Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake City
The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art has become one of Salt Lake City’s most reliable venues for the art of our time, and its ambitious program, combined with the number and variety of its galleries, can challenge the capacity of the local art press. As this is being written, four small shows have been shoehorned into the spaces between UMOCA’s Main and Street Galleries. While they could easily be overlooked, each presents an artist of international scope that Utah’s art community should be grateful to see.
Modified photographs by Stefan Lesueur
Stefan Lesueur’s Obscura hangs in the hallway near the back of the upper floor, juxtaposed with the view, through the glass wall opposite, of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler’s monumental (in subject matter as well as scope) retrospective, Grandma’s Cupboard (see our review here). Not in the least coincidental, this placement of Obscura draws attention to the relation between these two bodies of work. Lesueur’s photographic perspective essentially reverses Ericson and Ziegler’s lifelong look at America’s monuments—Washington, D.C., the national parks, Mount Rushmore, the battlefields of Texas, even Old Glory—and gazes back at Americans while they behold these spectacular sights through the viewfinders of their cameras. Unlike, say, Robert Lakstigala, who toured the country 30 years ago, standing at the back of packs of tourists and photographing them as they photographed the Statue of Liberty and similar sights, Lesueur has meticulously removed the context of each of his large prints, so the details that surround his tourists become negative space, white paper that shapes the figures in their touring attire and backpacks, holding cameras through which they don’t so much see their country’s monuments as accumulate proof: “I was there in person. I saw this myself.” Indeed, what differentiates their photos from any other, often far better shots of Canyonlands, Cannon Beach, or Yellowstone, is who took them, which is what they exist to prove. In essence, Stefan Lesueur has captured the historical moment between the post-Kodak Brownie democratization of photography during the digital age, and the onslaught of the selfie, when everything, even the most imperishable monuments, became mere background to our selves.
Ben Gaulon wants you to Corrupt. Yourself.
Shelley, given like all Romantic poets to overstatement, wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Two centuries later, Auden replied that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Presuming that what they said of poetry can stand for all of art, their argument addresses the essential question of what is popularly called “contemporary art:” can, and more crucially, should art even attempt to influence the erratic course of human events. In Corrupt.Yourself, three works in which he explores the aesthetic possibilities of what is here identified as “the glitch,” French artist Ben Gaulon asks that question and offers two answers. Yes, however slight the impact, art can provide a means of recycling today’s digital technology: defunct computers, cell phones, Kindles, and so forth, can turn into objects worthy of contemplation, even if they can no longer perform the tasks for which they were built. Second, and far more promising, they point the way to a new human cerebral adventure: exploring the accidental products of misfiring information-processing circuitry.
“Refunct Modular” runs long one side wall like a classic architectural frieze, but this one made of components salvaged from unknown electronic devices. Tiny, flickering video screens; meters with hands that swing back and forth from black zone to red, across now-meaningless numbers; a humming cooling fan; a hard drive with its busy sensor jumping back and forth as it seeks some mysterious data; tiny noises from tiny speakers; and yards of colorful wiring wind their way along the wall, as hard at work in their way as the bands of hunters chasing their game, or warrior armies clashing, or garden flowers and animals that cavorted in bas-relief along past centuries’ ornamental walls. For one sitting nearby, this slightly frenetic activity is paradoxically calming, as though reassuring that all is well, that necessary tasks are getting done in the background, where presumably they belong. Along the opposite wall hangs “Kindle Glitched,” eighteen antique Kindles displaying frozen screens on which the intended images are interrupted by accidental patterns of lines and fields, each a marvel of random plaid collaging, or a perspective illusion of intervening space, or instructions for the former operator that alone survived into obsolescence. On the end wall, the title video is projected, showing the real potential of the glitch as scene after scene of conventional video is casually and haphazardly mangled into a cerebral soup that is far more entertaining, and arguably more nourishing, than the source components.
In the twentieth century, the curious and adventuresome could turn on two radios set to different stations, or turn a TV on its side, or find other ways to introduce random noise into deliberate attempts at communication. Ben Gaulon, and his collaborator Martial Geoffe-Rouland, have shown how today’s digital machines, once their original purposes have been taken over by newer, perhaps better machines, can provide more sophisticated versions of this abstracting activity—dare one say this neo-musical compositional pursuit—of breaking down our information to expose and recombine its DNA.
Word (and Picture) Jazz from Filmmaker Tyrone Davies
Tyrone Davies’ In Camera comprises more than a dozen television sets arranged in deliberate, symmetrical spatial compositions around an altar-like pair that much of the time places an image of religious meditation in close proximity to a giant sports arena. Symbolism noted. All the sets are playing, a few facing the wall so that their light reflects into the space, two facing each other as though engaged in the sort of dialogue that excludes eavesdroppers, but most of them flashing out a constantly changing electronic palimpsest of images and variously synchronous sounds that mix cacophonously in the air, challenging gallery visitors and staff alike to either pay the requisite attention, or flee. Images freeze for moments at a time; then change suddenly. Split screens on one set are abetted by two adjacent sets elsewhere. Some soundtracks accompany the wrong image, so that dialogue accompanying the action goes in and out of sync without making any sense. From time to time a talking head cuts through the noise and captures the viewer’s attention, but is soon replaced by something else.
A viewer might consume this like a smorgasbord: one of those “all you can eat” restaurants that support the gambling industry in Las Vegas. Wander from one visual to another, listen here and there, and emerge with a sense of the senselessness of all media. But of course, this in no way provides an accurate impression of media, neither of the 300 television series currently available on the many networks competing for the browsing eyeball, nor of the Internet’s endless menu of attentively-arrayed porn, nor of the universal encyclopedia of human character and action increasingly made available at any time and in any place. Any library, treated to a similar fragmentation and presented simultaneously would make humanitie’s great wisdom and scientific knowledge similarly nonsensical. It’s true that many sources contradict each other, and casual exposure to conflicting information can lead to confusion, even madness, but this latest high-tech effort to make the point feels facile rather than deep, alarmist in place of alarming. In fact, the exhibition depends entirely too much on the statement that accompanies it, which points out connections allegedly made between the leading 20th-century Existentialist philosophers and writers and popular entertainment. What Davies perhaps doesn’t know is how those connections would probably have delighted Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and more, who would have seen in them proof of the universality of their foremost perceptions.
Adrift in a Sea of Undertanding: Jean Richardson
Longtime followers of UMOCA, going back to the days when it was called the Salt Lake Art Center, have known to check out the room all but hidden in the back, at the northeast corner of the large, downstairs gallery. Here gems often can be found: small collections of works that appeal to the cognoscenti, or videos irresistible to those who prefer to sit in the dark and let an artist’s vision have its way with them. Currently, it’s the scene of Scottish artist Jean Richardson’s Every Now and Then I Fall Apart, an installation that surrounds itself with a cloud of wordplay—“a poetic metaphor for the longing to find the familiar within the unfamiliar while simultaneously seeking out the unfamiliar to detach from the familiar”—wrapped around some baffling artifacts and an airy video, even as it refuses to yield an explanation or solid answers. A professor of Performance Art might be expected to give it a low grade for its failure to clarify what happened on an unknown date, in an unidentified sea, or why the life preservers lying on the floor in front of the video screen have various names written on them: Johnson, Henderson, the initial G. Most perplexing is the text written on the floor in white, all-capital letters:
THERE IS A POTENTIAL FOR BUOYANCY LOSS DEPENDING ON HOW THIS DEVICE IS USED AND CARED FOR. THE IN-WATER PERFORMANCE OF THIS DEVICE SHOULD BE TESTED AT THE BEGINNING OF EACH SEASON TO DETERMINE THAT IT PROVIDES ADEQUATE PERSONAL FLOTATION.
It’s a mystery. But is Richardson guilty of mystification? The enigmatic, where science hasn’t a lot to offer, has always been the proper dwelling place of art. The proper question is whether gnomic expressions, those that encourage, and even require, an audience to speculate about meaning, should be preferred to the vogue for art wherein the artist lectures the audience from research or demonstrates potentially superior knowledge, no matter that the goal may be to generate a sense of solidarity with enlightened viewers already in agreement. The wealth of diverting options available in today’s culture can lead to a sense of lost purpose—How can we think about pleasure when something may be dying?—and so make anything that doesn’t address emergencies like ecology and terrorism seem trifling. But then along comes the artist, afloat on the sea in her photograph that accompanies Every Now and Then I Fall Apart, her fragile-yet-intrepid raft of spliced-together buoyancy devices also seen rising and falling on the open waves in the video shot from a bird’s-eye view, and sooner or later the metaphor comes clear: water quite appropriately stands for the reality we pit ourselves against, and that challenges us in turn; and our beliefs, even in what we know, are also a “buoyancy device,” requiring regular examination, reflection, reconsideration.
It remains for each person to decide whether this is what Richardson evokes with her collection of “objects . . . carefully chosen both for their arbitrary meaning and their personal significance.” Suffice it for the critic to point out that she reaches all the way back in art to Surrealism, in prehistory to theories that early humans drifted about on the world’s waters, and in the dark of the gallery to faith that what feels confusing may be evidence that will lead to understanding.
|Picturing the Iconic . . . from page 1
But imagery takes precedent over medium in this exhibition. The first image to greet visitors, hanging on an introductory wall a few feet from KAC's entrance, is a print of the Statue of Liberty by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Recent political events have reminded us of the negotiable power of such symbols. When the debate over Syrian refugees exploded after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Lady Liberty was held up as a symbol of our country’s long-standing welcoming of “poor huddled masses,” without distinction for country of origin. And she was invoked to refute those who demanded that, from places like Iraq and Syria, we only accept Christian refugees — as a recent book by Edward Berenson has pointed out, the Mother of Exiles was originally conceived as an Arab peasant: Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s statue was designed as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal, and only became the goddess of liberty when that proposal failed.
As part of the same debate, a Virginia mayor recently cited the internment of American citizens of Japanese origins during World War II as a precedent for how we might deal with Middle Eastern refugees, and even American citizens of Middle Eastern origins. Roger Shimomura’s beguilingly simple painting “American Soldier” seems an appropriate response, both to the ignoble historic precedent cited by the mayor, and the intellectually suspect reasoning that would imprison tens of thousands for fear of a few. The acrylic painting is executed in a markedly flat manner, as if it could be a screenprint. The soldier of the title is decked out in a classic olive drab uniform and cap, and framed by a nondescript, dark background. He is bespectacled and smiling, the only clues about his identity the uniform and his facial features, which suggest an Asian background (Japanese, one assumes, based on the artist's surname). The uniform itself is the icon, transforming whoever inhabits it. Without it, the subject might have found himself in an internment camp, but wrapped in the symbolic cloth, he immediately becomes a patriot, "one of us."
An icon is an image imbued with power. The term originally comes from religious paintings, which some believe to have supernatural, intercessory powers, and which have been venerated for centuries by the faithful. They also were manipulated for centuries by the powerful. Politicians have always understood the power of the image, which is why ancient rulers emblazoned their effigy on their currencies: the magic aura of money became synonymous with the power of the ruler. In our own, democratic era, we think it good form to wait until a leader is safely in the grave before we put their face on bills or coins. And we feel a slight discomfort when a politician's image becomes too iconic. Think of Shepard Fairey's 2007 portrait of Barack Obama (a gold print of the Hope poster is here)— it was probably too effective a campaign image, becoming so iconic that it turned into fodder for Obama's opponents, who wanted to portray him as a dictator.
This malleable quality of the icon, its ability to be celebrated but also be subverted, is one of the reasons it is has such a potent draw for many of these artists. Using the generally genteel form of the black paper cutout, along with racial stereotypes she finds in historical sources, Kara Walker subverts the iconic in a form of sneak attack that proves a more effective rhetorical device than any direct charge. A quick, sideways glance at her long, cinematic "The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts" generates feelings of nostalgia, warmth and comfort. We associate the cutouts with safe, literary experiences from a bygone era. A closer look, however, reveals disturbing imagery, such as a top-hatted gentleman holding a young black girl by her neck.
Willie Cole's pictorial strategy is related, though much more oblique. Local observers may recognize Cole as the creator of “How Do You Spell America,” a piece purchased by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 2007, featuring socially charged wordplay using the word "America" on a traditional blackboard. Cole uses readymade objects both as artistic ends and artistic means. His "Steam'n Hot," one of the few sculptural pieces in the exhibit, combines an upright iron with feathers to create a dynamic juxtaposition between the natural and the humanmade, the hard and the soft, the dangerous and the reassuring. In his "Five Beauties Rising" series, two of which are on display here, he uses old ironing boards (run over by cars and trucks to ensure a flat surface) as a printmaking matrix, to create evocative images that call to mind the domestic — they are named for individuals in Cole's family who worked as domestic servants — as well as the political — the prints create ghostly images that call to mind slaving ships. The nostalgic aura of these simple domestic devices is turned into powerfully layered images that are not soon forgotten.
Nostalgia appears throughout the exhibit. Icons, after all, usually need time to accrue meaning and power. Robert Cottingham's 2009 "American Signs: STAR" evokes the neon signs of the mid-century that have become a potent part of the American vernacular. Edward Ruscha's "Mocha Standard" calls to mind the same era, with the sleek designs of service stations that sprouted up along the newly created Interstate system in the 1950s. Mark Bennett creates playful architectural renderings for the imagined living spaces of television characters from the '60s, '70s and '80s. The homes of the Flintstones and Jeannie appear here (the Bradys and others appear in BYU's No Place Like Home exhibit).
One person’s icon may be another’s cliché. That is, an image we think of as iconic may be brimming with power; yet, because of its very ubiquity, the same image may become emptied of its strength, worn thin, hackneyed. While the term cliché now principally resides in literary realms, its French usage — it’s the sound a camera makes when snapping a photo — reveals its origin in the visual. An image can be powerful and moving at its first creation, but by the time it has been reprinted and repackaged generation after generation, it loses its potency. Take the "Mona Lisa," for instance. Or another work by da Vinci, "The Last Supper," which appears twice in Picturing the Iconic, most notably in Jim Riswold's work, where the iconic scene has been reduced to a paint-by-numbers exercise.
The painters, printmakers and sculptors who came of artistic age in the mid- 20th century were very conscious of the primacy of the visual image, as it rode on a wave of popularity in the form of ubiquitous glossy-image magazines and the advent of television (they could have no idea of the tsunami that would crash onto our visual consciousness in the age of the Internet). These artists became attuned to how the commodified image was overtaking the primacy of the written word and incorporated this understanding in their visual discourse. Robert Rauschenberg created hedonistic mishmashes of mass-produced images in his prints, paintings and assemblages — Budweiser cans and Betty Boop take the place formerly occupied by Madonnas and holy grails.
Andy Warhol was the most successful of these artists, able in his early works—before he began worrying about turning himself into an icon—to elevate the mundane consumer products that surrounded him, like soup cans and boxes of Brillo pads, into icons for an age of mass reproduction and mass consumption. His prints of Campbell’s soup cans from 1968 will be one of the first works visitors recognize in the exhibit, because it is an image (or series of images) that has become one of the most iconic artworks of the last half century. We know this because, like any good icon, Warhol's soup can has become fodder for imitation and mutation by subsequent generations of artists. Utah's own Ed Bateman, for instance, took Warhol’s conceit and added a touch of local flavor when he created a Campbell’s soup can print with the label spelled out in the Deseret Alphabet. At the Kimball, Enrique Chagoya’s “Pyramid Scheme” riffs on Warhol's legacy in its own way, inverting the Campbell’s red to green, and changing the brand to "Cannibulls." Stacked in a four-tier pyramid are flavors like “Ponzi Chowder,” “Stimulus Minestrone” and “Bailout Bisque.” This derivative work will never attain the power of the original, but it does confirm its iconic status.