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December 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 4    

Statewide Annual . . . from page 1

Such discomfort feels entirely appropriate to our historical moment, and whether we enjoy it or find it distressing, the presence of innovative media primes the gallery to produce it. An artist may choose to exploit this unfamiliarity or seek to ease it somehow. “Dissonant Introspection” does a little of each, its humor balancing the potentially nightmarish implications of its Tardis-like interior full of mad machinery. Other artists make other choices. In approaching the landscape, Utah’s most popular subject, Brian Patterson uses high-definition video, soft focus, and generally smooth editing in “The One” to generate a sense of the rightness of nature’s unfolding through limitless time. Whether spiritual calm makes responsible preaching when half the world’s trees have been destroyed, and the rest are in imminent danger, remains to be seen; those who ask the question are likely to agree on an answer, while those who disagree may answer the question by not asking it. By comparison, Anna Laurie Mackay’s exquisite confections of photo letterpress, hand weaving on silk, and tissue paper eloquently express both how the living world feels and how it actually is. The living things she shows belong to a woven fabric as fragile as it is ineffable. “Ohio Blue #1” graphically locates life atop a weave as complex and interlocking as the real network that sustains it, standing on the compound feelings and desires it engenders in those who dwell with it. In “Heirloom #1,” the circle both invokes nostalgia and suggests a portal into another sensibility. Hanging next to them, as if to complete a triptych that spans two artists’ sensibilities, Jordan Layton’s “Untitled No. 2” uses six Polaroid emulsion lifts in a collage of perspectives reflecting the compound nature of truth. These are not new ideas, but new ways to rekindle awareness and feelings that may otherwise fade.

In theory, the Statewide Exhibition cycles through each medium once every three years, but in practice the criteria are broadly drawn, so that most arts could qualify in several years: the seven clay artists on display could have entered last year as sculptors and again this year in crafts. One way of telling a craftwork from a craft-inspired artwork is to check the title. Even though Susan Harris’ ingenious “Three Sided Jar,” with its architectural conceit, promises plentiful aesthetic pleasure, her descriptive title suggests she considers it functional. Juanita Marshall, on the other hand, probably meant her “Morning Meditation (Everyday Altars),” with its appeals in equal parts to child’s play and serious magic, to be contemplated more often than drunk from. Use of a title to distinguish a rhetorical statement from the generic photograph it could have remained also occurs in Daniel Everett’s satirical shot of a parking booth fronting an anonymous building. Its title, “Throughout the Universe in Perpetuity I,” invokes an increasingly common, grasping legal invention that strives to turn personal privacy into commercial property without compensation.

In general, this year’s exhibition differs from three years ago in the added presence of video and computer art, but not all differences are generic. Back then, Martha Diaz Adam’s photo portrait of Libyan immigrant Omima Khalat, a young woman in a headscarf and three-quarters profile that emphasize her large eyes and prominent nose, might have been taken for nothing more than a study of an ethnic type. Today, however, the firm resolve visible in her indirect gaze feels vulnerable, and cannot dispel concern for the future of this socially and politically active student in the face of resurgent American racism. Three years from now, such a “portrait” may have learned to display her substantial social-media footprint, possibly the largest of anyone connected with this exhibition.

Computers and video cameras—especially the cell-phone versions found in everyone’s pockets these days—are changing art along with everything else. Yet John Christopher Wallace’s “Subway” makes the case that there’s not much these new media can do that old-fashioned tools, like scissors and glue, powered by imagination, cannot match. A distant cousin to Peter Blake and Jann Haworth’s 1967 cover collage for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Subway” captures the nervous, discombobulating experience of working-class mass transit by building up an image from dozens of found pictures, employing devices like vanishing-point perspective and overlap known since the dawn of the Renaissance. Lapses of logic the eye detects are smoothed over in the brain the way we willingly turn the succession of still images in a film or video into the illusion of continuous motion. Other distinctions broken down here include the way Heidi Moller Somson’s bicycle inner tubes and Carol Sogard’s plastic bags transmogrify trash, from global curse to yearning promise.

To varying degrees, all art exploits pre-existing cultural experience, and the best art makes fresh and vigorous use of universal references. Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, showing at UMOCA, borrow such mundane fixtures as flags, door mats, pet toys, and canning jars to make powerful statements about life and death. Amy Jorgensen works in deliberate series, each of which employs particular materials and techniques: marshmallows are bitten, then mustered in ranks; photographs mimic crime scene snapshots; images of historically significant women become textiles in the timeless manner of women’s crafts, but blueprinted like patterns to be followed. One series that stands out centers on apples that she variously menaces, attacks, and often destroys, while in another she makes photographs without a camera, using film worn under her clothing and haphazardly exposed by her daily activity. Such works depend on the sort of external rationalizations—usually posted texts—that became fashionable among academic artists a few years ago, and also on commonly shared reactions to each subject. Some of the apple works are witty and border on brilliant, such as “Ten Second Apple,” in which Jorgensen mimics eating an apple in a photo booth while machine-timed exposures force her to consume the fruit with charming, self-mocking haste. Others, like “Marshmallow Test,” are arguably less successful alongside the original material they satirize, but are part of a trend toward art that exploits science’s visual impact while missing out on its rigor. There’s also the danger that subjective descriptions may sound like compulsory instructions: telling viewers what they should look for and find in the works. Still, “Far From the Tree,” a high definition video of the artist bobbing for apples, seen from the apples’ point of view, was chosen, not without reason, as this year’s “Best in Show.”

Most Americans have bobbed for apples at one time or another. For some, evidently, ducking one’s head under water proved traumatic. “Far From the Tree” counts on the response of this audience, generating commentaries in which the artist and her enthusiasts find a metaphor for waterboarding, a popular means by which the powerful gratuitously terrorize the powerless. Yet something like half of all Americans evidently cannot imagine being waterboarded, so much so that they refuse to agree that it should be classified as what it so clearly is: torture. So while it seems a stretch to go from a luminous tub of water, full of gay red apples, blonde streams of mermaid hair, and a comely, lipsticked mouth that doesn’t try very hard to bite anything, to waterboarding, there may be a case for the work’s efficacy after all. The video is captivating, and thanks to the small theater the artist has presciently provided for viewing it, far more involving than the usual gallery presentation on a TV or computer monitor. Yet for, say, a feckless, un-athletic youth in love with the solitude he found underwater, for whom bobbing for apples was that rare game he could win, no mere page of overwritten comparisons has any hope of making an arbitrarily negative linkage, however worthy the effort.

At the same time, the photographs Jorgensen calls ‘the Body Archive’ can be more beautiful and far more unsettling. ’02.19.13’ (titled by date) constitutes a highpoint in a body of work that never has been less than compelling. Appearing like a hole blown or burned through a protecting wall, bounded by an aureole that ranges from red and orange, through pink and purple, to a blue zone inhabited by perplexing surface features, the void beyond beckons with the ambiguity of a happy death. Furthermore, searching in the mind for analogs or lensless image sources beneath the artist’s imagined clothing leads to fully-formed erotic collisions with oneself, replete with mystery, fear, curiosity, and the complete complement of positive and negative sensations that float subliminally beneath the surface of the psyche. 

There’s always more in the gallery than can be captured in words. Julie de Haan’s “Magellan’s Cloud” plays with the mirror symmetry of the body, while Nikos Sawyer’s “Crane Chair” combines animal and furniture DNA. Apologies to those undeservedly left out, and hope that the reader will redress this failure in person.

Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake City
Home Lost and Found Again
Cheryl Sandoval's and Steps from the Reservation at Mestizo

Among my favorite qualities in art, two perennial activities stand out. One is drawing, an essential human activity that too often goes entirely under-appreciated, thought of as nothing more than the practiced trick of outlining visible forms. The fact that computers, with their mind-boggling computational powers, cannot recognize objects, let alone draw their outlines, should reveal some more accurate truths about this unique human ability. (That my cat recognizes her food entirely by smell, after being brought to nose distance by the sounds of preparation, argues that her impressively acute vision must operate on very different principles from mine.) But drawing, especially as practiced by someone like Jicarilla Apache-and-Navajo artist Cheryl Sandoval, who was born in Dulce, New Mexico, and separated from her family and reservation society when she left home to pursue an education, does so much more than limn a likeness. Her uniquely personal use of drawing brings me to my second enthusiasm: in drawing, the eye, mind, and hand take on power to transform what was merely detectable into something that can be felt and understood. How a particular artist forms the visible into the understandable and moving is akin to how we use language to create a far richer and more transparent parallel universe than the one we merely live in.

At first glance, Sandoval’s created world resembles the photographs she recounts painting from, modified in ways familiar from the works of many of today’s academically-trained artists, and very different from the Photo-Realism of the 1970s. Mary Sinner provides a recent comparison for 15 Bytes readers. Yet as Sandoval’s motives for working from photos are different from other artists’, so is her strategy. Where a member of most American subcultures can expect to find many ways of replacing lost or missing cultural references—books, movies, periodicals, and widely-shared personal accounts are all readily accessible sources for accounts ranging from immigrant tales, through growing up on the farm, to life on today’s big-city streets—someone raised on a reservation or in any one of hundreds of smaller-language groups has far fewer such resources. For Sandoval, then, photos comprise an invaluable means of access to her own past, her family’s life, and the essential content of her wider culture, while the process of painting from those photos leads her not only to look at them more closely, but to reflect on their meaning, questioning both those images and her own, very personal notions of collective values and ideals.

Results of this questioning are visible in her art, both systemically and specifically. Her color scheme owes less to the chemists at Kodak than to her memory of bright sun and high desert foliage: colors that should be familiar to Utah art audiences. A device she particularly seems to employ exploits visual artifacts from the age of film, when sprocket slippage could blur images by repeating them fragmentally. In the canvas “Parallels,” which appears to single out a figure also seen in the panel “Grandpa Julian Visits Home,” horizontal lines of light repeat vertically like multiple reflections or film frames, but the result feels more like bars separating a witness from the subject. Comparing the two contrasting representations of the woman, that on the panel seems to present her in a secondary role, as the object of the title character’s visit, while on the canvas she appears monumental, a study as much of an important social role as a particular individual.

In several other panels, the slippage is horizontal, allowing other comparisons to be made within a single canvas. This works particularly well in “Stepping Away from Home,” in which three repeated images of a young man cross the canvas from left to right, using the convention from writing to imply the simultaneous accumulations of physical distance and time, signifying cerebral and emotional distance and personal change. It’s a very complex idea, the complexity reflected here (and elsewhere throughout Steps from the Reservation) in myriad painterly passages. In the similarly subdivided “Speak No Evil, See No Evil,” Sandoval employs an ambiguity, leaving the viewer to decide whether the two side-by-side images represent two of the traditional three faces of the familiar homily, or it they repeat the same visage, implying a logical connection between the two prohibitions: speaking evil can exacerbate seeing evil.

These are the easiest instances to spot of how Sandoval expands her painter’s vocabulary. The two figures who share the frame of “Grandmother Knows Best” offer a paradoxical, but more subtle example. While the Grandmother holds the Child (who may represent the artist) in her arms, the way the background spills in between them like a veil and the difference in their color modeling suggests that more than one barrier may divide generations. More extreme instances show up in “Breaking Down Perceptions” and “Further Removed,” where the mechanism of abstraction serves to render graphically just how impalpably subtle cultural values really are. Anyone who’s ever rued not paying more attention to early influences and personal history once so easily accessible through older generations, but which were inadequately valued and eventually lost over time, may be able to sympathize with these frustrating representations of what feels so close, yet remains just beyond reach.

Until only a few years ago, a career in art still didn’t require a college degree or a resumé. Now the situation has changed, and not always for the best. Many BFA and MFA graduates emerge from school having learned to speak an art school patois that makes unintelligible nonsense of what they say about their art. All the more reason to appreciate how Sandoval, a BFA candidate at the U of U, not only demonstrates a sophisticated, multilevel technique of representation, but also the ability to explicate it coherently. For instance, she explains her use of light, transparent paint application alternating with heavy, opaque treatment as a way of representing experiences like loss and confusion. In a landscape, light layers may convey the powerful sunlight of her reservation home in the desert Southwest, while in a portrait or a figure, the same insubstantial application might elicit the sense of urgency felt while contemplating the passage of time and slipping away of the past. Then again, heavy paint can suggest the barriers to perception and connection, or the felt importance of mentors and loved ones threatened by change. Art always has been the most conservative of human activities: an attempt to preserve what would otherwise be lost in the spaces between one person and another. In Cheryl Sandoval, that dramatic and essential purpose comes alive more directly than her audience may be comfortable recognizing.

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