Exhibition Review: Ephraim
Encoding the World and Getting the Joke: Stefanie Dykes at C.U.A.C. in Ephraim
by Geoff Wichert
Printmaker Stefanie Dykes, whose mostly black and white relief prints dating from 2002 till 2005 are on exhibit at the Central Utah Art Center until October 3rd, apparently finds the present (pun intended) easier to swallow when it’s dressed up to look deceptively like the past. One of the more generous artists on the scene todayshe can afford to sprinkle visual gems across her outsize images, since she has so many literally at her finger tipsDykes encodes ideas about the meaning of things she see every day into her antic and energetic depictions as densely as a symbolist; but since she doesn’t expect everyone to guess her visual puns and rapid-fire connections, doesn’t want to leave anyone outside and unable to enjoy her entertainments, and isn’t sure in any event that there really is any meaning behind it all, she makes certain that her constellations of marks look familiar enough to be enjoyed by any reasonably visually literate consumer, whether that viewer penetrates them fully, only a little, or not at all. Hence everyone should be able to enjoy an hour or two spent in her topsy-turvy cityscapes and elaborately decorated interiors. Signs that lead nowhere at least do no harm, and as we learn to decipher them, a process that should be viewed as play rather than work, we will soon find our way via humor and delight to a private corner of the world that has the virtues of a snug cottage: it may not be ours, it may even be utterly strange, but we feel more comfortable there, and perhaps a little less alienated, than we did before we found it.
In the journalistically popular “interest of full disclosure,” I should begin by pointing out that it was the medium of printmaking that originally drew me into the visual arts. Long ago I returned from a year in New York studying writing to discover that while I was away, my brother, who was always drawing, had taken to expanding the range of his marks on paper by carving them into blocks of wood. His conversation was suddenly full of Japanese names: names of artists, but also of tools and techniques. I followed him into his garage studio, and soon discovered that something like the alchemy that took place in the darkroom, where one watched ones intentions take shape magically on blank sheets of wet paper, took place invisibly in the vertiginous encounter between a piece of paper and a matrix covered in ink. My brother went on to become a master printer, while I eventually returned to my words. But that sense of wonder never left me; to this day I still feel the presence of the artist more directly and more vividly through the mechanics of prints than I do through paintings or other mediums of art.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Towards a Concept of LDS Art
by Tony Watson
The LDS International Competition came down earlier this month but the entire exhibit, including the works cited in this article, is online here.
Tom Alder’s recent 15 Bytes article on Henri Moser (June edition
) included a comment by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint apostle L. Tom Perry to the effect that the reason the LDS Church no longer places art in their chapels and meeting houses is that they do not want controversy regarding the nature or definition of art. So, when I noticed that the Museum of Church History and Art was holding their Seventh International art competition, Our Heritage of Faith,
I was interested to see what exactly an LDS vision (at least an officially sanctioned one) of art is.
The International Competitions are biennial events that invite LDS church members from around the world to submit work relating to a theme, such as, "Our Heritage of Faith." I was interested to see what, if anything, this exhibition says about an LDS art. The answer seems to be that it is certainly an art of many nations, though not necessarily one of many modes. Though the works here are not all alike, more often than not they are variations on the same general aesthetic: an emphasis on realism and narrative. A look at this exhibit does not give a sense of the numerous stylistic changes and adventures that have occurred in the art world over the past 100 years. I am convinced that this is not because there are no LDS artists working in these modes -- it would be easy enough to identify some local Utah ones to prove the point. They simply aren't shown here. It is impossible to know if this is due to the juror's decision, the artists' lack of participation, or the use of thematic shows, which, by their nature, exclude certain works, even though they might be made by active LDS artists.
It is difficult to make an aesthetic judgment based on absence, so what we must do is approach the exhibit and our question of an LDS aesthetic with what we are given and make assessments from there. It would be too facile a judgment to simply dismiss this exhibit because the modes of expression are, for the most part, "traditional." The LDS faith, and its heritage, is a proselyting one, making message paramount and forms subservient; which makes for an art that tends towards the illustrative or the propagandistic, neither of which are bad in and of themselves, but to confuse them with that pursuit of something deeper we usually refer to when invoking "art" would be helpful to neither the artists involved nor the culture seeking to find artistic expression of its religion and culture. And my greatest fear for an LDS aesthetic is that some of the more readily digestible veneers of a realistically rendered or sincerely meant work leads to a complacency that affects artist and audience alike.
In an exhibition of this size there are going to be numerous exceptions to any general statement, but I think it is not untoward to say that the Seventh International Competition is dominated by narrative art, rendered in a realistic manner. There are few examples of more contemporary modes of expression, as if to say that the Mormon culture has yet to develop new wine skins in which to pour their new gospel. Some interesting old wine skins are employed however; for example, Cheng Cin-Tai's "It Was Founded Upon a Rock" (a traditional Chinese ink painting featuring a Mormon temple in the place of a hermit's cottage) and Connie J. Daisy's "Baptism of Jesus Christ" (which uses traditional Australian motifs), examples that people from non-Western cultures are at least attempting to withstand total cultural assimilation while going through religious conversion.
The tendency of these LDS artists to incorporate historical styles can be read favorably as a mirror of the Mormon culture's understanding of its religion as a reinstatement and culmination of the past. Thus David Babcock's "Prayer" shows his wife in a stylized posture set in a Netherlandish landscape. Gary Ernest Smith's "Christ Appears to the Two Marys" also incorporates art historical styles -- early Renaissance. In both pieces they seem a restoration or reinterpretation of styles.