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   September 2008
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Coke 1: Highway 183, Cordell, OK by David Gianfredi
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Exhibition Reviews: Ephraim
Constructing Nostalgia
Western Americana at the CUAC
by Geoff Wichert

The task of 15 Bytes being to connect artists with the public in Utah, we usually try to choose exhibitions for review that are up long enough to allow readers to go and see for themselves. Even though few of our readers may drive to St. George or Logan just to look at art, some do. Others enjoy living in remote places, and so we consider the calendar, not just the art, when deciding which shows to include in upcoming issues. That said, Constructing Nostalgia—at the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim until September 5—presents an approach to art making that has such affinity with Utah and its people that it feels natural and just makes sense. Whether one sees this particular show or not, sooner or later we will encounter art that looks like this.

According to CUAC Director Jared Latimer (see our April edition), fabricated nostalgia responds to both present circumstances and future possibilities. In the present we perceive a national diminution, a loss of cultural prestige and satisfaction with ourselves. Our golden age appears to be past, possibly beyond recovery except in imagination and memory. Looking to the future, instead of anticipating a recovery we seeour individualityunder threat. The war on terrorism is only one way we are losing privacy and personal rights. Our globalized corporations began the process years ago, using research and marketing to turns complex beings with individual desires into one-dimensional consumers who are caught in an endless cycle of desire for unfulfilling materials goods.

A single equation captures what motivates—what drives—all five of these artists. At one point Americans were often said to live in our cars: sleeping in motels, eating in diners we could drive to and through, and witnessing the infinite variety of our nation through our windshields. Today that window on life is found on the electronic display screen of televisions and computers. Unable to travel because of gasoline prices and traffic that are out of control, facing the pressure to stay at jobs that no longer pay a living wage, we are replacing our first-person experience with simulations. One entire industry manufactures "collectible" copies of vintage metal signs abandoned to rust along with the products and services they once advertised. It is the populism of that mercantile nostalgia that is both the target and the goal of these artists.

David Gianfredi's carefully edited quotations of roadside signage makes the case most directly. Ironically, his nostalgia also points to a less popular mid-twentieth century phenomenon with links to Kansas. Flat, painted copies of flat, two–dimensional lettering reproduce the critical journey through Abstract Expressionism to Post-Modernism: from the pursuit of flatness to the appropriation of commercial art. Jackson Pollock and James Rosenquist are stops along his route.|0|

Jason Lanegan also relies heavily on irony, though a more mocking sort. His Coke bottles in Byzantine gilt reliquaries directly connect the mundane consumer goods he collects with religious veneration, arguably to the detriment of both. In other works his references are to kitchen cupboards and, most subtle and surgically precise, cigar boxes: the primary hand-me-down repository for treasures distinguished by their connection to youthful values and simpler times.|1|

Another artist who braids together traditional nostalgia and art currents, bricoleur Polly Becker collages and assembles pastiches of Americana into figures that she then photographs. Photography always removes its subjects to the same imaginative plane, marked by degrees on a scale that runs from the cerebral to the emotional, where nostalgia operates. But where at one time the photo bore the onus of substitute for real experience, here it partakes of the privileges of evidence. As DNA undermines that most fallible forensic tool, the eyewitness account, the camera—ultimately just another eyewitness—has become the con-artist's richly ambivalent tool of choice. Becker inverts this, constructing images that undermine ("deconstruct," like "reference," being too vague a word to be useful) the projected identities of her subjects.|2 -3|

The most satisfying works, the ones with the longest reach and greatest capacity, are mixed-media assemblages: sculptures by Robbie Barber and paintings by Marianne Cone. Barber's rural vignettes recall the books and boxes of his Sanpete County contemporary, Adam Larsen. Both use found objects in part for their visual references to airplanes, buildings, and the conjurer's arcana of adolescent role–play, but also for the authenticity imparted by their manufacture. Thus Barber's surreal juxtapositions subvert their fictional origins through the casual credibility of their components. Few things in the landscape are more out-of-place than a grain elevator standing like a skyscraper on the vast expanse of utterly flat prairie, slowly coming nearer as one drives between files of crops that seem to revolvelike giant wheels. By neatly fitting such an elevator into a trailer built from the bed of a pickup, Barber collapses scales of modeling and levels of technology that range from pragmatic tinkering to sophisticated engineering. In so doing, he captures—and arguably celebrates—something in the American character that came before and lies beyond acquisitive materialism.|4|

If a focus on nostalgia may have prevented the four above from breaking with their various representational traditions, Marianne Cone breaks through hers, presenting rural set pieces that start out as random collections of found objects and rural vignettes, but become vertiginous trips (used here in the nostalgic Sixties sense of a visceral, possibly but not necessarily drug–related experience) from a display of carefully selected, reference–rich specifics to a visionary encounter with visual truth created entirely out of artificial means. One thing good artworks do is reaffirm our faith in the art experience, something Cone does even more effectively than Barber. On first viewing of one of her shaped canvases, the vignette that tops it has something like the impact of a letterhead: it establishes the tone of the piece. The found objects built into the lower part capture the viewer's interest and rivet the senses on a three-dimensional projection of the wall, perpendicular to the floor, in which perspective is further narrowed by the presence of actual objects that suggest an overall theme of place and time. These iconic bits and pieces make a dry commentary on nostalgia.|5| But as the eye climbs back to the top, there comes a place where the panel hinges visually, tilting backwards precipitously into illusory space. The gas station invoked by the quoted Conoco signage in "Last Frontier," the "Tuscarora Garages," |6| the farmyard, or the granary, free from the tyranny of flat reality, become far more real in the mind's eye, and stage sets for the playing out of the narratives triggered in memory and imagination by the objects presented—whether real or depicted—below. Sometimes there is an added suggestion that the foreground represents geological strata lying below, or a barrier standing between us and what we see.

Ours is a sadly deflated time, in which confidence is being replaced by self-consciousness and doubt. Many of us can only feel like the heroes of our own mythology in darkened movie theaters, or while drawn out of ourselves by the multi-sensory extravaganzas in which our computers immerse us. Nostalgia in the gallery today is for the era when art was the best, most dependable out-of-body experience available. It's not sad that new technologies have overtaken the old, except that the new media they make possible are not able to invoke the experiences that came easily to the old media. Two celebrated films—"Witness" and "Cold Mountain"—each feature a pivotal scene set at a barn raising, a canonical American activity resonant with the idea of "constructing nostalgia." Yet bothplay that scene against violence and anxiety over the safety of home and family. Motion pictures do a good job of telling us how to feel and think about the experiences they over-particularize. But at the CUAC, our fundamental experiences of being ourselves are evoked rather than imposed, with the viewer's memory and imagination invited to play along with the artist's initial impulse. The icons are present, but we are given the space within these venerable limestone walls to construct our own mood of nostalgia.

Constructing Nostalgia continues at the CUAC through September 5.
Turning Point . . . from page 1

This exhibition brings into focus artists' reactions to the art of the latter years of Modernism — the high abstraction of the 1950s and 60s. Lambson describes Modernism's obsession with abstraction as the result of a hundred year trajectory that began with Impressionism and involved artistic exploration that increasingly distanced itself with subject matter and a relation to the viewer. "Art became abstract not because wealthy patrons requested it, but because around the 1860s artists gained the freedom to explore and experiment on their own. The Impressionists broke with the French Academy, and the exploration of light in a painting was more important than its subject matter. Following the Impressionists, a rapid succession of movements, including the Fauves, Cubists, and Abstract Expressionists, became more concerned with an exploration of the canvas itself rather than subject matter that was inspired by things and events that lay beyond the canvas."

Sometimes the artists themselves sought to explain what they were attempting with their canvases and at other times writers, or formal critics, were the ones to make verbal sense of these visual explorations. In the 1960s, Clement Greenberg became one of the most influential of these critics and as Lambson explains, his views influenced many artists. "[Greenberg] felt that art —painting in particular — was headed toward purity, which he defined as flatness. Artists during this period sought to achieve Greenberg's vision of flatness or "purity" by pouring paint instead of brushing, or by leaving a portion of the canvas unpainted, or by emphasizing the edge of a painting with a distinct mark, destroying any sense of illusion or depth. Because these late Modernists focused on discovering the essential nature of art itself by focusing on the surface of the canvas, they believed their works excluded everything from the outside world including the viewer and the context the work was shown in. Museums bought into this movement and the artists creating this new work became famous and were often hailed as geniuses."

Turning Point "begins" with some of these late Modernist works, from Morris Louis' fluid bands of colors in "Doubt," (1959) |1| to the hard edge abstraction of Kenneth Noland. "Artists such as Morris Louis worked with a paint that kept its vibrancy on the unprimed canvas with a startling effect," Lambson explains. "He poured, dripped and manipulated the canvas while leaving the edges bare. There was no depth, no meaning, just an exploration of the flat surface of the canvas to create 'purity in art.' Louis and Kenneth Noland along with Helen Frankenthaler among many others developed different methods of exploring the flatness of their canvases. Kenneth Noland's 'Sarah's Reach' (1964) |2| targeted different tones of similar colors in abstract shapes to reach his aim. These differing tones contrast each other and create an effect of flatness, which negates any depth on the unprimed canvas . . . Jules Olitski's 'Pearlescent Flood' (1970) |0| whimsically implies some depth, but adds strips of pigment on the edges to make you realize that it is a flat canvas."

From this point, the exhibition examines how the trajectory of 20th-century art turned from the Modernist conception of art. "Not all artists agreed that Greenberg's flat abstraction was the pinnacle of painting," Lambson continues as we move about the exhibition, "and a group of sculptors labeled the Minimalists began to disagree with Greenberg on several points. They created three-dimensional works that shared that same space, the same light, and the same air as the viewer. These works actually sought to create a spatial relationship with the viewer, refuting late Modernism's claim that all meaning was self-contained. To the late Modernists the painting was only an object. With the Minimalists it was about the object and the viewer. They acknowledged the physicality of the viewer who shares the same space as the object."

At this point we have turned our attention away from the walls of the exhibition and are considering the various pieces that occupy the space on the floor and Lambson continues to discuss the ideas of the Minimalists. "Another point argued by the Minimalists was that the artist was not a genius or god. Sculptures were created by fabricators, and often the artists themselves did not even create the works! The industrially produced forms of Minimalism were a direct attack on the exalted nature of late Modernist painters. A final point to add about Minimalism is the idea of gestalt. For example, Judd's work contains four identical large cubes, but the viewer need only see the first cube to realize the others in succession are all the same. The work almost becomes a painting in that sense."

One of the pieces we approach is Ronald Bladen's "X" (1965). It is exactly what the title emplies, a sculpture of the letter x, standing seven feet high. "[It] is about presence," Lambson says. "[It] is made to human scale to directly acknowledge the viewer. Here meaning is not completely self-contained, and the viewer begins to become a part of the work." Sol LeWitt's "49 Three-Part Variations on Three Different Kinds of Cubes" is an equally descriptive title for the piece in question.|3| Lambson points out that it bears no trace of the artist's hand, "yet the viewer is compelled to consider the mathematical formula used to arrange the cubes."

LeWitt's piece serves as a bridge to another important movement highlighted in the exhibition: conceptual art. Though this portion of the exhibit contains objects as one expects in an art exhibition, what the visitor will find is mostly framed instruction. "Building on the Minimalists' ideas, conceptual artists took notion of the viewer's importance a step further, by declaring that the object did not matter at all; only viewers and their perceptions of the work were important," explains Lambson. "Art was created using language and systems, such as Joseph Kosuth's "One and Three Mirrors." The artwork consists of a printed dictionary definition of mirror, an actual mirror, and a photograph of the mirror. The art work is not any of the three objects, but rather the process of a person thinking about the different manifestations of a mirror. Utilizing language, systems, mapping, indexing, etc., artists produced works that caused viewers to create the artwork in their minds. The object itself was just a trigger."

In addition to these historical works, the curators have included contemporary pieces that were influenced by the Minimalists and conceptual artists highlighted in Turning Point. "This exhibition is titled 'Turning Point' because at this particular moment in time, the reactions against Modernism by Minimalism and Conceptualism caused an explosion of possibilities for the artists who followed. Suddenly art is no longer void of interpretation, but can be full of meaning; now the object is important, the viewer is important, and the artist is important. Artists no longer had to follow the trajectory of Modernism. Suddenly anything and everything was possible. This is often called Post-modernism. Artists can now begin to be influenced by ideas. Now artists can address politics, feeling, racial identity, gender, demographics etc. This shift in thinking, with its new found focus on the viewer, is an important part of experiencing and understanding the art of our time."

As an art reviewer who thought he knew just about everything there is to know about Modernism, it was enlightening and humbling to engage in a dialogue with Jeff Lambson. It is not only exciting to be more fully educated on the intricacies of something as complex as this period of Modernism, but exciting to discover more, to learn more, to know more about art. I look forward to the museum's upcoming program of contemporary art for which Lambson says this exhibit serves as a foundation.

Turning Point: The Demise of Modernism and the Rebirth of Meaning in American Art continues at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through January 3, 2009.

JULES OLITSKI (Russian-born American, 1922 -2007), Pearlescent Flood, Acrylic on canvas, 1970, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gift of Stephan Hahn
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