February 2007
Page 6    
Fire Trees by Barbara Lyman

Exhibition Preview: Provo
A Relief to Find Beautry: Barbara Lyman's Trees @ Terra Nova
by Elizabeth Matthews

Barbara Lyman has decided to throw away her brushes. Because she hates to clean them, she has traded in her sable and hog bristles for the palette knife. Her change in tools is matched by the dramatic stylistic change evident in her new body of work, on exhibit at Provo’s Terra Nova Gallery beginning April 6th.

Lyman is well known for what she calls her “altar pieces.” These works were all about structure and passages, compression and keeping delicate flowers and traditional art images in well defined and strictly organized spaces, all elegantly framed by the fine carpentry of her husband, Paul. Painting these images gave Lyman anxiety, but they were well received and won many awards and honors (they are in the permanent collection at the Springville Museum of Art and the St. George Museum of Art) so she continued with them. Lyman’s new exhibit, simply titled Trees, marks a distinct shift for the artist. Lyman is a part of the growing trend in Utah County, noted in my review of the UVSC faculty show in February, obsessed by trees. Lyman executes her trees in thick paint applied with a palette knife, a stylistic move that breaks the boundaries of her restrained altarpieces.

The natural world informs Lyman’s new work, which I was able to preview recently with several other artists. In these new works, Barbara Lyman is loosening up and moving on as she presents simple tree structures that are dynamic and responsive to unstructured light. The trees push to the edges and often refuse to fit within the restraint of the panels. Light gleams with abandon through the branches, and still each tree remains secure and open reaching for a new type of revelation.

"First Light" is a small but compelling painting in high value and minimal color representing a single tree to the right of center that rattles in the wind. The branches fight against the restrictions of thickly painted sky that insists on holding them securely to the canvas like glue. Some of the other artists previewing these new works thought the painting was out of balance, but for me the asymmetrical tension arrested my attention. The strong light secured and stilled the nervous branches long enough for me to recognize that Lyman works with more than just paint in her paintings.

In "Dusk," three dark trees stand against a deep blue sky that turns a deep green at the horizon. The artist said, “This is a painting of the time of night when everything turns a deep cobalt blue.” The group of artists discussed whether or not the colors worked in the painting. I’ve seen that time of night and wondered about how to paint it and Lyman successfully captures it on canvas.

Lyman likes her paintings to come into being on the canvas. She talks about going on a journey with her paintings, watching them change and evolve as she, a “surprised helper,” works on them. “Along with the frustration and seemingly endless work of being an artist comes the elation of painting a work that finally says, 'This is me—this is who I really am inside!'” she says on her website. “My paintings have finally tapped the inner well of my soul, and it is a relief to find beauty there.”

Part of the reason for the beauty of Lyman’s new work is her freedom with color, shown in her surprising color palette. Lyman wonders about color, questions it, toys with it, revs it up and then pushes it slightly back with a delicate color glaze mixed into her personal recipe for hand processed medium using rabbit skin glue.

Trees is Lyman’s first solo show at Terra Nova Gallery. When Barbara came in recently to have gallery owner David Hawkinson take photos of her work, he saw the changes and liked what she was doing. He thought these new pieces might have an even broader appeal than her previous work, which seemed quite academic to him. Hawkinson has watched Lyman’s work through the years and can appreciate the change her new work indicates. “Barbara has done her altar pieces, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but now she has loosened up a whole lot,” Hawkinson told me. “Her trees have color with an emphasis on texture similar to her altar pieces but there is not the tight restraint, geometric and architectural imagery; these pieces are different. I enjoy the color and texture in these new pieces. I know it looks spontaneous, but she labors and works very diligently on them. There is vibrance, and it has a life.”

For me, when I saw Lyman’s new body of work I thought, “She’s captured it.” I’ve seen that stand of trees along the roadside in that very light. I wouldn’t believe it even if I had painted it. A photograph wouldn’t do it justice. But Lyman took a chance and found it.

When I spoke with Hawkinson, he reminded me that the Downtown Provo Gallery Stroll’s Art Chase will be on Lyman’s opening night. You can pick up a card at Terra Nova Gallery, one of the other galleries or at different merchants all around the area. Begin at any of the following locations: Anderson Gallery at the Academy Square Library (550 N. University Ave.), Terra Nova Gallery, Coleman Studios, Utah County Gallery, Freedom Gallery, or Gallery OneTen (see page 10). If you hit all six galleries and get your card stamped you can turn your card in at any gallery to be entered in a drawing to win some great prizes. In the process, enjoy the fine art at each gallery as well as live music and free refreshments. More information on the art chase is available here.

This collaboration is called the American Horizons Festival, an exploration -- in art, film, music and literature -- of the ups and downs of the American Dream. The Festival's activities and performances extend over a three-month period (March to May) and include (now take a deep breath, or skip to the next paragraph): the Salt Lake Art Center, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, the BYU Museum of Art, the Utah Symphony and Opera, the Salt Lake Film Society, the SLC Film Center, NOVA Chamber Music Series, The Gina Bachauer Foundation, the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the City Library (the Big Read program, which has its own large list of collaborators), the Gale Center of History and Culture, Sam Weller’s, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.

It seems many people have an artform they are almost exclusively loyal to. They regularly attend Gallery Stroll but almost never go to the theatre. Or they love the Symphony but don't even know that there are regular poetry readings around town. So, you might miss the type of collaborations of the American Horizons Festival if you didn't have someone to tell you what is going on. But that’s what we’re here for.

Here's an example of how it works: You go to your local library and the book they are reading as part of the Big Read program is John Steinbeck's classic novel of the Great Depression, the Grapes of Wrath. After reading and discussing this novel, at the Utah Opera in May you'll have the opportunity to see the World Premiere of the opera based on the novel, directed by Academy Award-winning director Eric Simonson with a soaring score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon. In the meantime, you could see films based on the novel or other Steinbeck works at the Salt Lake Film Center and Salt Lake Film Society.

Or, since you are reading this article and presumably have an interest in the visual arts, you could look for an exhibition dealing with the same themes. Your search would lead you to the Salt Lake Art Center. Resonance and Return, on exhibit through May 19th in the Art Center's Street Level Gallery, is an exhibit of Social Documentary Photography from 1935 to the present. The exhibit focuses on the tradition of documentary photography begun with Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration project in 1935 (which included photographers Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Russell Lee, Marion Post Walcott, and Arthur Rothstein) and continuing in the work of contemporary photographers like Judy Bankhead, Julia Dawson and Ken Light.

As an exhibit in its own right, Resonance and Return reflects the discoursive quality of the American Horizons Festival, due in large part to the subtle and perceptive curatorial efforts of guest curator James Swensen. Swensen creates a quiet, non-differentiated exhibition space where each photograph selected, strong enough to carry on its own visual soliloquy, engages in an informative dialogue with the other photographs in the context of the larger exhibition.

Each photograph, simply framed and of the same general dimensions, are arranged in an order which signals no chronological or thematic distinction. A photograph entitled "Ada with Kelly," which features the tanned and freckled arms of a mature woman encircling a naked infant, could easily be mistaken as something by Dorothea Lange, but is actually by Judy Bankhead, taken in 1992. Ken Light's "Child of the Fields, Rio Grande Valley" (1979), which shows a scruffy girl in the middle of a pumpkin patch, gives little hint of its 45 year separation from Ben Shahn's image of girls picking cotton.

The issues dealt with by the FSA photographs in the thirties continue to surface in the documentary photographs of today, whether it is issues of poverty, or the invasive identity-defining power of the media. Russell Lee's "Mexican Man in Front of Movie Theatre" (1939) shows a middle-age man standing next to the smiling white faces in the movie poster for "City Streets." In Brenda Ann Keneally's "Inc. Murder 2001" a young African-American boy is dwarfed by the large marketing posters that attempt to define him.

Graceful aesthetic similarities also occur in the exhibit, as in the case of Russell Lee’s cropped image of a girl traveling in a car (1939) and one by Ken Light showing a migrant family in Florida (1982).

One might see the “dialogues” cited here as odd coincidences, meanings in the eye of the beholder, but with so many enjoyable coincidences one can't help but see in this exhibit the studied eye of a professional curator. Swensen avoids blatant, obvious statements, providing dialogues to be encountered but allowing the observer the joy of discovery.

To experience more inter- and intra- disciplinary dialogues you'll want to attend as many of the American Horizons Festival programs as possible. For more information, visit the Utah Symphony website.