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    September 2007
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Prometheus Unbound by Benson Whittle
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Benson Whittle . . . from page 1

The artist has said he took his inspiration for the Apollo/Daphne screen from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a never-exhausted source for artists and writers since its appearance 2,000 years ago. Here’s what the 16th-century English pastoral poet Andrew Marvell, in his brilliant poem "The Garden," made of the same tale of baffled desire transmuted into fecund generation:

The Gods, that mortal Beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that She might Laurel grow.

In his creations, Whittle—whose first passion was poetry, and who retains in a capacious memory entire, exalted passages of Keats and the other Romantics—gives weighty body to the ethereal eloquence of such predecessors.

Another subject drawn from Greek mythology appears in "Prometheus Unbound," a medium-sized bronze which shows mankind's fire-bringer enduring—but definitely not succumbing to—the punishment meted out by Zeus: battened on his liver, an eagle tears at his flesh with powerful claws, meanwhile staring him obscenely in the face.|0| In his molding Whittle has made the immense, coiled energy of the tormented hero palpable, his steely defiance an exemplum; this is sculpture whose subject matter and execution work in tandem to inspire.

Not all of Whittle's work references the classical world, nor is it all in a sublime key: he is also a trenchant satirist whose mockery of life's perennial grotesques issues in sardonic comedy. "In the Marketplace," a large, vertical painting in garish hues, presents, with a vividness scarcely bearable, the spectacle of a vendor dangling meretricious goods before a motley array of jackal-like, would-be purchasers, their avidity positively bestial; it is a nightmare vision of the inhuman transactional which grew out of the artist's impoverishment in Madrid in the early 1980s. The figures in the crowd suggest the influence of painters as diverse as Picasso, Munch, and Hieronymus Bosch, but the conception is pure Whittle; one can hear the gallows laughter of the famished man he then was ring out from the oil on linen. And in "Enraged Football Crowd; or The Bad Call," completed in 1993, the eponymous congregation gesticulates from the stands on high at the players and referees on the gridiron below; meanwhile, above the fan(atics) floats the head of a presiding, Christ-like deity.|1| Anyone who has attended a game at BYU or Notre Dame, where religionists regard their team's touchdowns as sanctions from the divine—or has fathomed the message of Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side"—will relish the satirical point.

While "The Bad Call" manifests ridicule for the narrowly partisan and petty among those in possession of what William Dean Howells indelibly termed “a pocket Providence,” Whittle is also capable of expressing intense reverence for the Judeo-Christian weltanschauung. In "Large Oaken Screen: First Parents w/Serpent and Fruit," another monumental wooden screen/pierced relief in three, hinged parts, Adam and Eve are linked to the trunk and branches of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, around which sensuously spirals the thick-bodied Tempter.|2| Executed in an astonishing interweave or interlace motif which Whittle finds particularly congenial—and which is something of a signature device for him—the figures can be read as writhing in bondage or as types of organic connectedness; thus the screen as a whole evokes theological debates over the meaning of the Fall: was it a fortunate one, the so-called felix culpa, or must it be lamented? In its counterpoint of intricate delicacy with massive solidity, the work is as poignant as it is powerful, and is capable of moving believers and unbelievers alike.

In "Plumed Serpent" Whittle's imaginative engagement with a system of belief—this time the fascinating and sanguinary pagan one articulated by the Aztecs or “Mexica” of pre-Conquest Mexico—has resulted in a sculpture that is less an objet d'art than a holy, votive one.|3| Chiseled out of black limestone brought from the Spanish town of Calatorao, this small, dense piece refers at once to the mysterious god Quetzalcoatl and D. H. Lawrences’ 1926 novel The Plumed Serpent. Yet the sculpture transcends its mytho-poetic and literary sources to become something numinous; it is an uncanny, graven idol whose inhuman serenity and gravity of aspect compel an adoration not a little inflected with terror.

Viewers taking in these and other marvels in Fairview—the fabulous sculpture in gleaming alabaster of "Amphisbaena, or Medieval Imaginary Being," for instance, or the sensuous woodblock print of a man and woman harvesting grapes—will go away bewildered by Whittle's relative anonymity in the art-world. For museum director Ron Staker, who has known the artist for some twenty years and has long wanted to present an exhibit of this scope, it is patent he has yet to receive the kind of critical respect and attention from collectors he merits. "Unlike many artists working today," he asserts, "Ben doesn't create out of the present alone. His scholarly background, his reading, and his connection to the entire tradition of myth and philosophy and art-making make him entirely distinctive." Staker thinks this has misled some faddish critics to dismiss Whittle's work as derivative or naively out-of-date; incredibly, some do not take him seriously. Yet Staker insists the artist "is transmitting the discoveries and excellencies of the past in a way that is very original and exciting," and follows this with an incontrovertible effusion: "To have such a range of his accomplishment on display is overwhelming."

Now 63, and recovering from a brain tumor diagnosed two years ago and the subsequent surgery required to remove it, Benson Whittle was born in Brawley, California and divides his time between homes in New Mexico and Utah with Patty Hatch and their 8-year old daughter Zöe. Ben was just Zöe's age, in fact, when he made the earliest work of art in this show, an irresistible depiction in color crayon of a "Fat Black Bird." Its freshness, charm and cartoonish scale elicit the most uncomplicated of responses to be felt in this space rendered glorious by a lifetime's work: a smile of pure delight and wonderment that genius might be manifest so purely and so early on—in the keenly seeing child who was father to this remarkably gifted man.

Benson Whittle’s retrospective at the Museum of History and Art in Fairview will remain on display until October 13th. Admission is free; for more information, call (435) 427-9216.

SLC Mayoral Candidates . . . from page 1

Artistic Tastes and Influences
A print of James Jones' "North Rim Grand Canyon" was Ralph Becker's |0| most recent acquisition, and he cites the Work Progress Administration (WPA) artist H.L.A. Culmer as one of his favorites. "We need to be continually promoting the great Utah art we have," he says about the local art scene. He met with 15 Bytes at his office and campaign headquarters. The office is decorated with bears—prints, stuffed, and other—all given to him by friends in reference to the name of his company, Bear West.

Dave Buhler, a fan of Leconte Stewart and other rural landscapist artists, couldn't name the last piece of art he acquired. "I may need to consult my wife, he joked. He met with 15 Bytes at the Anderson Foothill Library, the site of an Olympic Art project he is proud to have championed. |1| "I thought it would be really neat to have a sculpture," he says about his input over the selection. One educational aspect of his project called for a scale model of the sculpture to be given to each of the schools in his district.

Keith Christensen |3| collects the work of a variety of artists in his home, including the art of several Utahns. He laments having had to go to Arizona to buy a piece by Utah native Kent Wallis. He feels the Salt Lake City mayor should help "give artists of that quality a forum in Salt Lake City." He met with 15 Bytes at his home, which is full of a collection of sculpture and paintings ranging from Kent Wallis ("[he has a] bold, colorful approach to things") and Eric Wallis ("a young talent that is going to be incredible") to original Disney animation cells. His most recent acquisition was a piece by Springville artist Marty Ricks.

Jenny Wilson's |4| latest acquisition, a Ted Wassmer piece, was a gift from her mother, Kathryn Wilson, owner of Sego Gallery. "My mom has made a career out of being an artist and gallery owner," says Wilson, "[and I] married a guy whose mother is in the same camp—a very strong visual artist." Wilson lists as her favorite artists her mother, Kathryn Wilson, and her mother-in-law, Marah Brown Rohovit. Extending beyond the family, Wilson enjoys Kathryn Stats, a southern Utah landscape painter.

Support for Art in Salt Lake City
"What I have done in the past couple years,” says Buhler, "is increase the funding [for the Salt Lake City Arts Council]." Buhler explains that when going over the city budget, if you want to add some money here, you have to take it from there. "So it's not a small thing to say we put some money in [the Salt Lake City Arts Council] that was not [originally] in that budget." He adds: "I am very supportive of the work they do. I think they manage it well." Buhler is also on the advisory board for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

"Artspace is really interesting," says Christensen. "I spent some time working on Artspace when I was on the City Council." In fact, Stephen Goldsmith, the person behind Artspace, is a member of Christensen's campaign steering committee. Christensen looks at a wide variety of artistic media: "When I think visual arts, I don't just think painting—I think of the display of visual arts outside. It is exciting to see street art; it makes the street come alive." Christensen applauds what is happening on 300 South, and wants to see more places where people can stroll and interact with art and galleries. "I think of [great places to go] like San Francisco and New York, and art is a big part of those communities."

Wilson is happy to be a member of the Salt Lake County Council, which has "already helped [the Salt Lake Art Center] substantially" by making sure they're housed rent-free. "I think it's a very important entity within the community … I think they do a great job." Wilsons favorite places to view art include "really small galleries that have some very unusual things. Part of art appreciation and really learning from art is seeing some of the really innovative and creative kind of funky, sometimes not-so-successful projects." Wilson is also on the advisory board for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

As a member of the planning commission in the mid-1990's, Becker says he helped identify and support a cultural district on 300 South that would become the thriving local art scene it is today. He is proud to still enjoy it, and referred to the recent Laura Besterfeldt show at the Kayo Gallery as "amazing." As for supporting the Salt Lake City Arts Council: "I really don't know what their need is versus what they get.” But, “I think Nancy [Boskoff, director of the SLC Arts Council,] is fantastic at her job."

"If Elected Mayor . . ."
Christensen recognizes the value art plays in how livable a city is. "It is indispensable to the vitality of community, particularly our downtown area." Christensen also recognizes that it makes strong business sense to foster a strong art scene: "Art itself draws people … the convention and tourist business is a big thing to us, and people want to know what they can go look at, what they can see." Christensen sees the role of the mayor's office as an important one in the arts scene: "Funding is imperative … We have wonderful people donating to the arts continually. The better we do, the more inclined they will be to donate as well."

When asked what the mayor's office could do to better serve the visual arts community, Wilson refers to her website and her ideas on a "creative economy." She stresses that we have to focus on our creative industries in the new developments downtown, including "fostering young people who are creative with technology, architectural firms, graphic artists, [and] more galleries." Wilson adds: "I really believe that the arts enrich learning … I want to see more arts back in the schools." What does she hope to do as mayor for art in the city? "We really need to get a better understanding to the community that art is a priority."

"We need to be continually promoting the great Utah art we have, says Becker. "We have a great diversity of visual artists and galleries." As mayor, Becker would be an advocate for the arts: "I think part of the job of mayor is promoting Utah and Salt Lake City’s assets.” Becker notes his involvement with the 300 South corridor: “I think it really helps to have a concentration of art places. We actually have that right now on Broadway. We need to examine how to protect that space.”

Buhler is consistent with his campaign: "I think being accessible, reasonable, open to [the visual arts community], be willing to listen to them. Continuing to support the 1% for art." Buhler notes how much he relied on Nancy Boskoff and the Salt Lake City Arts Council when installing the Olympic sculpture at the Anderson Foothill Library. "I had the idea, but I had no idea how to pull it off … [The Salt Lake Art Council] took care of that for me." Buhler would continue to support the Art Council if elected mayor: "[Visual arts] can be an area that can be tough for cities or government to be involved in, but I think they manage it very, very well."

The Salt Lake City mayoral primaries are Tuesday, September 11. Read the full interviews: Ralph Becker, Keith Christensen, Jenny Wilson, Dave Buhler.

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