Don't Read This . . . from page 1
After graduating from BYU, Aundrea Frahm went on to study in Chicago and show a wide range of works in New York and Prague. In her installations, performances, and videos, she investigates perception as it occurs over time. Perhaps her most clever work is Impermanence, in which 2,264 photos taken in 2013 are arranged in the familiar Mac interface—think of all your album covers or selfies parading like books on a shelf across the desktop from right to left, each pausing briefly at the center of the screen. While it’s possible to pause and study these thumbnails, their individual inconsequentiality combines with the speed of scanning to suggest the flickering by of life’s parade and the way even significant moments subside into memory. In her installations and performances, meanwhile, eggs represent life’s transitions: briefly a daughter, then awhile a mother. In addition to building installations around them, she has cooked and served them as part of a performance.
BYU Professor Gary Barton pursues a narrower range of materials, usually in traditional media like painting and printmaking, but he uses them in ways that rupture rather than reinforce the past. His crisply drawn abstract paintings affect the look of collage, one of the 20th century’s premier contributions to art. This layered, mixed media effect becomes even more pronounced in his prints, which give rise to boxes containing imagery in multiple levels. It’s become a cliché to refer boxes back to Joseph Cornell, but Barton’s feel more like scientific displays than Cornell’s, which were inspired by boardwalk vending machines.
Another member of BYU’s art faculty, Joe Ostraff’s reticent canvases often suggest inscription in unknown languages: a field of outlined hexagons or circles exhibiting non-sequential variations, not unlike so many unreadable symbols comprising such a text. His artist’s books similarly foreground the sequential character of bound pages and cumulative transmission. Plant and animal forms recall the struggle of lexicographers to see past those perceptive images of wildlife, keeping them from seeing that Mayan glyphs represented sounds spelling out words, rather than depicting their subjects. The way the title A2Z is formatted might conceal its literal meaning from an observer, but the resemblance to a two-page spread in an open book is unmistakable.
In his paintings, Salt Lake resident Justin Wheatley idealizes the natural or manmade environment, scenes constructed in vanishing point-free perspective and rendered without local details. This schematic version of the visible world works like an X-ray, revealing an underlying psychological or spiritual tension. In his mixed media representation of urban Salt Lake City, on the other hand, the gritty realism of photographed street scenes is interrupted and challenged by graphic color bars where otherworldly rules apply. It is in his 3-D works that he picks up the gauntlet thrown down by Contemporary Art, pushing his technique almost into kitsch, tearing visual field apart from representational matrix, leaving content floating free like a parallel universe wherein it shares the same space as the artwork, but with little interaction. This split is heightened almost to madness by coincidences between the shapes of the ”canvases” and the loosely distributed subject matter. In "Sidewise," part of Don’t Read This, Wheatley crosses his mixed media and 3-D approaches, using a photo of the library and replacing the color bars with fragmented letters, while the textured ground of his 3-D technique presents a tactile as well as visual experience.
Having graduated Magna cum Laude from BYU, Linnie Brown became one of Utah’s more prolific painters, to which she adds numerous public projects and works done with her K-12 students. Recently what excites her is collaboration with her father, Marinus Wolf, an unusual team effort in that, while they agree up front on a theme, they work independently, seeing the result only when both are finished. In a possible portent of Don’t Read This, they explored the visual qualities of crossword puzzles, making pairs of paintings where, in each pair, one image encodes the clue while the other painter attempts the answer. ‘Not good to run one’ is answered on the next panel by ‘Fever,’ while ‘Leave port’ begets ‘Sail.’ While these colorful pairings don’t employ letter forms per se, they feel ready to embrace them. Additionally, her former mechanical engineer father’s bold line and clean patterns, made into flat planes like early Cubism, contrast with her collage-like canvases, pieced together harmoniously from a riot of textures and shapes that convey perceptual complexity and challenge direct reading. Where he shows the plan, she gives us awareness unfiltered.
One fellow artist mentioned frequently by the artists in Don’t Read This is Namon Bills, an influential colleague who has helped build their sense of community by curating collective exhibitions of their works. He also displays atypical intellectual gravitas; in spite of his often playful images—or perhaps as a complement to them—he likes to cite the philosopher Hegel’s emphasis on synthesis. For Bills, this means combining multiple mediums, but also resolving issues of positive and negative space, representation versus other approaches, and of course attention to the balance of content and form. In a series of drawings done a few years ago, he sought to integrate classical Egyptian portraits with birds and non-mimetic symbols like letters and numbers. In the upcoming Don’t Read This he takes a direct approach to the theme, breaking texts down into fragments that almost disappear into harmonious collages built from their sources.
If there’s a paradox here—a challenge to the collective theme—it might be the presence of Nick Stephens, who has quoted a colleague’s assertion that all art should ‘glorify God.’ Spirituality is one staple of art, but religions often view the real world as a mystery that is revealed in a holy text that the faithful need help in reading. Dogmatic statements, such as ones begging ‘all art should . . .’ are staples of a point of view that holds truth to precede its coming into being. This reliance on text seems to conflict with asking artists and audience alike not to prefer word to image. Stephens employs a multi media, figure and ground technique built on a kind of grid, like the ultimate reality the faithful believe underlies, and often clashes with, the misleading surface of the physical world. One of the more intriguing questions in advance of Don’t Read This will be to see whether and how Stephens handles this dilemma.
Many of Marcel Duchamp’s innovations became popular with artists by the end of the 20th century: installation, performance, found art, and wrapped objects are among the tropes of today’s art that can be traced back to him. His less popular ideas took control away from the artist: random and arbitrary choices required a surrender that artists found hard to accept. Randal Marsh, who focuses on how art evolves over time, departs radically from the dominant, genius-centered paradigm of post-renaissance art. Not so much creating art as creating systems that generate art doesn’t prevent his having a lot of control over the final product, but the self-referential quality of the works lends them an ironic quality and makes him seem to belong particularly in the present moment.
As a nation, we seem to have arrived at a moment in history when civility—what George Orwell likened to the mortar that holds the bricks of society together—is in short supply. Utah is one of the few places where we feel we can still hold a civil conversation. But what if that’s just an illusion, possible because we all share a smattering of words, a few powerful concepts? When, for example, our public figures speak, do we focus on key words and phrases that excite us, rather than open our minds to flaws in the speaker’s reasoning? Do certain specific words frustrate the intuitive ability to understand a text accurately? Does listening this way produce not only a dangerously literal-minded listener, but a credulous one as well? Contemporary Art often has an activist’s agenda, asking viewers to think about social and political questions. Don’t Read This seeks to promote contemplation of a broader issue, asking us to reflect on how we look at and react to more than just art. The uncertain hope that artists in general, and these eight artists in particular, have something helpful to say on the matter makes this one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the new year.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
In the Beginning Was the Word
[con]text at the UMFA
The current exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) has a deceptive title: [con]text could lead one to believe there is some sort of trickery at work, a deception, a con. But this exhibit is the real deal, an inviting array of linguistic imagery, culled from the museum’s permanent collection that whets one’s appetite for an art seen so infrequently in Utah. Text is a means for artists to bare their souls in a way that visual imagery cannot do on its own and the combination of text and imagery allows so much more for viewers to take away from the museum experience. The history of text and writing is extensive. And significant. Before there was text, there were pictures, before the printing press there was calligraphy, before desktop publishing there was hand-set type. This exhibition draws on all these forms to create a wonderful treat for art lovers in Utah.
One of the beautiful things about small university museums that actually collect art is the stash of objects hidden from the public. We viewers know something is hidden away in boxes and flat files in the museum’s alcoves and it is up to the curators to bring them to light. In [con]text Whitney Tassie satisfies our curiosity. As visitors step into the exhibition, they are immediately greeted by the late John Cage’s layered Plexiglas sculptures titled Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel that combine silkscreened fragments of text, portraits and shapes melded together visually to create a layered depth of meaning and storytelling. It is up to the viewer to piece together the words “MAL” with “WAR” “ING” “DR” to come up with a pre-existing narrative or to create a narrative of their own. Created in 1969, these Plexigram sculptures fill the room with meaning, stories and ideas during a time of Letraset type and the plastic fantastic generation of the 1960s and ’70s. The layered sculptures could also be read as musical scores guiding certain musical sounds with bright pink, dark red, and white. The flipping and twisting of the shapes in space might represent the language, dancing or singing as it moves through space/time and is absorbed by the listener/viewer. Although this sculpture was created well after the oldest piece in the show (a Fifth Dynasty 2494 B.C. Egyptian wall relief), Cage’s sculpture provides the roots for the exhibition, establishing the viewers within a realm of textual, artistic history.
The beginning of an art exhibit sets the tone for the rest of the show, and the photography of Craig Law, former professor of Photography at Utah State University takes us back to the beginning of the Americas, before colonization to the beauty of dream people who live on the walls of The Great Gallery in southern Utah. The storytellers no longer live their daily lives among these images, but their stories remain, carefully painted onto cliffs and brought to the public with the photographic skill of a revered Utah photographer.
Great photography speckles the show and the work of Patrick Nagatani and Bruce Nauman make small but impactful appearances in the exhibition. Nauman’s neon “War/Raw” sign lights up the dark background in his play on words. If you flip the word War you get the word Raw. It is up to the viewer to come connect the meanings of the words. Is War Raw? Or the viewer can say the words out loud, sounding a bit like a lion… either way, the photograph is beautifully executed and the reflective quality makes the image appear as if it might be hanging in the window of a Chinese restaurant, on a darkened city street. Nagatani’s print references the staged work of Japanese archaeologist Ryoichi. “Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 22, 1988 (Ryoichi’s Journal)” is a beautiful photograph of vertical Japanese text taken from an anthropologist’s journal. The pages appear to be smudged with water and bring to mind the journey that Ryoichi had while completing his excavations: did the water come from tears, was the journal dropped into the Rio Grande?
Also from the Southwest is a Navajo blanket with the words “HAT MEIXCAN” woven in black and white amongst a pattern of diamonds and lines. Initially, we read the word Mexican Hat, but there is clearly a misspelling and perhaps a misunderstanding. And Luis Jimenez’s “Sodbuster” is a depiction of hard work, and perhaps the colorful lives of the people who moved to America to work in agriculture, and combines words and imagery that takes us back to the agricultural roots along the Rio Grande.
The wall of Robert Rauschenberg prints guides viewers through the gallery like a dark brooding city night with slight signs of angles and images that haunt the gallery visitors as they study the evolution of text/art. Rauschenberg created these prints of the Surface series from pieces clipped from newspapers and magazines in the 1970s during a time of great American political upheaval. The colors represent not only the idea of text within the medium of newspapers, but are also a stark reminder of the difficulty and challenges facing advocates for social justice in today’s America.
Among the older objects on display are textual works from East and West. Included in this magnificent exhibition are illuminated manuscripts excellently displayed recto/verso. One could spend hours looking at these pages from history and studying their mysterious writing and beautiful illustration. From the other side of the world, a Japanese scroll depicts a twisting and contorted fish with calligraphy that takes us away from the European American tradition of Helvetica and San Serif type created for the press. Japanese calligraphy, which evolved from the Chinese, began as pictogram carvings on bones, and today is one of the most highly revered writing systems in the world. The letters and words are often displayed as art objects in and of themselves.
Amazingly, the evolution of the text in this exhibit builds to absolutely stunning prints by Lee Bontecou. This sculptor is known for her twisting and turning sculptures that hang from space like alien ships. To see these translated into etching and Aquatint prints is quite a treat. The Bontecou prints were created in collaboration with Tony Towle and are titled “Fifth Stone, Sixth Stone” in reference to the lithographic process that Bontecou used to inspire these prints three years later. One of the pleasures of text art is that the initial visual quality of the work is accompanied with text that takes time to evolve in cohort with the visual imagery.
At the end of the exhibition we are led to a chalkboard drawing by Willie Cole, who gives us a written description of America through the eyes of a black American, or perhaps the eyes of a student trying to understand the [con]text of his academic training. Words such as “Amazing”, “Monitor”, “Equal” and “Representation” are derived from the word “AMERICA”. These words then become sentences such as “A Marginally Effective Remedy is Equally Approved” As we read these words, we develop a sense of this artist’s interpretation of what American academics is teaching students. It is a grim reminder that education revolves more around ideas such as “interstate” than equality and it is also telling us things that we may have forgotten: the first art student in this country was an African-American slave by the name of Scipio Moorehead in the 1700s.
Do yourself a favor, visit this exhibit and take a short and sweet journey through the history of text in visual art. There is SO much being said you might be surprised to find yourself knocking at the door of the UMFA more than once to enjoy this wonderful exhibit, on display through July 26.