape foreground expression: how does this artist handle a known quantity? By contrast, placing abstractions side by side emphasizes their histories: the (similar) processes that brought them into being. Walking through the Alice Gallery, it seems almost as if we witness a single art taking shape, its impulse starting from scratch over there, augmenting itself along this wall, then coming to fullness right here. Each viewer may write a personal script for this adventure; what follows is only one possibility.
Although the most familiar of the three mark-makers, K Stevenson is better known for elaborately cerebral and sophisticated mixed media works built on architectonic frames. Her drawings, despite their elaborate surfaces, seem less evolved, if no less pleasing, than those hanging nearby. In them, she distills the thing that continues to make Jackson Pollock’s mature paintings interesting. Now that the hype over ‘action painting’ and his alleged ‘essentialism’ have lost their urgency, what Pollock seems to have discovered is a quintessential modern subject: the interpenetration of material reality and our perception of it by elaborate networks, some of which are real, inhering qualities, while others are as contextual as thought. Looking at Pollock in the 1950s, precocious viewers saw neural pathways; looking back today, we see hints of the World Wide Web. In “Uncertainty is still more beautiful, fissure #2,” Stevenson’s tense, urgent lines refuse to yield prominence to the geometric shapes they outline. We see them extending only a short way into the imaginary space of the page, but drawn across the surface as if going on forever, like a textile or a crystalline lattice. While they might carry ideas, they seem more basic: feelings, moods, connected to the texture of being and awareness. In the “Tangle untangle, tend untend” series, the lines are more circular and surrender to the forms they outline, which sometimes resemble aquatic life forms, while at others they feel like diagrams of crowd behavior or alien landscapes that, though seen for the first time, reveal familiar qualities. Throughout, her use of color separates blocks or levels, while making the overall surface more lively.
Lydia Gravis, who works primarily in this graphic format, suggests the same impulse, perhaps even the same artist, but further along on her project—like a neoclassicist who has decided to reintroduce some of the messy emotional qualities her earlier work had foregone. Where Stevenson permits only small variations in her line quality, in Emergence Gravis overlays large tracts of horizontal lines with isolated, dense clusters of figurative scribbling, lending a greater feeling of depth. In “The Trajectory of Smoke and Mirrors,” smudged lines retreat like shadows, while sharply defined, almost chiseled lines advance, creating a cloud with even more depth. Three drawings done on black are as sophisticated as drawing gets, with light lines modeling luminous forms that float in dark, evocative spaces. “It’s Complicated” inverts “The Trajectory of Smoke and Mirrors,” while vertical elements in “Inscape” bring gravity back into the picture. “Reveal” climaxes this direction, with its soft coil that spirals deep into space as it turns in on itself, alternately filled with and embraced by trailing tendrils that impart a sense of motion and unknown drama. Clusters of minuscule objects resolve into veils that flutter in its wake. Throughout, the pillow-like forms she has produced in the past, so much like stones embedded in and emerging from a sandy river bottom, have given way to a less determined, more generously evocative effect.
Stevenson and Gravis both teach at Weber State. Al Denyer teaches at U of U, so those who rarely stray outside Salt Lake may be more familiar with her work. She also shows frequently, including filling the main room at Finch Lane and splitting the Kayo Gallery with Sandy Brunvand. Over these years, the unmistakable evolution of her process has played out in public, before her audience’s eyes. She is alone here in bypassing the contrast of figure against ground, instead making marks so dense they all but replace the surfaces she works on. In this way, her drawings recall pre-modern oil paintings.
Denyer’s early drawings looked like, and were titled after, riparian systems seen as only modern eyes have seen them: from high above the Earth. There being fewer structural choices in the world than materials to choose them, these patterns sometimes suggest other instances of liquid delivery-and-removal systems: brain and eye tissues, the areolae of leaves. Fans of Denyer’s black-on-black or gold-on-black works will find here that with the addition of more colors, her surfaces have become thicker, both in illusion and in fact. In “Pristine Lakes VIII,” red pencil as rich as velvet generates a tactile sense of high relief, while the serpentine remains of original surface recall the way the surface of water, unified by physical principles, becomes like a continuous mirror. Think of aerial films of Spiral Jetty, with the sun’s reflection leaping from one arc of water to the next as the camera swoops past. In “Pristine Lakes X,” the red has retreated until it dots the surface of a corrugated landscape, like ponds isolated from drainage that begins nearby. A couple of drawings, titled “Purple Surface I & II,” and some studies of the Barents Sea represent a shift from how water contours land to how the environment in turn contours bodies of water. Here again, analogues come to mind: the wrinkles of animal skin are unsurprisingly akin to the skin of land and water. But it’s sufficient to focus just on one of the most prevalent, familiar, breathtakingly beautiful, endangered, and—oh, yes—so far as we know, unique formal patterns in this universe: the movement of water as it penetrates, undercuts, and moves over matter. Which is to say, the essential animation of all life.
Exhibition Spotlights: Salt Lake City
Jimmi Toro at Urban Arts Gallery
If you haven’t figured out what “urban art” is, or thought it was just skateboards, skulls, and graffiti, please see the Jimmi Toro exhibition at the Urban Arts Gallery in Salt Lake City’s Gateway Mall. It may dramatically elevate your earlier perceptions.
Toro, winner of the top award in last year’s Park City Arts Festival, believes the only way to really become an artist is to be prolific. All the academic or other training you acquire may have value, but you won’t find your own voice as an artist until you’ve put in 20,000 – 30,000 hours. This exhibit not only demonstrates where Toro is today, creatively speaking, but where he’s been along the way.
One whole wall is devoted to a kind of timeline of Toro’s artistic journey, from early exercises in drawing accurately, anatomical studies, and graphic design to his first explorations in abstraction with an emphasis on line, pattern, and color. Certainly fellow artists will appreciate this autobiographical lesson, but it is also an education for the casual or serious art collector. Why does a painting cost $7,000, or more or less? It’s not just the size and the cost of materials and labor; it’s all those 30,000 hours it took to be able to produce it.
The main exhibit is some 70 paintings from several different bodies of work sharing a common visual language. Toro’s work is mostly portraits of people, though there is also a collection of bulls and a few paintings that seem entirely abstract. Oh, and a motorcycle. One collection of paintings interprets in paint, Toro-style, photographic portraits by local photographers. Another collection translates Toro’s own song lyrics into visual language. And another collection, honoring collectors who don’t have thousands to spend, fills a wall with 10-inch square portraits, which go together so nicely, it could be one large work of art.
Much of Toro’s 30,000 hours of preparation for this point in time was spent on drawing the human form and faces. He can capture a likeness as well as the photographers whose work hangs beside his interpretations in the exhibit. But he chooses to abstract the face into planes of different values, or lines delineating planes or value patterns. Despite the abstraction, the likeness is there, along with the beauty of the subject and expressive application of the paint.
In fact, beauty seems to be at the core of Toro’s aesthetic. He notes that in his music, which he writes, performs, and records, he also wants to align with goodness and beauty. “There’s too much negative messaging in music,” he says. “Not that there isn’t also love and good things, but that’s the direction I’m going.”
One painting, “The Face of Being,” interprets his song about children who are not recognized as someone special. The text beside the painting ends with “May they find their own seat in their own house; may they find their own heaven.” The painting shows a face covered by chaos. But rather than taking his work in an emotionally dark or literal direction, Toro’s use of line and color produces a more uplifting feeling inviting the viewer to reflect on the connection between words and image.
Toro’s work clearly shows the influence of his background as a graphic designer working for ad agencies to sell products. However, as a fine artist he doesn’t have to sell something or convince anyone of anything; he can “create just to create.” He’d rather inspire than convince.
While his work may be a bit reminiscent of pop art in its graphic quality, bold color, and, in some ways, appropriation of the cultural norm of beauty, his style is his own. Another part of his 30,000 hours of practice has been invested in process: how to make oil paint flow off the end of a spoon with just the right amount of control or lack of control. He needs that chaotic, uncontrolled part of the process to unravel him from the realism and accuracy that is second nature. Yet, he needs some control to accomplish the likeness that he wants to capture in a portrait and the beauty that goes with it.
He seems to alternate between wild improvisation, allowing black lines, thick and thin, to wander around and off the edge of the panel, and deliberate pattern-making with circles and other shapes that require a very steady hand; another product of those thousands of hours of practice.
Toro often works from photographs and may start with a few pencil lines on the panel to establish the perspective and proportion of his subject. But his color palette for each painting is improvised. One color calls for the next, he explains. Though intuitive in nature, that, too, is a skill acquired through thousands of hours of practice.
This notion of the 20,000 to 30,000 hours needed for artists to develop their unique style is Toro’s expansion of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” theme. Gladwell’s research revealed that the stars in any field, from athletes to scientists, have typically invested 10,000 hours or more to achieve their expertise. Toro asserts the bar is higher for artists, which is why his advice to emerging artists is always, “Be prolific.”
Toro believes an artist’s evolution doesn’t stop after 30,000 hours; in fact it never stops. An experimental process may lead to ideas for new subject; a new subject for a series may call for experiments in new processes. So this is where Toro is today, but check back in five years and see where evolution has taken him. Right now he’s contemplating a new series of paintings for a summer exhibit in San Diego.
Toro is delighted to be working with the Utah Arts Alliance as a board member and to be able to help the Urban Arts Gallery redefine their mission. His show is the first solo show the gallery has offered thus far.