Thursday, December 5, 2013

Is Modesty Culture only Skin Deep? Photographs by Katrina Barker Anderson.

               Not since Arnold Friberg painted the Queen of England has a Mormon artist made so many inroads onto the international stage. On Nov 28, an article in HuffPost Canada featured Salt Lake City photographer and artist, Katrina Barker Anderson. Barker Anderson is the brainchild behind ‘Mormon Women Bare’ – a photography project and website showcasing Mormon women in their birthday suits. The works not only feature nude Mormon women, but champion the notion of their imperfect and unidealized natural bodies. Ravaged by pregnancy, genes, time and gravity, we encounter the female form in all its shapes and sizes: twisted, torn and beautiful. The works are about as honest and forthright as one can get.
              The artist, along with her sitters, seek to ‘reclaim the body’ against the shackles of the beauty, fashion and sports industries, which impose unattainable ideals onto girls and women. This places Barker Anderson’s work squarely among other feminist artists throughout the world, (from Paula Modersohn-Becker to Jenny Saville and Jen Davis) who have addressed similar deamons, such that by now, the genre is quite saturated.
              Truly groundbreaking is how Barker Anderson’s work diverges from her contemporaries and predecessors, by specifically targeting LDS ‘modesty culture.’ According to her website and well-crafted artist’s statement, modesty culture instills a sense of shame and self-doubt onto Mormon girls and women, and permeates college campusses as much as self-narratives. By voluntarily participating in the photographer’s project, declaring their bodies to be ‘beautiful, strong and resilient,’ the sitters upend the above equation, and adhere to a litany of women who have made similar statements of empowerment. In the context of Mormonism, the risk of censure - and ex-communication – is tangible, and makes their courage all the more moving.

              In Utah, modesty culture has many ugly heads. Among them is the tendency to lump ALL nudes together, and dismiss them all as pornographic. After all, it was not so long ago that the BYU Museum of Art allowed for August Rodin’s internationally beloved sculture The Kiss to be censored with a bed sheet during a travelling show. I encountered similar attitudes at the University of Utah, when I lectured on the subject of ‘Nudes in Art’, and tried to explore what viewers could learn from other naked bodies, besides pornography.
            Modesty culture is also promulgated by our secular institutions; it would be unfortunate if we did not see Barker Anderson’s work supported by the UMFA, BYU or LDS Museum, nor reviewed in the ever-shrinking Tribune, or 15 Bytes. Institutional chasteness only promotes a vicious cycle, and keeps Utahns ignorant of a whole world of cultural production that is profoundly edifying, yet neither sexual nor pornographic, and that international audiences have benefitted from for centuries. HuffPost Canada has shown Utahns that we have a bold and talented contemporary artist in our midst: something we should all celebrate. Her work is good news for Mormon women – and all our mothers, sisters, daughters. Fist bump to them all! But unless our cultural institutions open up and step up to the educational challenge of embracing Body Art, our experience of other people, other cultures and other generations will be limited, and the reception of such trailblazing work, lukewarm. 

Katrina Barker Anderson's work can be viewed at

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brad Slaugh's 'Feast.'

            At thirty three feet long, Brad Slaugh’s Feast just barely fits into his studio. It may be the most monumental mural drawing created in Utah in recent years (1998). Pieced together from 48 pastel drawings, it is difficult to achieve optimal viewing distance - even in the artist’s sizable studio. But size isn’t everything. Other aspects of this work speak to its ambition – and genuine grandeur. 
            Displayed last month at Poor Yorick’s biannual open house, Feast is not just the artist’s masterpiece. It is a paean to epicurism, and also to Utah. Assembling twelve supersized dinner guests along a makeshift table, the lateral composition and its proximity to the picture plane begs comparison with that other dinner party we all know so well. In contrast to Leonardo’s illusionistic room, Slaugh’s guests are cramped up against a wall, the knots in the veneer screaming of basement rec rooms. Along the left edge, a partial figure in the form of a hand surrepticiously holds out a ham and cheese sandwich. Reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ‘Hand of God’ – or perhaps Monty Python’s, it tantalizingly suggests a thirteenth sitter, and flirts with Leonardo’s numerology.
             Beyond this, Feast diverges from The Last Supper in important ways. Slaugh’s dinner guests, for instance, are Everyman. They lack the decorum of the apostles and could be anybody’s uncles and aunts, half-brothers and stepmoms. Clearly, time has not been kind to them. Their flesh hangs from their bones, perhaps in a nod to Lucien Freud or Eric Fishl. Suggesting the sloth that comes from a lifetime of television viewing, they are signifiers of the downtrodden, the aged and the infirm, and every bit as proletariat as Courbet’s peasants.
            Wearing stylistically obsolete clothes, a sense of nostalgia for seventies fashion and furniture emerges. As such, Slaugh pays homage to a generation of folks just ‘making do’ on the fringes of society, trapped in that time machine called Utah. He also toys with their proportions, dwarfing some and enlarging others; creating giants only a Trollhunter could love.
            Appropriately, they are faced with the greatest of consolations: a large meal, and the gastronomic catastrophe laid out in front of them adds an element of jouissance to the composition. The table, propped up like the one in the Merode Altarpiece, displays a cornucopia of processed foods, along with an unconscionable amount of mustard. The gooey and acrid splendor of American condiments flows to but one thing: indigestion. An anathema to Mormon retraint and sensibility, we are but a small step away from Francis Bacon’s open carcasses. And then there’s the ham and cheese sandwich, hardly the stuff of Passover meals.
             Surprisingly, Slaugh informs me that the sitters would self-identify as Mormon. And yet, they challenge the more conventional model, of mission suits and bleached out smiles. This begs the question: are they heirs to the apostles, or perhaps usurpers? As Latter Day Saints, the gospel has fallen to this motley crew to disseminate. Should we be comforted? Concerned? There may be no greater question facing Utahns today.
            While situating this dilemma in modern day Utah, and infusing it with a more universal, tragicomic humanism, Feast becomes Leonardo’s legacy. Unlike the Last Supper, which has been a stable fixture in Milan for half a millenia, Feast is still in search of a home, itself a drifter in the land of Zion. 

Feast can be viewed at a fraction of its real size, at

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sugarhouse Saint. Marion Rockwood-Johnson and the Rockwood Artist Studios.

              Peering through the chain link fence on 21St South at 11th East, one is confronted with raging bulldozers shifting colossal volumes of earth, sloshing concrete and disconnected plumbing pipes. The scene is disorienting. Yet amidst all the filth and chaos of what is known as Salt Lake’s ‘Sugarhole,’ one building has remained unscathed. Rockwood Art Studios is predominantly occupied by twenty-two painters and visual artists, and stands relatively untouched: tenants in tact. The area will soon transform, as condominiums will abut the property on both sides. To the south, a light rail project promises to revitalize business in the area. Yet with all this activity, one can’t help wonder: why is Rockwood still standing ?

            Certainly there was no shortage of speculators vying for the prized property. Flanked on either side by multi-million dollar projects, developers were eager to gut the entire block, and install their own pipe dreams. Yet that was unthinkable to Marian Rockwood- Johnson. At ninety-one, she’s seen buildings come and go along 21st South.  As scion of a prominent Sugarhouse property family, her father owned nine acres in the ‘Furniture Capital of the West.’ And, with a business degree from the U (Class of ’42) it was business as usual for Marion and her renters. Though several artists panicked when bulldozers broke ground; some even left preemptively, in fear of eviction, Marion kept her ground, reassuring her occupants she had no reason to sell. “Where would we go? Why should we leave? Adding : “These artists are wonderful. They’re happy there. They have a good thing going. Why disturb that?”

              Rockwood-Johnson’s commitment to her tenants is rivaled only by her loyalty to her family legacy. When she was eleven, she remembers how her father, Jullius Apollos (‘JA’) Rockwood, acquired the land in severance from Granite Furniture, his employer of 21 years. With a penchant for property, Marion recalls her mother bemoaning “I can’t trust Daddy when he goes out. He’s always looking for corners to buy.” JA passed away in 1944, entrusting Marion’s mother with the family estate. “Mother wanted the Rockwood name to stay in Sugarhouse” she explains, “out of loyalty to our father.” Complete in 1955 when Marion was 33, decades of property management were thus channeled into ‘Rockwood Furniture Corporation.’ The elimination of parking along 21st South soon ended the venture, as walk-ins completely dried up. Rockwood struggled to fill its space, and for many years, it remained near-abandoned.

             Connie Borup first saw its potential in the early nineties. Having recently received her MFA from the U, she needed a place to work. “But it was otherwise pretty bare bones.” Borup recalls. “With the Blue Boutique at street level, along with a fortune telling business where gypsy proprietors were squatting, the area was a little shady.” But soon enough, the Rockwood-Johnson family decided to renovate, and in 1999 created purpose-built studios for their tenants. The spaces were rented before the work was complete and in no time, Marion became the building manager and was responsible for everything from plumbing to rent collection.

            In addition to housing established artists such as Borup, Rockwood also fosters newer practitioners. Many are still finding their way by ‘just dabbling’ or have taken up the brush following first and second careers. Such variety often characterizes artist communities, and is heralded by city planners as a catalyst for the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. Stephen Goldsmith, an Associate Professor in the College of Architecture + Planning at the University of Utah, advocates for the inclusion of artists in urban development. “Artists and art communities play an important role in the health of a city.” he says. “They bring creative energy and vitality to an area, which is unique to that of the developer or property owner.” The brainchild behind Salt Lake’s Artspace, Goldsmith describes a scenario in which everyone benefits. Not only do artist communities fuel collaboration and innovation among themselves, but the effect multiplies. Goldsmith explains how “Artist communities often contain micro-economies. A painter might engage the services of a framer in the same building, or purchase materials from an art supply store, which may result in a gallery exhibition, which generates sales. Participation in a gallery stroll might then lead to restaurant and cinema patronage in the area.” The benefits are manifold.“When creative people come into contact, innovation occurs, which leads to economic development.” Goldsmith says.

            Meri DeCaria, Director of Phillips Gallery, concurs. As one of the oldest galleries in the Intermountain West, Phillips has had a long-standing relationship with Rockwood. “We’ve exhibited several Rockwood artists over the years” she says. But the advantages are not just economic. There is a ripple effect that feeds into the intellectual life of the city. Not only do the works go out into private and corporate collections, but exhibition openings energize the cultural community at large, by attracting practitioners in related disciplines. As well, Phillips plays an educational role, it is visited by groups such as high school students, art appreciation classes and even the UMFA’s ‘Young Benefactor’s Club.’ DeCaria also alludes to a spiritual dimension of the gallery. “People come here to be recharged. To feed their soul. For a breath of fresh air, and for new ideas.”

            As the extended life of Rockwood Art Studios percolates down into the further recesses of the city, it generates unexpected momentum and activity. With this in mind, it would not be inappropriate to heap praise and accolades upon Marion Rockwood Johnson. Yet she prefers a more retiring life behind the scenes and, with an eye on her family legacy, is content to pass the torch onto her sons. As for her tenants, she says simply  “They’re good tenants. They‘re clean and responsible. And we’re just happy to provide a good environment for them.”