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December 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 6    

Exhibition Review: Provo
Freedom From Fear
Norman Rockwell as America's Storyteller at BYU's Museum of Art

In response to the famed “Four Freedoms” speech given by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January, 1941, American painter Norman Rockwell created an iconic series of paintings by the same name (finished in 1943). The first painting, entitled Freedom of Speech, features a man engaged in offering a dissenting opinion to the prevailing views of those around him. Three other paintings completed the series: Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, each beloved by the public but collectively seen in a less favorable light by the artist himself. From a public standpoint, the entire series went on to be the four best-known paintings of all Rockwell’s works. Print reproductions of the paintings sold consistently throughout the war and well beyond. By the end of the 20th century, an estimated 25 million people had purchased Four Freedoms prints. Of course, Rockwell’s commercial success didn’t always translate to critical acclaim. In truth, most art critics dismissed Norman Rockwell as a lightweight. Meanwhile, the public demanded more Rockwell art.

The newly installed exhibit, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell at the BYU Museum of Art, (through February 13, 2016), showcases copies of all 323 covers the artist created for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963, as well as 50 Rockwell originals. These present a wider Rockwellian landscape than many fans of The Saturday Evening Post covers might expect.

While most visitors to American Chronicles rightly will expect to see many familiar paintings (Freedom from Want and the Post covers among them), others may feel surprised by a sampling of lesser-known works. One such example is the surprisingly tender portrayal of a clown named Pokey Joe in a smaller painting entitled “Checkers” (1929, oil on canvas). The clown, who fears he is no longer funny, holds court in front of several other circus companions who attempt to cheer him through a rigged outcome in a game of checkers. The scene is richly colored, yet subdued in mood and lighting. Pokey Joe looks at turns both regal and downcast in his central placement on the canvas. Although the painting served to illustrate a story in the Ladies Home Journal (as did several other pieces in this particular exhibit), it also shows a deeper nostalgia emerging from the artist’s happy childhood experiences at the circus.

As museum visitors watch a 10-minute preview video before entering the exhibit, they go on an armchair tour of Rockwell’s life and artistic sensibilities. When Norman Rockwell was a young boy, he spent most of his time in his native New York City. But in the summers, the Rockwell family often traveled to a farm in the country, where young Norman loved to observe and sketch those around him, carefully posing family members and animals before painting each scene. Later in life, Rockwell would capture each scene’s particulars on film before committing the scene to canvas. He also enjoyed showing his subjects how to strike the right poses, portray the appropriate emotions, and even make comical faces. At a young age, Rockwell had a knack for what art historians called “nostalgic observation.” But even he couldn’t yet observe what life had in store: that at the tender age of 17 he would become the youngest artist to illustrate for Boy’s Life magazine—or that he would create his first cover for The Saturday Evening Post just five years later.

As the title of this exhibit suggests, the order of the paintings proceeds from early works (sepia-toned paintings of Daniel Boone and Ichabod Crane among them), to more controversial works of the Civil Rights era. As the chronology progresses, museum patrons will find themselves in front of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln at his tall, lanky best, only to walk a few steps and find a collection of portraits and posters from the 1966 remake of the film Stagecoach (starring Ann-Margret, Red Buttons, Bing Crosby, Mike Connors, Slim Pickens, and other famous actors in their prime).

At its face, this carefully arranged juxtaposition merely highlights the variety to be had among Rockwell’s many commissions.  On a deeper level, however, this same juxtaposition contrasts the lighter, commercial fare with more profound works, such as the aforementioned Lincoln portrait and a stately but relaxed portrait of President Kennedy, sketched hastily by Rockwell during a one-hour sitting in the White House. The latter portrait would, all too soon, grace the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, after the president’s assassination.

All in all—from one painting to the next—Rockwell’s storytelling genius reigns supreme. Rockwell’s keen understanding of the human condition revealed itself early on, culminating later in life with his starker, less typical paintings of the Civil Rights movement. Unsurprisingly, it’s the latter paintings that reveal the true fearlessness of an artist critics once dubbed as “two dimensional” or an “unending cliché.”

Controversy accompanied Rockwell’s decisions to publish paintings of Civil Rights movement figures (shown near the end of the American Chronicles exhibit). By this point, the Post had severed ties with Rockwell on account of his increasingly controversial choice of subjects.

Arguably the best known of the Civil Rights era paintings is “The Problem We All Live With” (1964, oil on canvas), another iconic portrait. This time, the subject was 6-year-old Ruby Bridges on her way to a desegregated school, with two U.S. Deputy Marshalls leading the way and two walking behind Bridges. The remains of a smashed tomato appear on the wall behind the subject, as do two racial slurs. While the Post shunned publication of this painting, luckily the publishers of Look magazine felt bold enough to print a centerfold version of the painting in their January 14, 1964, issue.

Near the end of the Rockwell exhibit, the curators have placed the most disturbing—and therefore the most powerful—of Norman Rockwell’s later paintings: “Murder in Mississippi”(1965, oil on canvas). Some sources title this painting “Southern Justice,” after the article title that accompanied the painting’s reproduction in Look magazine’s June 29, 1965 issue. The American Chronicles exhibit purposely places this painting, along with its accompanying tear sheets and black-and-white photos, near the end of the exhibit. Visitors move quietly among the artifacts and the painting itself, confining themselves to whispers or complete silence. One nearby tear sheet features an expressionist painting (origins unknown) that Rockwell used as inspiration for the dark colors and stark feeling of the larger artwork. The painting itself portrays three young civil rights workers who were actively campaigning for the right of black citizens to vote in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. All three workers went missing, only to be found many weeks later, buried under a dam. The Ku Klux Klan later was found responsible for the murders.

Some art lovers may assume that Norman Rockwell painted only nostalgic, idealized themes in his paintings. While much of Rockwell’s output does indeed fit these themes, several key works move well beyond the ideal, as illustrated above. In the end, those who visit American Chronicles can content themselves that not all Rockwell’s stories are happy ones. Yes, Rockwell believed in the Four Freedoms, but his own life proves that freedom from fear may be best expressed by tackling life’s challenges head on, even in the face of controversy and rejection.

Gallery Spotlight: Ogden
Bella Muse Goes Uptown
Shanna Kunz and Elizabeth Robbins at ECAC

“The two local girls from Bella Muse” — as Ogden artists Shanna Kunz and Elizabeth Robbins describe themselves — are taking their art uptown, to the Eccles Community Art Center’s main gallery, for the month of December. A reception for the artists is Friday, December 4.

Kunz, who grew up in Ogden, sees this exhibit as a way of giving back to an arts organization that has supported her from the very beginning of her career. “My first exhibit was in the Eccles Carriage House Gallery,” she says. But the “giving” goes both ways. Exhibiting in the old Eccles mansion, especially during the festive holiday season, is an opportunity to draw attention to both artists’ downtown studio and gallery, Bella Muse, on the corner of 25th St. and Wall Ave., across from the train station.

For this exhibit Kunz and Robbins took most of their work from their own gallery, brought paintings back from some out-of-state galleries, and added some new work to hang at Eccles; about 50 paintings in all. Robbins’ classical romantic floral paintings and Kunz’s contemporary landscapes seem to complement the 1893 mansion once owned by the David Eccles family. In this traditional, historic, home setting, the paintings seem comfortable, right at home.

Kunz claims she doesn’t “have the patience for realism,” and prefers to think of her work as abstracted because of the design choices she makes about simplifying shapes and using a subtle, moody color palette. Yet, to the untrained eye, her work is “real.” It takes the viewer to a familiar place — a tree-lined, snow-covered road; a stream reflecting trees and marshes; a stand of aspens in the foothills. “I’m in love with the landscape because I spent so much time as a child watching my father fly fish,” she says. She works on several paintings at a time, patiently adding layer upon layer of glazes to achieve the mood she wants.

Robbins, on the other hand, paints “alla prima,” which means that she paints quickly and tries to finish a painting in a day, working with wet paint on top of wet paint. Her favorite subject, flowers, is inspired by her grandmothers, who taught her to love flowers and to grow them. “About 90 percent of my flower paintings are of flowers from my own garden,” says Robbins, who has about 70 rose bushes and grows countless other kinds of flowers. She brings the cut flowers into her studio, artfully arranges them with vases and other still-life objects, and paints them from life. Sometimes she photographs the arrangements so that she can continue to paint her own flowers through the winter.

Robbins calls her style “classical romanticism.” It has the Rembrandt-like focus on light and shadow, often with a dark background, which makes the lighting on the flowers all the more dramatic. Her flowers aren’t stiffly posed, but have a more casual attitude of abundance and love.

One thing the two artists share is an emotional connection to their subjects. Kunz calls this “authentic.” They paint what they love and believe the heart and soul that goes into their paintings will connect with their viewers. They’re not painting “what sells,” but they’ve learned that their paintings will sell to the viewer who recognizes and shares their emotional investment in their work.

Kunz and Robbins are longtime friends, but their relationship as studio mates and business partners is less than two years old. Robbins was a Salt Lake girl. After her husband passed away, Kunz suggested she move to Ogden. Robbins scoffed at the idea until Kunz called one day to say her neighbor had moved and the house was on the market. Somewhat reluctantly Robbins went to see it and discovered it was perfect. It had plenty of space to grow the flowers she needed for her paintings.

The life of a painter can be lonely, so the two women enjoyed going back and forth to each other’s home studios to share what they were working on and take breaks. One day while taking a break to walk their dogs, they began to fantasize about someday having a studio together.  “Let’s pretend,” started Kunz, and within two weeks a vision, scribbled on a napkin, led them to sign a lease on the perfect building on Historic 25th Street.

Bella Muse quickly evolved from studio space to studio plus art gallery. It was just too beautiful to keep all to themselves. The two artists, while happiest when they are painting, have another important goal. As Kunz explains, they want to educate Utahns about fine art and the caliber of artists right in their own backyard. To that end, the partners began inviting other local artists to exhibit at Bella Muse. In December, while much of their own work is at the Eccles, they will feature the paintings of Nancy Ness and the pottery of Salt Lake artist Ben Behunin. Each month they feature different artists and hold a reception during Gallery Strolls on the first Fridays of the month.

“We would like Ogden to realize how many unbelievable artists are in this area – from Salt Lake to Ogden,” says Kunz. “So much art is exported from Utah. It would be nice for people to know that it’s in their backyard; that they can support local artists and still get the best.”

Robbins points out that it’s hard to have your value recognized in your own backyard. There’s a feeling that a painting purchased in Jackson, Santa Fe, or Sun Valley must be better. But, says Robbins, there’s a good chance the painting the collector falls in love with in one of those art destinations came from a Utah artist. Robbins calls Utah one of the biggest art exporters in the country. "More gallery artists making representational art are from Utah than from anywhere else," she states.

Between their own Bella Muse gallery and this month’s exhibit at the Eccles, they hope their message will reach a broader audience of art lovers and collectors.

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