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January 2014
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 3   

Steven Stradley. . . from page 1

“My paintings come out of my love/hate relationship with Modernism,” says artist Steven Stradley. “Modernism pigeon-holed itself, I think. [Clement] Greenberg pigeon-holed it as he had all of those ideas about painting as a flat surface, ideas about painting super-imposed upon the work that maybe did not involve the work itself.” Stradley is in his St. George studio, where he is preparing for an upcoming exhibit at CUAC in Salt Lake City. Close up, what Stradley is working on seems to come out of a Greenbergian handbook: stripes of flat color, one laid next to the other. Pull back, though, and you see that Stradley is painting this on a long narrow panel that spans two walls, a hint at the type of expansive Modernism Stradley is exploring in his current work.

A Utah native, Stradley did his undergraduate work at Utah State University, studying with Chris Terry, Jane Catlin, Woody Shepherd and Koichi Yamamoto.  After graduating in 2006, he moved to Salt Lake City, where he threw himself into the local scene. He held monthly critique sessions at his home, an opportunity to continue the group camaraderie and theoretical discussions he enjoyed in school, and he was involved in a couple dozen shows in just a few years.

“As a painter, earlier on, I was interested in how to take painting from just an image on canvas and think of it as a painterly installation,” he says of some of these first exhibitions. For the 2008 State Street Project, he created a 434-panel piece of mixed media works, “about the experience of ubiquity in travel, for example contradictory states of stimulation and monotony while on the road.”|2|  In Systemic Profiles, an exhibit he curated in 2009 and that featured himself, Randy Marsh, Barbara Frasier and Carrie Wardle, he was interested in how 2-D mediums could transcend their traditional flat mode to engage in a site-specific, fully enclosed installation space (see our review in the December 2009 edition of 15 Bytes). Elements of Stradley’s paintings—cellular forms connected by straight lines—emerged from the paintings to become free-hanging sculptures that filled the space between the paintings.|3|

For the past three years, Stradley has been at graduate school at Michigan State University, a period in which he says he “came back to the idea of painting as the core.” He became interested in the collision between Greenberg’s idea of Modernism and what was actually happening with the artists of the time. “There was a bubble there that popped,” he says, “and out of that you have people who start to explore that rupture.”

Stradley’s recent work explores that rupture with a slightly askance view.  “Normally, in talking about Modernism, you have a more structured idea of Modernism being about the universal, about the total image,” he says. “And this actually becomes a really heroic thing when you see Pollock or a Newman or a Rothko, even an early Rauschenberg, and it’s all about the heroic nature of painting.” By contrast, Stradley paints around corners and edges and baseboards of a given space, making himself a sort of anti-hero, one whose work does not dominate and overwhelm a space, but investigates its structure, shining light into the corners.

What Stradley does is nothing like a beginning heading towards an end, but a Modernist-like consideration of the space given, and an application of structure to comply with that space with the greatest utility. In the process, Stradley creates a frame-like flow of line comprised of color, pattern, texture and abstract form that pays much attention to the periphery, that skeletal space that exists between joints, and, also, beyond the painted structure and into the wall space, set off by a painted peripheral border, itself becoming a work of art.  The room thusly becomes a fully embodied painting in the literal sense. 

Stradley describes his painting process as organic, as an exploration. “I paint right on the wall,” he says. “I get more information in the painting process than I do the painting itself.” In the work he is creating for CUAC, he aims to draw attention to the architecture of the space by the placement of his painting. “If I can just think of the periphery of the space and pay attention to this space we don’t normally focus on, and there is a painting there, than all of a sudden the architecture is heightened, the sense of being in that space and a sense of what that painting is doing and the sense of being of that painting.”

His primary structures formatted within the periphery generate meaning and give equal measure of meaning to the space of interior periphery. The peripheries of the sites for his installations capture his attention and become his subjective vantage point. This attention to the ignored, the cast off, is not new to Stradley, who used to incorporate small found objects in his work for interest and texture. “The literal structure of the painting is realized in the periphery because here is the optimal space, this painting wraps the space,” he says. “It gives the idea of conforming to the architecture and gauging the architectural space as a site specific piece, and at this point, it comes from the idea of installation.”

Many of Stradley’s fragments look and function like a Tetris game, and one recognizes change when a piece shoots out, or by the voids created when pieces are conspicuously left out. “There is structure in meaning, not just formal structure, but taking formal structure and also things that have meaning or context,” says the artist. There is play in form and meaning but the literality should be within the artist’s sphere of reference, limited to a few choice, impassioned subjects: these might be conditions of societal freedoms, art-related phenomena, self-perpetuating form, the idea of narrative and temporality, or the absolute or arbitrariness of structure itself. These meanings are translated into his work, assuming multiple layers of compositional form compounded with universal meanings implied by the form; thus the narrative is never definite but one that can build and rebuild moment to moment, fragment to fragment—a self-perpetuating narrative.

Stradley’s levels of meaning work with the physicality of his forms: for example, a turn in a corner and a transfer of large rectangular structure to a more delicate and fragile network of line might indicate a paradigm shift from objective abstraction to the reality of subjective abstraction, this made more articulate as the first has a distinct color composition that gives way to another equally distinct composition—the possibilities for play and exploration become exciting and limitless. Stradley’s works act both as a frame for the space they inhabit and as a work in itself; they lead the viewer in a visual journey full of possible narratives.

Stradley’s own narrative brought him back to Utah this year. After applying for numerous jobs across the country, he took one at the Tuacahn High School for Performing Arts in St. George. He says he finds it ironic to be back here in Utah, but he’s enjoying it. “It is nice to be closer to home and again engage in the art scene that I love while attempting to bring a greater contemporary perspective to St. George,” he says. And he enjoys teaching, something that brings him back to his own college days, and those critique sessions held at his Salt Lake home. “I find that teaching intrinsically ties in with the creative process I deal with on a daily basis.  It ultimately fuels my studio process to discuss art ideas with students and engage in their creativity.”

That studio practice is very active this month as this dedicated artist and teacher prepares for his CUAC exhibit. It should provide ample evidence that painting is the ruling force in his art and be a reflection of a penetrating mind that thinks deeply and broadly, exploring the fresh illumination that occurs in the periphery.

Stephanie Leitch . . . from page 1

What, then, can be said about the direct impact of Untitled Apogee? It nearly fills the Projects Gallery, so that only a perilously narrow space is left around it, yet it is mostly made up of unenclosed—if physically inaccessible—space. Leitch makes that space eloquent, a metaphor of itself, especially once the floor, made of white limestone sand contained in shallow wooden trays, is recognized to be a map of the State of Utah. Spaciousness may well be Utah’s premiere quality: the one thing sought in common by so many of its pilgrims. And if the ground is Utah, the ceiling—white fabric molded into cloud-like shapes—initially suggests a cloudy sky. So an inch at the floor, and a couple of feet overhead, and connecting these two planes, measuring the distance without filling it, are hundreds of red lines. Each emerges from the ceiling, in the process drawing down an inverted cloth cone, then travels through space in parallel with all the others, and disappears into a dark circle, not unlike the ring of a target, set in the sand.

Each of these three elements plays its own mysterious role. Anyone who would like them to remain mysterious, at least until they have a chance to ponder them, would be wise to skip not only the curator’s card on the adjacent wall, but premature contact through the review published in the City Weekly, which readers of the 15 Bytes blog were directed to, and parts of this review. Also avoid the comments of the artist, despite her being regarded as authoritative on the work’s correct meaning. After all, that is only one way to think about art. A work of art is not the best, nor even a particularly good way, to make a precise statement, and a case can be made that it’s better to view the artist not as an author, but as an instigator. She starts the game, and then everyone gets to play. Not her ball; not her rules. That way, as circumstances change, the work can be seen to evolve over time, and it can have at least a shot at lasting relevance . . . or even immortality. There is no such thing as a masterpiece that means exactly to us what it did to its original audience, let alone to its creator.

The lines are where the action is. Their color recalls the chalked string used by builders to ‘snap’ mark a line on their architectural projects. As one walks around the work, these lines do indeed snap, setting off retinal POPs as they pass before and behind each other. Standing close, looking up or down, they seem to converge, generating a sense of scale. Their presence in the work mirrors their presence in the mind: two dimensional, disembodied emblems of distance, together they reveal the fact of space. It must have been insanely difficult for Leitch to arrange these lines so perfectly, matching their origins in the ceiling to their destinations in the sand (or vice versa, if you prefer), using their lengths to contour the fabric. The pleasure her accomplishment produces has something to do with its being rare in the world outside the gallery.

Well, then, what about the fabric ceiling? Clouds remain a viable reading, in which case the strings resemble rain. No wonder the floor is sand: these few hundred traces do not exaggerate the paucity of Utah precipitation. Then again, while the underside of the fabric is all that can be seen, the mind willingly conjures the upper side: the concave surface hidden from view. That side suggests a relief map of the valleys that make Utah habitable. No matter how much we like to contemplate the majestic mountains, it is the low places between them that beckon to us, as they also do the strings. These are plausible readings, but do they offer as much pleasure to the reasoning mind as the total does to the senses? Looking longer, looking again at the two large planes, congruent but unalike in character, and the hundreds of lines that transfix their details, something else comes to mind. That would be the sets of linked maps found in geography texts, that in turn plot topography, politics, agriculture, resources, and so forth. In brief, these two parts, the flat floor and the baroque ceiling, might represent the same two-dimensional area, their contrasting meanings pinned together by lines that give physical form to the concepts underlying the whole cerebral catalog of the real-world models we call maps.


Of course few savvy, cultured humans can resist the lure of a secret key to the unknown and mysterious, so most of us will succumb to that card on the wall. Here we are told that the six-hundred-plus points indicated by red lines are, in fact, the plotted locations of LDS houses of worship, while the lines take their cues from church steeples. While simple enough facts to be clever, we must presume these are supplied on the card because they were not encoded in the work itself. The black rings in the sand don’t suggest churches; they suggest what they are: holes. ‘Apogee’ means the highest point in an orbit, but if anything, the strings represent perigees, the points where the heavens come closest to earth. When it’s not trying to force-feed a reading not self-evident in the work, the card is erroneous, ungrammatical, or incoherent. It confuses Utah State with Utah Valley; refers to the ‘local culture’ of Salt Lake City, as if it also has a remote culture; it contrasts three overlapping categories: images, architecture, and reality; invokes ‘the space between construction and gravity;’ uses ‘negotiate’ to characterize the paths of straight lines; and finally, credits Untitled Apogee with revealing ‘the tension between the ground plane and its limits.’

The problem here is not that this is badly written. Its author probably has an advanced degree, having read those critical texts arguing that art writing must not, under any circumstances, be apprehensible by reason. The problem is that it is well written for its purpose, which is to intimidate readers and cause them to accept certain counterintuitive positions. One, the trivial one, is that Untitled Apogee is entirely, only, and uniquely about the position of the LDS Church in Utah, as intended. The second, more insidious idea it wants to enforce is that only the curator, and by extension the text, the card the curator writes, can lead us to the correct understanding of the art of our times. The idea that what is in the work, its content, is already ours, before the work exists and before we see it in the work, apparently trivializes the present day’s notion of art. Instead of making evident things we have already glimpsed, putting them in the picture, so to speak, artists must be geniuses who have seen what lies beyond our ken. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the artist; perhaps we are only being asked to accept that the curator knows better and sees more deeply than we do. And of course, among those paying a price is Stephanie Leitch, whose evocative and sensuous installation could play many roles in many viewer’s minds, but is required instead to labor for a living.

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