Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tyler Beard: Avant Garde Goes Mainstream.

By now, we’ve all heard about the avant-garde. We’ve heard about the burden of each generation of artist, and their obligation to upend the cultural establishment to reinvent Art anew. The predicaments of this process, in all its excruciating agony, can be found at CUAC’s present show of Denver artist Tyler Beard.

Striving to create the ‘qualities found in a Haiku’ the artist seeks to achieve a ‘subtle and quiet sophistication.’ At a fundamental level, this goal is achieved. On the wall, clusters of collages feature stock images of flowers cut into leafy forms. Set against a taut, white background, they burst into form, like petals in a floral arrangement. Here, comparison with Ellsworth Kelly’s shaped canvases is unavoidable. Similar sensibilities unfold spatially, where disparate forms and surfaces appear to scatter about the room, yet in fact are meticulously arranged… like a Haiku. Faux spontaneity has been a leitmotif of modernism throughout the twentieth century and this is no exception.

From here, landscapes have been printed onto board, folded into irregular angles and propped up against the gallery wall. Therein, unexpected geometries contrast the ‘natural’ forms of the images. Witness the expansive shore of Folded Beach, which is rotated 90 degrees and folded into a series of small steps to create one disorienting object of clashing perspectives. Here as elsewhere, stock images of nature are filtered and overprinted, becoming flat and empty, and reduced to mere decoration. Sanitized and vapid, they blend seamlessly into the bland architectural scaffolding of Beard’s sculptures. While such vacuity is the artist’s stated intention, viewers are already familiar with such devices, which have their roots in Warhol’s silk screens and or Richard Prince prints.

Similarly, six miniature models recline on custom-made platforms extending from a larger frame in Maquette 1-6. Consisting of wooden cubes, folded card, stones and wire, the works rely heavily on modernist sensibilities (Miro, Moore) for their aesthetics. Using precision knife work, the geometric intersects with the biomorphic, resulting in sleek and elegant forms fit for a Playmobil castle. Economical and quirky, they could very well spring to life, like mechanical wind-up toys. Indeed, all of Beard’s works have a potential for great buoyancy.

But this doesn’t happen. The works stand frozen in their own Zen, paralyzed by an aesthetic we’ve already seen. Even the highlighted edges, with their evocation of hard edge painting, feel contrived. Not only has Beard’s bag of tricks been thoroughly mined from the last half century, but it has already entered the mainstream, in the form of haute cuisine, Kate Middleton fascinators and above all, Scandinavian design. While assembling his own personal Haiku, Beard has unconsciously appropriated too many conventions of post-war art, rather than challenging them. As such, the show at CUAC is a cautionary tale, reminding artists (and galleries) of the importance of renewing the covenant of the avant-guard, rather than simply paying homage to it.

Tyler Beard’s work is on view at CUAC in Salt Lake City from 9/19 to 10/11.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

John Erickson: Dog, Interrupted.

At first glance, the dog paintings of John Erickson appear to be light hearted and jovial, as a procession of pooches roll, beg and drool through his works. Some are cheerfully paired with fire hydrants and holiday ornaments (1), soda cans and watertowers (2). Others wear pendants and crowns, as if to emphasize their preciousness (3). One dog lies upside down (4), with his legs dangling buoyantly in the air, pleading for a belly rub. Warm and fuzzy, playful and goofy, these subjects not only speak to Erickson’s rich sense of humor, but tug at our heartstrings, signalling the unconditional love and companionship that we expect from Man’s best friend.

As we succumb to their charms and fall under their spell, something else starts to happen. The image begins to disintegrate, collapse and ultimately fail us. In Green Briar (5), a hound dog stands in three-quarter profile. Behind him, a curtain of limes and greens suggest a meadow saturated with sunlight and grasses. The dog’s musculature is mapped entirely in overlapping color values. Approaching the canvas and looking closer at the animal, the viewer discovers magazine cuttings and paint samples that explode like bombs. These reveal Erickson’s process, which layers acrylic, marker, latex, collage, oil, and polymer resin. This is also where the illusion dissolves. It takes only a few seconds for the dog to disappear and for the image to shatter into a million splinters and fragments.

Erickson compares these ‘moments of surprise’ to a child experiencing their first snowstorm, and the incredulity that happens when confronted with something that is both unexpected and spectacular. Such moments are woven throughout Erickson’s imagery and unfold on multiple levels of perception. On one hand, we find instances of extreme clarity, such as the glimmer in a dog’s eye or the chiaroscuro of an apple. These areas of hyperfocus are conveyed with the most economical of elements: usually a shard of paper and a dab of paint. They also act as a nexus of acuity, gathering our senses and focussing our vision while everything else falls away.

Simultaneously, Erickson constructs counterpoints that negate the veracity of these places and deny the illusion. Spartacus of Sharpie (6) abounds with instances of visual delight: the reflection on the paper clip and the belt buckle are profoundly rewarding. They serenade our desire for verisimilitude and trompe l’oeil. And yet, paper strips are pasted to the model’s arm and thigh, which block any depth perception. Further layers of complexity are found in the pieces of scotch tape stuck to the paper, the ripped edges left white and raw, or the crusty impastos and drippy washes which Erickson applies unapologetically. In some cases, magazine cuttings are added to the mix. With advertising logos that clash with their surroundings, texts can actually be discerned. In The King Hydranted (1) we appropriately read of ‘Modern Day Mavericks and Western Icons.’ It is in moments such as these that we are brought back to the harsh reality of the canvas, and its immutable surface. In this way, the artist flirts with the blank canvas; the holy grail of modern art where pictorial illusionism intersects with the physicality of a stretched canvas. The finality of this pursuit leads only to the thick, resin tomb that seals all of the artist’s works.

Augmenting Erickson’s ‘moments of surprise’ are references to contemporary and bygone visual languages. In Seers and Prophets (3), Erickson describes the contour of a dachsund using only a red Sharpie marker. This effectively electrifies the dog, giving it a radioactive feel. In Beach Dog (7), a small black square is placed atop a bouncy border collie, which floats above the subject like a fly in ointment. This serves no other purpose but to burst the bubble and destroy the illusion. This glitch is another of Erickson’s many curveballs, and harks back not only to the father of modernism, Kasimir Malevich, but to the early days of color television, where signal interference led to the diffraction of light streaming out of a cathode ray tube. In Spartan Training (8) a male model stands upright at what appears to be a floating panel, which we see ‘through the looking glass’ as it were. As a transparent surface, the panel brings to mind the futuristic glass computer interfaces of films like Mission Impossible. Furthermore, as vectors of architecture intersect at irregular angles, extreme foreshortening places the viewer high above the figure. We stand so close however, that we become part of the action. We could in fact be the subject of the painting. As such, the dynamic is reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s iconic Las Meninas (1656), which surreptitiously folds the viewer into his world. Finally, Tree of Knowledge (9) evokes the black and white stop-action effects of early war footage. Throughout the composition, a string of apples orbit the tree like atoms in a nuclear model. A regular feature of Erickson’s lexicon, they are void of gravity and suspended in space, propelling us into a kind of cosmic trance.

The collision of cultural and perceptual references in Erickson’s work could be read as a crisis of styles, which speaks to the postmodern condition described by Jean Francois Lyotard. Constantly shifting between illusion and artifice, triumpf and collapse, the prospect of a final, revelatory effect is agonizingly delayed. It is for this reason that Erickson describes his work “not as an absolute fact but as a continuum of process.” As a language that is constantly undermining itself as it reconstitutes itself, this also brings to mind more ancient conundrums such as the classical Greek uroboros paradigm, of a serpent that devours its own tail as it simultaneously nourishes itself. On a personal level, Erickson’s approach is grounded in the conviction that time heals all wounds, itself informed by transcendental meditation, Mormon eschatology, the writings of Carlos Castenadas and Eckhardt Tolle. Navigating Erickson’s world makes time travellers of us all, and has the capacity to bring our own paths to a grinding halt. And yet it is only from this vantage point, Erickson believes, that new vistas can be glimpsed. Like that moment when we step outside our comfort zone, and it begins to snow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Self-Satisfied with Utah Ties @ CUAC.

Anybody who finds Salt Lake City’s art scene soporific will find a welcome reprieve at Central Utah Art Center (abbreviated as CUAC, pronounced quack), where a small but feisty group of artists exhibit some much-needed pluck in the show Utah Ties. While the front gallery displays more conventional works grounded in graphic languages, works in the back gallery come alive with enough chutzpah to ruffle more than a few mission suits.

Maddison Colvin’s video ‘183rd Semiannual General Conference 01 (Apostles, Prophets) layers video footage of speakers from the Mormon ‘conference’, which brings thousands of faithful to congregate in downtown Salt Lake City twice a year. Sound and visual footage from the conference sermons are made near-transluscent, and superimposed onto one another, creating a highly layered effect. While one face dissolves into another, a visual consensus emerges. Absent of any racial, gender or generational diversity, they signify a patriarchal monoculture, as they dissolve into the same puppet-like mold. The result not only displays a cumulative side to tradition, but the monolithic and inflexible aspects of LDS church leadership. 

Emily Fox’s King Panties pins twenty-three pairs of women’s underwear directly onto the gallery wall. (Used but clean, we can only assume they come from Utah’s great emporium of objets trouvé, the Deseret Industries Thrift Store.) The display brings to mind Pipilotti Rists’ Massachusetts Chandalier yet the garments demonstrate a greater range in size, from the implausibly minute (think Barbie) - to fully-figured. As the display charts the arc of a woman’s expanding girth, the journey bridges juvenile fantasies of doll’s play to the vicissitudes of real anatomy in physical space.

More art world references are encountered in Tatiana Svrckova Larsen’s Ambit, which vertically stacks four television sets to depict the head, chest, hands and feet of an upright female subject. As such, memories of Nam June Paik are unavoidable. In the top screen, a head (in profile) dribbles an ambiguous white substance from her mouth, bringing to mind Bruce Nauman’s iconic Fountain. Curving around her chin, the fluid continues its vertical path into the screen below. Glowing and white, the liquid glows against a darkened background, flowing down into the next screen, where it passes the subject’s chest. Arriving in the next monitor, it collects in cupped hands, where it overflows into the final screen (bottom level) where it splashes onto the floor and pools in the sandy ground. Here the fate of the glistening fluid, be it cowsmilk, semen or paint, evokes the biblical parable of spilling one’s seed, or seed falling on stony ground. Moreover, all four videos are looped, giving the impression of a continuous flow from top to bottom. As such, the effect oscillates between a commonplace garden feature and the circuity of Duchamp’s Fountain.

Bodily fluids also intersect with technology in Alexandra Reintjes performative installation ‘Sex Video’ which is experienced on a hand-held iPod and earphones. Here, the subject is located at the center of a small, cube-shaped room and (we assume) positioned on a fixed but spinning dolly. Equipped with both a film projector and video recorder, the viewer’s position becomes synonymous with that of the subject’s. As the dizzy rotation spins out of control, images of modernist building facades (ubiquitous in Salt Lake City) are projected onto the walls. The technological intensity of the arrangement is mediated by the gentle panting of a female onanist, whose murmurs both activate and disarm the architectural spectacle. A myriad of associations abound, from early structuralist film (think Michael Snow), to Rebecca Horn’s sadomasochistic performances and Vito Acconci’s Seedbed. We are also reminded of Ballardian aesthetics, as the erotic machine whirls into oblivion.

In a similar vein, Alex Stevens’ Everytime You Wish You Were Never Born Part 2 features an industrial garbage bin, once full with bread dough derived from the artist’s family bakery. Teeming with yeast, the dough has expanded and exploded over the edge of the bin into an excess of chthon, only to harden into a leathery, solid crust. Underneath the bin, recordings of music hits dating from 1986 repeat on a loop, referencing the year of the artist’s birth. This biographical signpost posits the doughy explosion not as a gastronomic catastrophe but as a giant, male ejaculation.

While the maturity of these works merits its own commendation, the significance of their existence in the Beehive State cannot be underestimated. Contemporary Art faces a plethora of challenges in Salt Lake City, not least of which is a hegemonic propoganda machine which discourages artistic and intellectual tenacity while advancing values of conformity and submission. The works in Utah Ties exist not because of local culture, but in spite of it. As such, they meet these challenges head-on, demonstrating a willingness to experiment, an openness to new media, an engagement with art world tropes and above all, a much needed sense of humor.
Curated by Adam Gildar. 
March 21, 2014 to April 11th, 2014 at Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) in Salt Lake City, UT.

Monday, March 31, 2014

'Draw Out' Performance by Kristina Lenzi and Gretchen Reynolds.

Several features can characterize works of Performance Art. One is duration. Performance artists often (not always) push the boundaries of their audience’s patience, creating a corner in time that proceeds according to the work’s inner tempo. The artist’s stamina can also be pushed – to exhaustion. Another feature that can so easily accompany works of performance art is a binary dynamic created between two participants. Here I think of the works of Gilbert and George, Abramavic and Ulay, Valie Export and Peter Weibel, Chris Burden and his anonymous assistant.

Such was the case on Friday evening (March 21st) at Artspace, where Kristina Lenzi and Gretchen Reynolds sat at opposing easles, drawing each other for over six hours during Gallery Stroll. Facing each other at 180 degree angles, one could have assumed that the easels were attached to each other. In fact, the artists studied each other’s faces through a small gap between the boards and, with charcoal, graphite, colored and highlighter chalk undertook facial studies of each other – drawing eachother.

The resulting drawings were displayed on adjacent walls behind each artist, serving as a backdrop to the central action. The results varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some achieved such life-like naturalism, that the subjects almost started breathing. Others were rendered with simple contour drawings, or the grand gestures of Willem deKooning. Some placed a realistic eye squarely in the middle of a nest of scribbles, barely decipherable as the structure of a face. And towards the end of the marathon, meditative concentration dissolved into childsplay and portraits descended into charicatures, revealing disfigured proportions and Picasso-like monsters.

Forays into these drawing styles demonstrated the range of each artist, both of whom have taught drawing for several years at institutions throughout the valley.
The results also invited comparison. Who was more skilled? Who posessed a steadier hand? Who was the master of naturalism, who was quicker to abandon the torch and embrace the lighter side of the discipline?

While some observers are trained “not to judge” the dynamic of one artist pitted against another invariably emerged for this critic. Did the coupling mirror a scenario of rivalry, which can so easily emerge between partners of any kind? Was this a competition? Or, was this a paean to cooperation, of working in tandem and symbiosis, in the true spirit of partnership? As much as the arrangment was a ‘closed system’, it was also entirely complementary, as the personal styles of each artist quietly unfolded, while spectators meandered through the event. Perhaps in this sense, the performance more closely approximated M.C.Escher’s iconic work from 1948 Drawing Hands.

Monday, February 24, 2014

'I Was Not Concerned.' Gay Marriage in Utah.

Michelle Mumford's comments on the rhetoric surrounding the legalization of gay marriage in Utah (Op-ed, 2/15) are well taken. Words such as ‘apartheid’ and ‘bigotry’ are indeed strong and her experience in California is deplorable. The question of their accuracy is a different matter. I would think that these labels derive from a legal and legislative landscape that has still not decriminalized sodomy and has dragged its feet to protect a group that “gives them pause” from housing and employment discrimination, or include them in hate crime legislation. I would argue that these deeds go beyond semantics and verbal abuse. They impact the safety of ordinary Americans and their families. They do very much criminalize their actions (76-5-403), and limit their ability to partake in ordinary civic life, such as health and inheritance benefits. If this is not the essence of “apart-hood” or apartheid, it is certainly the beginning.

Another historical parallel can be found in the early days of Nazism. One of the first things the Nazis did when they came to power was to wade into the bedrooms of ordinary Germans, and outlaw marriages and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. (Utah leaders who argue that they are representing the vox populi will be interested to learn that the Nurenberg Laws of 1935 had a petition of over a million signatures supporting the measures).

It is because of such laws, that we today think of the Jews and the Nazis as separate entities in apart-hood, like antagonists in a moral play: the winners and the losers, the bullies and the victims. But in reality, they were once one. They spoke the same language and shared the same beds – and children. They were integrated members of society, yet became a separate class through the laws that were passed. As we now know, these laws had a domino effect in Germany, and led to some of the most egregious crimes in history.

But it is worth considering that the same can be said for many other conflicts, which began with marital and sexual restrictions, to the point where one might argue that they could serve as signals or predictors in the rise of Fascism. History has shown that no society – however righteous – is immune to this cancer. We have only to remember the tragedies in Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Moreover, lest we forget that we live in a state where Americans have already been targeted and incarcerated into labor camps, at the Topaz Internment Camp near Delta. Given the tendency for these ideas to run amok, why open the door?

One of the few blessings to emerge from the Holocaust was the voice of evangelical Pastor Martin Niemöller, who famously wrote:

When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, and therefore I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions, and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant Church – and there was nobody left to be concerned.

The Pastor’s message makes clear the capacity in ALL of us to turn a blind eye, because “I was not concerned.” Our nation is already on shakey ground. Americans are divided between the insured and the uninsured, the documented and the undocumented, and still the black and the white. Do we really need more division and strife? I ask readers of The Tribune, along with the legislators of our State: who among us is so righteous so as not heed Pastor Niemöller’s warning? Our laws and our leaders are the only stopgaps we have against the tyrany of evil – and the capacity in all of us to say “I was not concerned.” Why not learn from the mistakes of others? If we don’t, we may be haunted by that other ominous warning from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Connie Borup : A Natural Idiom.

             New works by Connie Borup opening January 17th at Phillips Gallery once again demonstrate the power of resurrection. Not just the renewal of nature, but the regenerating endurance of Borup’s idiom. Working in oils on medium-sized canvasses, Borup’s subject continues to be nature, and how little we really know about it. Not only are we treated to numerous paeans in the finest of details, but are constantly reminded of how many visual surprises are hidden in the most unsuspecting of places.
             At the heart of Borup’s work lies a fascination with natural process and the cycles of nature: the ying and yang of life. Rich with pathetic fallacy, we are privy to a world of tumult and repose, brutality and recovery. Exemplary is ‘Water Journey’, which shows a gently sloping beach, half bathed in water. The fluid is completely transparent, giving us a direct view to the riverbed and its mottled lodgers. These consist of an assortment of smooth and rounded pebbles that are strewn across the waterbed, landing in chance positions like dice on a gameboard. The ovoid forms are contrasted by several sharp twigs, which jut into the scene at odd angles, adding agitation where once there was none.

             ‘Watery Resting Place’ presents a similar scenario as the tangled branches of an overflowing shrub pour out over a waterway and drop its leaves onto the water’s surface. As they drift along, some float away while others stay and idle, perhaps as a parable to the unpredictably of life. Not only does this foliage guard darker recesses of the underbrush, but serves as a harbinger of color, in creamy beiges and greens. In addition, leaf shapes lose their depth, becoming elliptical and lacrymal to evoke Japanese screens. Whereas some of Borup’s works use water as a window onto subterranean worlds, it here serves to reflect a gloomy, overcast sky. 
                Borup’s images are often situated at transitional locations, where water meets land and adaptation is required. In particular, the artist’s iconography feeds off expired plant life and the resulting decay: the retreat of leaf color and the draining of pigment. Here, stems and branches become splintered and prickly, yet are swiftly remedied by the healing properties of water as the source of all life. In these instances, the harsher effects of nature are mitigated by the interplay of light and water and its dual role as window and mirror. Such is the case in Dancing Reeds’, where a hillside of reeds has been ravaged by a long, dry summer. All of the plants have expired, their leaves bent in cruel contortions, forming peach and cream arches. In the foreground, a still blue pool reflects the plants, translating their curved leaves into jagged, lyrical patterns. The pool’s pale blue and grey hues contrast the warm brick colors of the red rock background. A cluster of plants emerge from the middle of this puddle, showing a Nietzschean perseverence in the fine green sprigs sprouting from their base.
               A similar resoluteness is seen in ‘Glassy Echoes’, where a dried bush defies gravity by growing horizontally above a body of water. Hovering just inches above the surface, we marvel at the architectural tenacity of this achievement Most of the curved branches grow skyward, while a few are downturned, stroking the water like fingers. Bleached by the weather and drained of all pigment, most are chalky white, while a warmer orange hue clings to a few remaining sticks. These weave their way in and out of the lighter twigs, forming a lattice through which the blue-grey water can be seen. While the actual branches posess a gently curving shape, they adopt a more irregular motif in their reflection. Here I can’t help thinking that the interplay of water, wind and wood not only mirrors our own existential predicaments, but at times, the folly of human endeavour in general.    

           Perhaps the most dramatic of this series is ‘Tree Reflection’, where the view is limited exclusively to a reflection. Pictured is a tree of uncertain origin, with branches twisted into the paths of Rorschach inks, inviting prophetic interpretations. Forming an intricate lace not unlike a splatter painting, this is set against the ripples of a small periwinkle pool. Saturating our vision, Borup has chosen a firey palette of crimson reds and oranges for the tree’s reflection. This conjures up sun flares, and the violent alchemy that set the landscapes of Southern Utah in motion. As we experience the tree in reflection form only, we are left to speculate on the original object that inspired this doppelgänger. As such, the work invites parallels with other reflecting pools, and their capacity to misrepresent and deceive. Cautionary tales which expound on the illusory nature of life, such as Plato’s Cave, also come to mind. More reassuring is the use of the mirror by Perseus, which functioned as an aid to overcome demons. 
             Just as we think we have Borup pegged, ‘Pond Disguised by Leaves’ sends our thoughts into new directions. In this work, water plays a dual role of mirror and window, while incorporating new elements of the environment. Here we see a shallow pond, bordered by two masses of tiny, lanceolate leaves. These flank the water, like golden curtains on either side of a stage. The water inside is still and reflective - like a sheet of glass. In its mirror, a bright grey sky is captured. This is contrasted with the dark silhouette of a nearby tree. Where the shadow falls, a view to the pond bottom is seen, carpeted with pebbles and sludge. Still and cold, this is the birthplace of northern mythology, where Ophelia was laid to rest, and where the Lady of the Lake retreats.

           Works such as these not only remind us of the nuances and complexities that can be found in the most unassuming of nooks and crannies. More importantly, they expand the parameters of Utah landscape painting which, subject to market forces, often descends into cliché. Replete with mirages and shadows, mirrors and windows, screens and symbols, Borups works reveal secret worlds – both real and imagined – that inspire a renewed return to nature – and art.

 'Waterscapes' will be on display from January 17 to February 14, 2014 at Phillips Gallery, 
444 East, 200 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.