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   November 2008
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Organization Spotlight: Salt Lake
The UMFA's Young Benefactors

While organizations that choose for titles expressing youth or contemporaneity benefit from the energy evoked by their name, time has a way of catching up to them and complicating their brand. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York was dubbed, its founders surely thought the title would call to mind the cutting-edge work they intended to show. But just go down to BYU Museum of Art's exhibit Turning Point and you'll find that Modernism is not, well, modern; it's old-fashioned. And give it a decade or so and pretty soon Contemporary will mean ancient history. And when twelve relatively young Utah art enthusiasts started a new organization in 2004 and called it the Young Benefactors, they probably didn't realize it would soon swell to over 100 members, some of whom are more youthful than young.

"The Young Benefactors is a group dedicated to building the contemporary art collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts," explains the organization's chair, Jonathan Freeman. Generally the members, who come from a variety of backgrounds including working professionals, artists, and academics, are younger individuals or couples interested in beginning their own art collection. But as the organization has grown, some gray hair has made its appearance, leading one to understand that more than a matter of age, the "young" in the group's title is a state of mind.

The group's specific age demographic is not as important to its success as is the camaraderie enjoyed by its members. The group enjoys learning from artists, museum staff, established collectors and each other as they attend their regularly scheduled events and tours. "I feel fortunate to be a part of a group that shares the same passion I do in moving the contemporary concerns of art forward into the culture in Utah, where I think it's much needed," says Young Benefactors member and local artist Emily Plewe.

Members pay annual dues of $100, for participating members, or $250, for voting members, and use the sum to acquire a new piece of art for the UMFA. Members of the Young Benefactors Council work directly with Jill Dawsey, UMFA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, to recommend and select artworks for this annual acquisition process. Young Benefactors Council members cast their vote for the work that will be acquired at the annual acquisition dinner, a black-tie event.

This year's annual acquisition dinner will take place on Friday, November 7. Willie Cole, whose work, "How Do You Spell America, #8," was purchased this year, will attend as the guest of honor, and the Benefactors will vote on their next purchase. Artists under consideration for the 2008 acquisition include: Edgar Arceneaux, Trevor Paglen and Amy Sillman. To date, the Young Benefactors have added works by Suling Wang, John O'Connell and Wolf Kahn, and Willie Cole to the UMFA's permanent collection.

Jill Dawsey notes that "How Do You Spell America, #8," a chalkboard where the artist writes a series of evocative sentences using the letters A-M-E-R-I-C-A as each word's initial letter, is exemplary of Cole's best work -- "which frequently incorporates found objects and commonplace materials, transforming them in innovative and evocative ways." The choice of Cole came about last year because the Young Benefactors were working with the theme of "landscape" and felt Cole's work offered a unique vision of the American landscape. "It does not depict the American landscape literally, but instead conjures it up through word play and associations," comments Dawsey. The work was made in the early 1990s, in the wake of the first Gulf War. Plewe says "[Cole's] work exemplifies how good contemporary art can be - it is deeply thought out, it hits on something universal about humanity, society, or the individual, it raises questions, it provokes thought and dialogue, and it is visually well-executed."

The UMFA will host Willie Cole for his first visit to Utah on November 6 and 7. Cole will participate in a private unveiling of "How Do You Spell America? #8" for the Young Benefactors in the UMFA lobby on November 6, followed by a free public lecture in the Dumke Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. During his visit Mr. Cole will also teach a special workshop for graduate students in the U of U's Art and Art History Department."

All fellow contemporary art lovers interested in becoming part of the next generation of UMFA supporters are welcome to join. Contact Jessica Peterson at jessica.peterson@umfa.utah.edu

Video Bytes
Amy Caron's Waves of Mu

In the March 2007 edition of 15 Bytes, Ed Bateman profiled multi-media artist Amy Caron, who was then developing on her ground-breaking Waves of Mu project. Caron and her crew spent the month of October traveling across the country to install and perform the project at Performance Space 122 in New York. In honor of that pilgrimage here's a video clip of an earlier installation of the project in Anchorage, Alaska, featuring Caron, project manager Maggie Willis, and Stephanie Sleeper.

Fiona Phillips . . . from page 1

Many of the paintings feature the handmade dolls which the artist's mother had knit. Taking on the status of cypher in a few of the images, the dolls communicate a curiously modern expression of human emotion and consciousness in the context of traditional domestic genre art.

Essentially a contemporary extension of a long-established tradition in figurative domestic painting, these new canvases begin with specific referents of one family's history, then steer them to the universal experiences that exist among all families and their individual members. One of the largest and most ambitious of these, "Family Outing," is a quietly compelling group portrait of Phillips' mother near a Southern California beach in the company of her children and her mother-in-law.|0| The figures stand or sit before the camera with the self-conscious and half-veiled expressions typical of family snapshots. Yet, through the source images' translation into the language of paint and the artist's reorganization of figures in space and of colors in harmony, an eloquent expression of family ties and tensions makes itself felt.

Another in this series is "The Guardian," a study of the artist's mother sleeping on a sofa, one of her dolls by her side.|1| This painting recalls a long line of related images from the history of nineteenth-century art, both American – particularly the interior subject of such Boston-School painters as Edmund Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson – and European. Private celebrations of the home and its tenuous capacity to protect the family from harsher public spaces, paintings like Henri Fantin-Latour's "Two Sisters" (1859) and Berthe Morisot's "Mother and Sister of the Artist Reading" (1869) probed the placid atmosphere of the family's home where, seemingly unaffected by the social limits in their lives, women and girls whiled away their days contentedly reading or sewing, embodying modern middle-class life. Phillips' expands this tradition by introducing into the comfortable environment of home an implicit note of uncertainty, of unease: the doll, its face at once benign and alert, hints at the deceptive placidity of domestic peace and the silent threat of external forces, against which this inanimate guardian angel can offer little defense. In the end, like most of the paintings in this series, "The Guardian" conveys, as though in parentheses, a whisper of doubt about the permanence, reliability and easy familial bliss which its fragile domestic content presents.

Family Outing by Fiona Phillips

Underscoring this complex of unspoken anxieties is the inclusion in the series of a group of photo-collages: enlargements of snapshots from Phillips' family snapshot album. What had been small details from larger, unarranged photographic archives are now ambiguous, nearly abstract open-form compositions that reveal, on close examination, a skein of interrelationships – commonalities of palette, texture and sentiment – both with each other and with the tenor of the paintings around them. Completing the connection with the past, these excised artifacts from the photographic record reveal, by inference, the same fleeting echoes of real experience and felt memory which are at the paintings' heart.

A second theme, defined as Ordinary Hope, deals obliquely with the artist's faith, and more explicitly with her perception of another universal trait of individual experience: the quiet determination to withstand and to cope – to proceed through life oblivious to or in defiance of challenges and dangers. The largest of these, an ambitious multi-figure composition in oils entitled "Health Walk," |2| depicts a diverse group of figures threading their way through a strange body of natural force – half water, half land. The painting, with its colorful procession of precisely rendered figures amid roiling gray-blue waves of undefined form, clearly evokes biblical iconography. Yet through the figures' matter-of-fact color and formal definition, which convey a reassuring sense of the quotidian even in the midst of a vague and looming threat, the painting offers a glimpse into the world of unspoken expression which only a purely visual art can communicate.

A third group of works, quite different in their pictorial idiom, is included in the exhibition under the title Conversations.|3-4| This section is centered around two triptychs which unite, under a rationale explained by the smaller attendant works in the collection, the figurative style of Phillips' other paintings with a new repertoire of abstracted forms suggestive of the titular theme. Each triptych consists of a central group of flowing, lyrical abstract shapes – essentially an invented alphabet forming the basis of an abstract, vibrating color composition – flanked by a pair of figurative paintings of individuals caught up in cell-phone conversations. The triptychs point to the interconnection of language and meaning that surrounds and envelops the individual amid the isolating experience of life in contemporary society. Together with a beautifully realized display of the twenty-six letters that comprise the artist's fantasy-alphabet, the triptychs constitute one artist's resonant and richly imaginative integration of old and new ways of seeing.

Fiona Phillips' art is on view at the Braithwaite Gallery of Fine Art, Southern Utah University, from November 6th through December 5th.

Work by Fiona Phillips
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