|Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Literature in Print
Stefanie Dykes at Finch Lane Gallery
by Geoff Wichert
Two years ago, in an exhibition at the Central Utah Art Center (see September 2006), Stefanie Dykes showed a pair of architectural fantasies: ornamental woodblock prints combining the flat perspective of diagrams with animated details and figures cavorting in space. Standing before these large prints (each 3 feet high and 2 feet wide), the artist explained that they were the beginning of her next project. An artist who pushes against every perceived limit of printmaking, including the maximum practical size of paper and press, Dykes was determined to continue creating linked pieces of this puzzle until they coalesced into a cathedral large enough that, standing before it, she could feel herself moving through it. Her choice of Gothic style was appropriate because the time-lapse quality of the original edifices, accumulated over lifetimes, would become a metaphor for her intention to let the project, with a two-year deadline for completion, become an "epiphany," or manifestation, of events in her life during its construction.
So it took time to complete this "gothic cathedral of the mind." First, there is a stupefying amount of complex, hand-cut detail in each of ten panels. One of the artist's friends, referring to the daunting idea of intricately carving what turned out to be sixty square feet of birch plywood, quipped that she is "just crazy enough to use a blade one millimeter wide to make a twenty-foot print." At the same time, the life it was to illuminate made demands on her as wife, mother, teacher, partner of SaltGrass Printmakers, professional artist, and member of an international printmaking community. Then, because she knows the value of deadlines, Dykes committed to showing the finished work in Nebraska in October, 2007. By the time it returned, it had become her past: a ball and chain around the ankle of someone itching to move on. So only now will this mythical monument finally see local daylight in the town where it was born.
A print the size of an Abstract-Expressionist painting raises questions about what constitutes a print. In an age that confuses mechanical reproductions with original works in which multiple iteration is part of the initial plan; where Giclée (high class inkjet) copies, sometimes touched up by hired hands are marketed with minimal participation by the artist -- it would help if the language could be modified so that merely being printed did not qualify the resultant copy as "a print." Newspapers are produced by lithography, a demanding technique used by artists, yet no one calls a newspaper a print. We recognize it as an ephemeral, inherently non-valuable object. Other than limiting an edition to a relatively small number of copies, just what makes a print a valid, and valuable, work of art?
The answer lies in the conception, and two recent developments, both employed by Stefanie Dykes, lend some perspective. One comes directly from the fundamental fact of printmaking: reproduction requires a template, a matrix that makes multiple, close-to-identical copies quick and economical. It was this quality, in tandem with the need for devotional images that were liberated from Church control, that first made prints popular during the Reformation. Only much later did artists realize that while the matrix is necessary, it needn't completely control the work. Dykes can make twenty identical copies from the matrix, or she can make twenty variations on it.
The other, more revolutionary (and for some more alarming) development concerns the voice of the print. Over centuries, the many solutions developed in response to the necessity of a matrix have given prints a distinctive visual vocabulary. Consider one example: in the beginning, illustrations were monochromatic, limiting their realism and legibility. One solution was to print a black outline, which could be filled with color by assistants with no more skill than a child needs to fill in a coloring book. Circumstances have changed completely; it is now far cheaper to make a full-color illustration than to pay someone to paint in colors. Yet the filled-in outline is still with us, a staple of graphic design. Numerous artists in many mediums have adopted the conventions of printmaking, either to create the look of a reproduction, or for their own aesthetic virtues. All that was required for the circle to be complete was for a printmaker to reproduce those conventions by the seemingly extravagant expedient of pulling only one print from her matrix.
This is exactly what Dykes has done with her Cathedral. Although portions exist as fragments, only one complete copy exists. There can never be more, because she cut up the plywood matrices and fashioned them into boxes: reliquaries made from the holy bones they would contain. She cut partial copiespulling a three-foot print can never be a sure thinginto nine-inch squares, which she carried with her during the project, hand-coloring them and labeling them with the names of places she traveled.|0-1| These, too, she calls relics, a selection of which hang on the wall opposite the Cathedral.
While some consider destroying the woodblocks scarcely above vandalism, for Dykes it was appropriate, even necessary. One moment she says, a bit mysteriously, "All it asked to be was one." Then she explains that she is about to enroll in the U of U's MFA program, and she needs "to clean the palate. The easy thing is to re-use, to think Oh, I've got that matrix in the basement." While not opposed on principle to such recycling of images, she has witnessed how pulling images from a repertoire can allow an artist to avoid moving forward. So out it goes.
Those who know Dykes skillful, sophisticated, and accessible style will find reminders of her repertoire in the Cathedral. Whether it's a troll wearing hair curlers |2| or an angel playing kettledrums instead of a harp,|3| her humor leavens topics running to mortality, salvation, and how much we can help others and how much we must do ourselves. Dykes layers her themes, including her personal narrative and reflections, so that more personal elements are represented by details reached only upon encountering broader, more universal themes that are found in the bigger picture. She accepts that art is a three-way conversation involving her, the work, and the audience, but counters, "I can't control what they bring to it. I poured it all out and now they get to do it in reverse."
There is plenty to reward time spent in the Cathedral. If present, the artist will share some of the stories that contributed to its final form, though she warns, "Once it starts it's going to take a while." But content aside, to let an artist dictate what a work means is to diminish it. Better to wander, as anyone must that wants to truly know a building, around the exterior and through the interior. Ponder why two portals. Consider the resemblance between the stained glass Madonna and Child and the branches growing across it. A tour might well begin on the left, where totemic figures wrestle with the structure. They could be demons and angels, or wind and gravity. At the other side an actual bridge emerges from this metaphorical one. In between, a baptismal font shares its water with a fountain and a birdbath. Decorative details interact with the denizens of the place, as they should. Visual pleasure alone makes the trip worthwhile, but there are revelations, too, hidden like Easter eggs in an architectural garden. Finding them brings another level of accomplishment, satisfaction, and cerebral pleasure.
Exhibition Spotlight: Salt Lake City
The 337 Project Rises Again
Afterimage & Present Tense @ the SL Art Center
By Beryl Kosta
The 337 Project was, without question, one of the most exciting visual arts events of 2007. Bringing together one abandoned building, 150 Utah artists and 10,000 visitors over its brief six-day life, the 337 Project demonstrated not only the great talent in the Utah arts scene, but also revealed the existence of a population here so desperate for a new kind of artistic experience that many visitors were willing stand in line for up to four hours just to get in.
When the 337 Project closed its doors after its six-day run, the building went dark, the artists dispersed, and the audience went home. For the last year, as the structure at 337 South 400 East first gathered dust and was later demolished, it has remained an open question whether the 337 Project would turn out to be a memorable one-off event, or a catalyst for something more enduring. That question has now been answered, at least in part, by two upcoming events arising directly from the 337 Project.
The first event is the release of the documentary film Afterimage: The Art of 337 by Alex Haworth and Davey Davis of The Dada Factory. Haworth and Davis joined the 337 Project in its inception and therefore had unparalleled access to the artists and organizers even while the project was itself unfolding. The scope of the documentary reflects this access, following the growth of the community that coalesced around the project, as well as the transformation of the building from its earliest days through its destruction.
Ephemeral art is at least as old as the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism, extraordinarily elaborate patterns and images, created over a period of days from nothing but poured sand, and then ritually destroyed after a single viewing. The lesson of the sand mandalathat life is transitorylies at the core of Buddhist teaching and also at the heart of the 337 Project. The documentary carefully explores the varied responses to the ultimate destruction of the art, contrasting the artists, who expected, and even desired, the end of their own creations, with visitors from the community, for whom learning of the planned demolition was most often a source of shock, disappointment, and dismay.
For those community members who had trouble letting go of the 337 Project, as well as for those who never saw it, the excellent documentary by Haworth and Davis does the trick. The dictionary defines “afterimage” to mean “a visual image or other sense impression that persists after the stimulus that caused it is no longer operative,” and that is precisely the result Haworth and Davis achieve now that the building itself is gone. The documentary, which serves as the definitive record of the 337 Project, includes extensive interviews with the organizers of the event, the participating artists, members of the community, and pundits, each of whom provide a different take on the ultimate meaning of the 337 Project.
The undoubted climax of the film, however, is a 10-minute montage of images from the building, filmed beautifully in high-definition just after the show closed for good. Devoid of any human presence or narrative explanation, the images from this sequence are especially haunting because of the knowledge that the original art will never be seen again.
The second event inspired by the old building is Present Tense: A Post 337 Project, a new show opening at the Salt Lake Art Center on the evening of June 20 and running until September 27, 2008. The show features 25 local artists from the original 337 Project who have created new works that explore their experiences at that building while also taking a wonderful leap toward the future. On opening night, a shuttle bus will run nonstop between Nobrow Coffee and Tea Co. (315 E. 300 S.) and the Art Center every 10 minutes for those who prefer not to walk from other Gallery Stroll events. The five monitors on the shuttle bus will show Afterimage: The Art of 337 on a continuous loop, both for the Art Center-bound who want to get excited about what they will soon see, and the Nobrow-bound who want to reflect on what they have just left behind.
The world premiere of Afterimage: The Art of 337 will be at the Salt Lake Art Center on Friday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. Afterimage will be shown there again on July 11, August 8, and September 12 at 7:30 p.m., and on June 21, July 19, August 16, and September 20 at 4:00 p.m. DVDs of the documentary, which will include bonus footage of the art, will be available for sale at the Salt Lake Art Center and other local merchants for $15.00, a portion of which will be donated to the 337 Project to fund future artistic endeavors.