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    March 2008
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Provo by Justin Wheatley
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State Street Project . . . from page 1

Rural America is largely being forgotten as people move to cities. Small farms and rural communities, the backbone and sustenance of this country, the type strung together along US 89, are largely ignored as people speed along interstates from one metropolis to the next. The real value of rural America, its significance to the lives of Americans and the world in its productivity, is not lost to Justin Wheatley, whose paintings are a testimonial to the value and loss of rural America. Wheatley's works, in their highly structured and geometric, minimalist interpretation, are not quite landscapes.|1| "Fairview," where the small scale farmhouse is rendered in slight proportion to the space it occupies, is a well-balanced composition- not formally but ideologically. Wheatley's series of similar works imply the vastness of the rural landscape, what might be called its emptiness; yet Wheatley quantifies the value that the occupation in this emptiness signifies. It is a balance between space and habitation which venerates rural America.

Along deserted portions of Route 89, one finds monuments to what was: an old gas station long gone to ruin, a derelict windmill, billboards that have long since ceased to advertise anything -- signposts of America's past. These icons of nostalgia belong in a museum. Namon Bills has come close to capturing the nostalgia of America permanently in his vibrant paintings -- icons and collages of the past mingled with the present. In "Classic," he brilliantly conjoins what is seemingly an old advertisement reading "Utah" with a shiny new Mini-Cooper.|2| He brings fragments of the state's past and present together in what are also fragments of his own journey.

On a lengthy journey, one discovers physical icons of the land, but equally dominant is the state of mind as the traveler traverses these endless highways. Elizabeth Wilson, in her near completely abstract paintings like "Eater," references the subjective state of the traveler devouring the road.|3| Rather than the land itself, Wilson's abstractions portray the subjectivity of her experience.

Before, during and after a significant journey one's psychological state of being shifts. It is said that traveling is a life-altering event; it opens the mind, creates new realms of subjectivity and expands personal horizons. Steven Stradley's "Psychological Landscape" is just that, his psychological journey as he traveled Highway 89.|4| The piece, monumental in scale, is crafted by placing in a small, individual rectangular canvases in a grid -- time capsules of his mind and psychological perceptions of his journey. They form a rectangular totality comparable to the totality of the artist's psychological impressions.

The postcard and snapshot are synonymous with travel. They serve as concrete reminders of the journey, capturing nuances that might be forgotten without them. Steve Hardman's contribution to the State Street Project is a series of lucid photographs, a documentary essay of landscapes he experienced on his travels. His "Provo Tabernacle" is a particularly significant monument that no one acquainted with downtown Provo could mistake. This close look at the landscape and the monuments of Utah which create it lends Hardman's work his subjective experience and captures it objectively in its tangible reality that all might relate to.

A more poetic journey, such as the travels of Hemmingway or Kerouac, is almost unavoidable during the long hours on the highway. Seeing the land while experiencing it can create a transcendental relationship which reaches far into the horizon, beyond the highway, beyond the hotels, the towns. In painting and written poetry, Shawn Dallas Stradley revisits his experience of the journey in a relationship combining collage and poetry which flow into a homogenous whole. His abstract collages are as poignant in meaning and metaphor as his abstract poetry. His experience is registered in this sequence of works which denote an imaginative and compelling experience of the adventure down Highway 89.

Poetry can also be an aspect of something very sobering. A poignant feature of the highway across America is the destruction of the landscape by the artificial -- be it a restaurant, a shopping mall, or, in Steph Johnson's work, a dam, which completely reinvents what was natural for human benefit.|5| Johnson's work might be called poetic by her method. She conveys the artificial in simply rendered pen and ink; however, in her canvases it is apparent that these human-made constructs are not to replace the beauty of the land, which is displayed in an abstract bouquet of color and vibrancy.

As nature finds its way being hindered by the artificial, it is a highlight of the show and a highlight of any journey to explore and appreciate the untamed beauty of the land: mountains, rivers, valleys, trees. The artists of the State Street Project do not neglect this integral aspect of the land. Like Johnson and others, Sarah Bigelow has contributed her experience of the beauty of nature in her series of abstract works focusing on nature, such as is seen in "Tree # 1." Painterly abstraction of nature is a good approach to capturing the vicissitudes of the natural world. Literal painting can limit the extent to which the natural may be received by the viewer in its finitude. Focusing on the essence of the pure elements of the natural, Bigelow renders her subject in a manner which is not dissimilar from Cézanne; she brings her subject frontally in a web of natural elements with no apparent trace of depth. She focuses on what is present -- the abundance of the natural world.

When the viewer visits the State Street Project, he or she begins a journey through eight unique vantage points of the same journey of experience. In doing so, they will come to know what Namon Bills, curator of the exhibit, said of the experience: "We discovered a new way of seeing; we traveled the state, a new experience. You were not trying to get to a new destination, but traveling to experience the road itself."

Gaylen Hansen . . . from page 1

We know from his résumé, and from the tribute contributed to the catalog by The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, that Hansen is a superb draftsman. We also learn, from his commentary in the catalog, that where we might expect depictions, he deliberately intends to deliver caricatures. "Caricature" is a style of art usually reserved for depicting well-known people, but Hansen finds its exaggeration just as useful and substantial in representing well-known things. It's a better measure of Hansen's ability, and his intention to paint the way he does, that everything in his work, however distorted, is instantly recognizable, even when shown out of context, oddly posed, and juxtaposed in highly unlikely or arbitrary groups. What might be mistaken for slap-dash scrawls are in fact carefully chosen images that are as scrupulously modeled as characters and things found in jokes and stories. A good yarn doesn't tell any more than is necessary, and what it tells is rarely true in the conventional sense. Just so with Hansen's painted tales, but like the storyteller, he knows exactly what essentials are necessary in order to nail the wit, which is to say the truth, of the story.

Hansen represents a generation of artists who turned their backs on New York and the pretences of Abstract Expressionism in order to make art drawn more directly from life as they found it in the open spaces of the West. His works are demotic, accessible, and full of fun. They are what the stories of Mark Twain would be if he'd been a painter instead of a writer. Although he shows himself in the classic predicament of the American artist achieving recognition—standing among a flock of stiff, formal magpies, disguised as one of them—his most characteristic pose is with his tongue in his cheek. What he's observed about the landscape, nature, and human life is all shown here, in plain sight, but he "holds back." The pleasure for the audience is to get a point that is not belabored; the pleasure for the artist is the nod, the sly smile, or the occasional laugh earned through indirection: a private joke shared among homespun sophisticates.

Every storyteller has certain subjects—icons—that he returns to and, in revisiting, endows with ever-greater meaning. Hansens's best-known subject is Kernal Bentleg, whom he invokes like an alter-ego when his stories achieve some subjective level of self-reference. Yet trying to figure out precisely what anything here, even a fairly straightforward symbol like the Kernal, “stands for” is probably a fool's errand. It's not that fish, teapots, ducks, ladders, and tubes of paint can't stand for things. But what fascinates Hansen is the ability of art—he specifies painting and sculpture—to convey the nature of the thing represented, and to convince us of its reality, This presence beyond mere appearance is the special property of art, and probably explains both why he paints and why he strips his painting of artifice and illusion, as though seeking the most efficient way to achieve it.

In preparing the exhibition and its accompanying catalog, Keith Wells, a curator at the Washington State University Museum of Art, spoke with Hansen about specific works in the show. Transcribed portions of their conversation make up the bulk of the catalog's text. Curators and critics are rarely as strong off the cuff as we are in our written commentary, but Wells and Hansen give us a rare moment of intimacy with an artist in the presence of his art. While many artists find it difficult or invasive to try to put their thinking into verbal instead of visual form, those who can do so often penetrate further into the nature of art than their critics, who in the process of explaining may project more of themselves than they reveal of the artist. But when Hansen asserts the reasons why he either places an object in the center of the canvas—which he does to exploit the power of art to make us experience it—or else juxtaposes two or more objects, like a necktie and fish or a bison, a fish, and a tulip, each standing on its head, theory is replaced by practice.

Whether it's the wild west vs. today's version, gloves and paint tubes, or ladders and wall, all of Hansen's paintings are juxtapositions: collisions as arbitrary and authentic as that of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table—if occasionally less strange. It's the storyteller's primary tactic: bring some things together and see what happens. First and foremost, Hansen brings together artifice and reality: the canvas-and-paint version and the other thing. He ponders, and we end up pondering with him, what it is that makes a fish swimming through tulips or sandwiched between paint tubes more memorable than the one we ate for dinner last week. If science tells us the best way to memorize a list of objects is to make up a story about them, he adds the greater insight that it's also the best way to get to know them. There is pleasure in encountering things with the eye, and there is satisfaction in getting to know them with the mind. Ultimately, Gaylen Hanson is privileged to enjoy the meeting eye and mind. And it's our good fortune when he comes along to show us how good it feels.

Gaylen Hansen: Three Decades of Painting continues at the Salt Lake Art Center through May 31. There is a full-color trade book produced for this exhibit by Marquand Books of Seattle. The 120-page publication contains more than 100 color plates.

Work by Gaylen Hansen
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