Exhibition Reviews: Salt Lake City
Rachel Salamone & Christopher Wawrinofsky at Nobrow and Cara Despain at Kayo
by Geoff Wichert
The arrival in Salt Lake of what is fast becoming the preeminent new style of art is marked for the moment by the appearance, on the parking strip in front of Nobrow Coffee, of an object as hard to identify as it is to overlook.|1| Looking decidedly less monumental than a Roman memorial column and more like a totem pole erected to honor street deities, it marks the entrance to and sets the tone for getaway formy, an installation by Massachusetts art team Rachel Salamone and Christopher Wawrinofsky.
In theory, history is a lens that by looking backwards prepares us to see the present and future more clearly. In practice, awareness of what has been can blind us to what is coming to pass. This is nowhere more true than in art, a perennially adolescent discipline that thrives on repudiating its parents even as it's constantly asking if it can borrow the car. Recently, the official version of Modernism has jelled, so that a definitive family tree covering the century from 1850 to 1950 can be drawn. It can even be loaded into boxes and shipped around like a pre-packaged tour that comes to us so we don't have to renew our passports or pay too much for gas. The Cleveland Museum's touring collection, on view at UMFA until September 21, is a never to be repeated and not to be missed opportunity to see the now settled chronicle of Modernism in 74 major and, more importantly, exquisite monuments. But what about now? What about the future? There's no money in bringing the debate over where art is going to town, so we are fortunate that a few pioneering souls still dwell by the Salt Lake. The geographic frontier may be closed, but judging by getaway formy and some not-unrelated paintings by Cara Despain up the street at Kayo Gallery, the aesthetic frontiers are wide open.
For a year now, 15 Bytes has been watching the approach of what many observers are calling the new direction in art. Now christened Unmonumental, it's predominantly sculptural but includes painting, photography, and found images. Its roots are in the found object and assemblage, but some of its parts are carefully crafted before being collaged together, and others are pulled from the trash. At times it's utterly abstract, but figurative passages appear like gems in organic settings: like pearls in the goop and horny shell of an oyster. It's as though 40 years ago Pop, the heir apparent, took over the family business, and this younger brother, with the same DNA but expressed differently, has finally succeeded and taken its place.
In an essay in Unmonumental (see our blog for May 21), Laura Hoptman compares the artist making this work to a search engine sorting through the objects available for use by artistswhich she argues now includes just about everythingfor parts that can be consciously chosen and combined into coherent new objects. Salamone and Wawrinofsky undertake this role with robust enthusiasm, resulting in a large assortment of related objects in which initial visual cacophony rapidly gives way to intrigue, recognition, and even enchantment. A jumble of plywood scraps stands crowned by an explosion of tropical colors and forms: identifying human legs in this mix allows eye and mind to play at resolving it into a human figure dressed in a carnival costume made from a fever dream of the islands.|2| Or in that column out front, the most architectural element is a base, shaft, and capital made from an oil barrel being blown apart by the growth of a tree.
It's not necessary to analyze these sculptures or the framed images that hang on the walls between them: they can be enjoyed for their exuberance, punctuated and leavened by the periodic recognition of an appropriated kitchen utensil or ornamental device. But faith that amid what at first resembles chaos there is an organizing intelligence and not just a set of inspired accidents is the first step to really getting Unmonumental. A good opening exercise is to wander around the café visually collecting all the cubes. These mysterious, geometric labyrinths, like fish traps for unwary but swiftly gliding thoughts, occur standing alone, mounted on the wall, and embedded in larger accretions. Made from shards of organic or industrial waste, some parts painted and others left raw, they are like knots: patterns that we can move from one material to anotherstring to rope, splinters to plastic spruesand that maintain their identity regardless of, though not indifferent to, the given material manifestation of the moment.
The various assemblies throughout Nobrow, like the framed paintings on the walls of the UMFA, were built elsewhere, transported here, and adapted to the space they now fill. Yet so accurate is the verisimilitude with which they invoke our quotidian lives that it is sometimes hard to tell what belongs to the art and what belongs to the coffee shop. That piece of ductwork with the bar code label still attached . . . sculpture or air conditioning?|0| Flexible electrical conduits start in the store's wiring but end up on light fixtures seeming to be part of the work. There is no attempt made to distinguish the two sensibilities that contributed to the whole, nor to label its parts, or even to make clear if this is one huge work or ten smaller ones. Instead, it displays one of the essential characteristics of information in our time: we are always coming in on things already in progress, seeing them through the keyhole of our personal perspective, and we never know for certain what we got and what we missed.
Unmonumental began in sculpture, but it wouldn't be so important if its impulses weren't also driving other arts. The kinship between the assorted heaps at Nobrow and Cara Despain's clean and witty optical puns may not be the first thing viewers notice, but it runs both deeper and closer to the surface than their shared playful demeanor and stress on materiality suggest. In "Grim Narrator" the same panel of organically grained plywood depicts sky, landscape, and foreground setting with casual ease, while a skillfully rendered cloudscape is hijacked by a small, triangular fillip to serve double duty as the pictorially rendered speech balloon emerging from the mouth of the title character: a dinosaur wearing clip-on rabbit ears, evoking those paid spokesmen who everywhere pretend to be disinterested witnesses.|3| Lying on the ground like evidence before him are the skeletons of hominids (drawn) and another dinosaur (painted). Should someone object that, Hollywood notwithstanding, these two species never coexisted on Earth, the artist reminds us that in today's media-fed mind, fables and facts lie close together, freely crossbreeding. Why shouldn't cavemen watch rockets fly into space, or baleen whales wear braces? After all, aren't conspiracies and science both mere theories? Besides, whose fault is it if we view disparate mediums, the drawn and the painted, as parts of the same picture?
In "Parallax Point" the affinity to Unmonumental is unmistakable.|4| Here again the unpainted grain pattern unifies the image, recalling inlaid scenery on collectible furniture or Renaissance cabinets. The reference is appropriate, for each dramatic landform creates a lofty aerie from which a seeming family of totemic figureshuman bodies combined with animal headsenjoys a privileged view of the cosmic scene. These miniature vignettes are lovingly crafted, down to the artificial turf that makes their landscaping vividly present and seductively inviting. Similar illusionistic windows into alternative realities are scattered here and there in getaway formy.
If getaway formy synthesizes the full, overwhelming complexity of how the world looks and what it means today, Despain's paintings narrow the field of view to allow discerning some of the specific mechanisms it employs. Both employ pre-existing structures, mechanical and cerebral, to comment on how things work and what happens when they don't. Both maintain a refreshingly cheerful attitude in the face of sobering, but resolutely acknowledged fate. Eight years after our country choked at choosing between the dour pessimist and the moronic optimist, the belief that if we open our eyes and pay attention we just might get through this reasserts itself. Anyone who doesn't understand what is un-monumental about America in the twenty-first century has not been paying attention. Fortunately, Rachel Salamone, Christopher Wawrinofsky, and Cara Despain can help you get up to speed in a hurry. We need all the capable help we can find.
||Exhibition Spotlight: Orem
The da Vinci Experience at the Woodbury Art Museum
by Ehren Clark
For those of us who love great art, who recognize the value of seminal art and artists and their impact on history, Utah Valley University's current exhibit, the da Vinci Experience, gives insight to the potential, vicissitudes, and some very practical aims of historic art. The exhibition, now on display at the Woodbury Art Museum, Gallery presents sixty plus reconstructions of Leonardo da Vinci's "inventions" -- working mechanical models assembled under the direction of the traveling exhibition managing partner, Luigi Rizzo, of Florence, Italy. Rather than focusing on daVinci's skill in two-dimensions, the exhibit marvelously presents three-dimensional replicas of experiments da Vinci worked on throughout his life at an astounding rate of productivity, ingenuity and intelligence.
One is hard pressed to find major works of the Renaissance in Utah (a few are at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Art at BYU) and I don't know of any by daVinci. The few extant paintings by da Vinci are rare at any major museum outside of Europe, and these, like "Leda and the Swan" or the "Last Supper" will quickly convince you of the greatness and multifacetedness of his talent. Art lovers are awed by the beauty of “Leda,” and the swan that reflects and rejoices in her femininity, the gentle curve of the neck of the swan mimicking the curve of Leda's form, sensuously portrayed. Also, the "mechanics" of this naturalistically rendered form -- such as the use of sfumato (haze) to render the chiaroscuro so delicately -- are of interest to the art historian.
The Woodbury show, however, is not about the aesthetic experience of da Vinci's works. It is a testament to the fecund and interdisciplinary epoch we call the Renaissance. At the Woodbury you'll witness how art and history, science and aesthetics -- especially that interdisciplinary encounter affecting the causality of art upon science, philosophy -- came alive in the mind of one unique individual. A surprising revelation of Leonardo's physical examination of the natural is available for all to see, examine and even handle.
Leonardo looked to the realms of the natural world to a tremendous extent, as may be seen in his “notebooks”. In them one finds Leonardo exploring the natural universe. We find him studying the currents of water as they flow downstream, the quality of air and its currents, studies of arboreal life as it germinates from plant to plant, the study of fauna, anatomy, physiology, medicine, optics, astronomy, movement and weight, hydraulics, and the more aesthetic values of landscape, color, light and shade, perspective, sculpture, architecture, music.
Leonardo delved into many areas of new study but he also revived a tradition long extinct -- that of the Classical (Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern), whose thinking about nature had lay dormant throughout the Dark and early Middle Ages. As the era of Antiquity was becoming culturally revived, Leonardo was one who, like Raphael (who rewrote the definitive trajectory on painting) or Michelangelo (whose sculptural accomplishments were rivaled only by the Greeks), utilized Classical learning, contemporized it and developed a broad study of nature in a multitude of disciplines. He served as one of the many bringing Europe out of obscurity.
Leonardo, the unequivocal "Renaissance Man" took it upon himself to use the natural world to discover laws of physics which would inevitably allow him to create paintings such as the "Last Supper." The naturalism in this painting is such that only one familiar with laws of physics could depict the complexity of the moment of discovery of Christ's betrayer. The painting seems to vibrate as this knowledge resonates through the face of each apostle and Judas is revealed.
Yet this experimental quality, utilizing laws of naturalism, sometimes uncannily, often implausibly, is what the Woodbury exhibition focuses on. As talented a painter as he was, daVinci had to look for work outside the studio. Throughout his life he worked as a civil and military engineer, working for the Duke of Milan, the King of France and Cesare Borgia (the subject of Macchiavelli's The Prince). During this time he drew up engineering plans for a number of devices, only a few of which were ever constructed in his time. In The daVinci Experience countless hours have been spent recreating, in excruciating detail, three-dimensional manifestations of the Master's mechanical and engineering drawings. Visitors can even handle the beautifully crafted replicas.
Many of da Vinci's inventions, such as the famous helicopter, are highly practical, yet others may seem completely fanciful. Yet all follow the rules of nature and of physics and address Leonardo's experiments with the natural world. For example, one piece uses wooden balls that turn and glide around a post as it rotates. One might notice the same laws of physics used in bicycle ball bearings and countless other mechanisms with such aspects. One wonders if Leonardo's ideas had been more closely built upon, where would technology, as encompassing as it is, be today?
Although the tools to create a digital world were far out of his reach, Leonardo's engineering and mechanical processes are all too relevant today. As he looked to the wind to discover its force, to water to learn of currents, and the body and its core to study the possibilities of human mobility, he looked to the basic rudiments of the natural world to bequeath an oeuvre which is no less awesome. Da Vinci's work might be perceived as fiction from fact, the artist a mystic Nostradamus who predicted the future. But nothing could be farther from reality. He was a true innovator, taking his cue from Antiquity, whose work and ideas undeniably have mingled in not only form but function. Leonardo's oeuvre has had a substantial influence on many branches of science and the humanities, far more than might be believed by the masses of tourists visiting the bulletproof glass-incased Mona Lisa, housed and isolated in the Louvre.
Leonardo was undoubtedly a pioneer. He was also, unlike the flamboyant Raphael or the moody Michelangelo, a solitary artist, thinker and innovator, given patronage from the very wealthiest but a great deal of freedom to innovate. He was able to create masterworks to keep his patrons pleased but free to explore other elements of the Renaissance revival of the Classical. He was a seminal element of the rebirth of Antiquity, part of the reinvigoration of art, science, literature, philosophy and excelled at each: truly a man of the Renaissance.