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    March 2009
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Walter Ufer, The Washer Woman, Undated, oil on canvas, collection of Diane and Sam Stewart.
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Exhibition Review: Provo
New Frontiers
The Early Southwestern Art at BYU's MoA
by Ehren Clark

Living in New York City in the early twentieth century, married to one of its greatest and most influential photographers, and a full partner in an up and coming avant-garde -- what would compel such a person to divorce herself from this centered existence to relocate in the then primitive and desolate frontier of Taos, New Mexico? Over the artifice and noise of the city, Georgia O'Keefe, the artist described, chose a natural, wild and romantic world, untainted by modernity. She and many American artists who felt a similar impulse -- not unlike Gauguin's self-imposed exile to Tahiti -- chose this primitive landscape as theirs to render freely. The product of their prescience is amply displayed in the new Visions of the Southwest exhibition at the Brigham Young University's Museum of Art. The extensive collection of Diane and Sam Stewart reveals the nascence of an artistic tradition whose roots have grown into one of the world's most prolific and unique art centers: Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The early impetus behind art now found in Santa Fe and that of the artists that created it is compelling and can be viewed at the exhibit. What one finds is a complex and beautiful dynamic of visionary artists, a pastiche of artistic styles, lands yet unchanged and magnificent primitive cultures yet having felt the back of the white man's hand.

When Georgia O'Keefe first went to Taos in 1929, she was following the footsteps of a number of artists who had been locating there since 1898: Conrad Buff, Freemont Ellis, W. Herbert Dunton, Joseph Henry Sharp. They brought with them a heavily Western and Modern artistic perspective and many dreams. Most of these East Coast artists were trained in cities across Europe, a continent vibrating with the aftermath of the early modern movements and beginning to feel the full effect of the canonical shift to Modern Art. These artists discovered a foreign sense of the other that they were motivated by: grandiose mountains, hills, prairies, skies, light, color, canyons, and vistas. They were also inspired by a foreign sense of the other: primitive indigenous tribes living harmoniously and simply with the land in a wilderness that was their home, and for how long was not known. There was a formula there for art grounded in the western tradition but adaptable to a new environment, a formula that culminated in a new tradition.

This formula is a synthesis of two very basic principles in an extraordinary dynamic: artist and subject. Every piece in this extensive exhibition reflects this synthesis. From the artist, he or she contributed his or her aesthetic point of view: their philosophy, approach, and artistic vision. Each applied this to a region ripe with land and cultures sublime in a state of intact, untainted natural beauty.

For those versed in late nineteenth century/ early twentieth century art, specifically the avant-garde movements, the show is a festival of appropriation recognition. "The interlocking planes are definitely Cézannesque," one might overhear a visitor commenting. "This nocturne evokes an intense color palette that I would only see van Gogh using." "The color fields here are most certainly fauvist; Matisse would assuredly praise this." "Look at the perspective. Do you see how two points of view are rendered on a flat plane? This artist has surely been influenced by the cubists." "The color on this horse, doesn't it resonate ideas of impressionism- don't you see how the light brings out the various blues, greens, purples; this artist knows about the effect of light on color?" Such reactions will certainly occur with viewers who know their early Modernism.

For others, the vast range of artistic interpretation will offer new and exciting ways of seeing traditional landscape or portraiture. These artists, having been educated in European schools, incorporated Modernist techniques, offering varied, fantastical, whimsical and sublime interpretations of their subjects that today's artist cannot quite replicate. This was a time of invention, of artistic excitement, vigor and freedom to experiment…a canyon did not necessarily have to specify an exacting red rock craggy structure and these artists seem to be having fun, free with their learning and applying it to the offerings of Taos.

Taos itself -- the subject, all that it possessed, physical and metaphysical -- became an artist's Shangri-La. This land, sacred to its inhabitants, became sacred to the artist's eye. These new adventurist artists could create their own Montmartre. Instead of Lautrec's dance halls they painted a warrior chief by a fire using the same Symbolism of a Bernard, expressive of the visual and the non. Instead of Cézannesque riparian bathers, broken into planes of shape and color and abstracted natural forms, we find a tribe of women, similarly broken into color and shape: an abstraction of a tribal gathering. The sturdy oaks on a hillside are illuminated by a lucid play of thick impasto, a van Goghesque fantasy of color and intensity. Cubism is used effectively in a rendering of a small primitive settlement, deconstructing the sun drenched adobe, as would Picasso. The artists, foreigners to the endemic tribes, seem welcome in such candid moments.

One piece in the show particularly exemplifies the complex dynamic of the exhibition. Walter Ufer's "The Washer Woman" presents a genre subject while incorporating various Modernist techniques.|0| In this composition we find a marriage of the two elements discussed. The subject is a moment in everyday Pueblo life; a woman carries a bundle on her back, a load of clothing to do her washing. Behind her is a typical Taos sight: a humble, adobe house behind a crumbling stone wall that needs much repair. Life proceeds for the woman who assuredly bears this responsibility daily. This painting evokes reality, sobriety yet romantic realism. The subject is simple and profound and the aesthetic is complex.

In "The Washer Woman" one is tempted to think of Daumier's Realism and the plight of the under classes but this would be a mistake. This woman is not to be pitied; she is not repressed but strong, proud and full of life. This romantic realism is captured, firstly in a sensitively rendered study of the native woman, and interestingly melds several methods of the Modernist school. The result is a successful synthesis of aesthetic and subject. She is seen in a pool of light. Executed in impressionist methods worthy of Degas the tonality is as real as the sun might feel on a scorching New Mexico afternoon. More so and more surprising is the atmosphere bringing the early technique of Seurat's divisionism to play. A seemingly pedestrian activity is illuminated by light and color. The sky is alive with pinks and blues, a new perspective on an ancient, untouched and unaffected culture.

An immense sampling of a select group of artists may currently be seen at the BYU MOA, successfully representing the core of their prodigious contribution to the canon. These visionaries, educated in Europe and members of the avant-garde at its height, chose, as pioneers do, to leave the archetype and venture to a land that no artist's palette had considered. They truly were on the forefront. It was a romantic attraction to a frontier of land and artistic possibility that lured such artists. It was what van Gogh hoped to achieve in Provence, and what survived for some of the modernists at Pont Aven. Like painters of Montmartre: Lautrec, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse, Derain, Renoir, Degas- Taos was a new Mecca. It offered a similar freshness and freedom to that which lured the young French artists; it was and is an artist's paradise. Integrity: truth to the land and cultures, truth to an aesthetic made this art successful. It continues to evolve and is an ever burgeoning productive character of the artistic landscape of today.

Visions of the Southwest continues at the BYU Museum of Art through July 3.

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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
A Fine Line
SL Art Center's Branded and On Display
by Lane Bachman

Look around you, wherever you are; inevitably your environment is littered with a plethora of visually annoying logos. As I sit in my chair at home I count 10 branded items. These logos are either recognizable names, or a character as familiar as a letter in the alphabet. While walking downtown, pausing to count every seven minutes, I tally an average of 20 brands and logos.

What is the artistic merit that we give to these items? Do we relate the logo to the product or have we been so inundated with these images that the branding and the product have relatively no connection? Are our own egos and identity so immersed in connecting ourselves to the worth of the logo that we totally discard their meaning and instead use them as a reflection of who we are and our place in society?

These are among the questions asked at the Salt Lake Art Center's new exhibit, Branded and On Display. Though none of the pieces actually provide an answer to any of these questions, the exhibit does present an important dialogue as to what can be considered art and what is simply another ploy to relieve the public of its money through visual recognition.

Playing with a viewer's visual identification with an object is by no means a new or unfamiliar idea to the art world. Already in 1917 the line between product and art was addressed by Duchamp's readymades. With the addition of the artist's brand – “R. Mutt” – a common urinal in mass production at the time became "Fountain," a work of art. In the 1960s Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, Heinz Ketchup and Campbell's tomato soup, brought the consumer product into the exhibition space.

More recently, we have seen this process reversed, with a sudden surge of product placement where we would least expect it -- in the arts. For instance, now that television is quickly becoming obsolete, an unassuming public is downloading free movies, plays and serials onto their computers and ipods. Because the public is trained to believe that these are stories unto themselves, we would never know that they are actually built around a product(s). A single logo will be seen as many times as possible in these shows. To get the consumer more comfortable with purchasing a product, the dialogue will purposefully incorporate the names of these products. We become so used to seeing these that they become an accepted part of our surroundings.

This is evident in "Branded Head" by Hank Willis Thomas. He presents us with a photograph of someone's head, shot in profile. The Nike SWOOSH logo seems to be embedded into the subject's skull through scarification. The most provocative message in this work is that the character is "faceless." In other words, the profile is of the back of his head instead of silhouetting his facial features: the message being that we become faceless when we are indoctrinated with logos "on the brain." Just like the films that seem to hide the commercialism of a product by making it so obvious that we get used to seeing it, here the viewer is not immediately conscious of logo recognition. Instead, the viewer is drawn into the work by the stark contrast of value and design.

Throughout Branded and On Display we witness advertising appropriating from itself. This is a very popular trend in marketing. It's as if from large corporations to smaller companies, logos have been copied over and over again because advertising executives know what "works" visually to get positive feedback: AKA "more money."

This casual morphing of logos is presented very clearly in "Pageant" by Diller +Scofidio. Diller + Scofidio transform a 3' x 3' ft floor space into a continual loop of logos that morph into each other. This visual treat is great evidence that most of the easily recognizable logos, brands and symbols worldwide are very similar. They are similar in shape, font and line style but more importantly; their similarity triggers a response in the consumer that causes us to feel comfortable with our need to consume.

This last U.S. election was the catalyst of change for the Pepsi logo. Why? The Advertising branch at Pepsi assuredly convinced the company to change its look to resemble the Obama logo so it could profit from the votes for the new US president. We rarely take notice when a logo has changed. What we do notice is when our peers, our meaning, our ego is reflected into a visibly recognizable image. The new Gatorade commercials "What's G" don't ever actually show the product being sold. They don't even try, as many commercials have over the past decades, to sell a lifestyle. Instead "What's G" evokes an ethos, almost a sense of spirituality. If, as many argue, art filled the spiritual vacuum left by the waning of the religious life at the beginning of the twentieth century, advertising may be trying to do something similar to art at the beginning of this century.

It is tempting to suggest that advertising and art perform similar functions in the world, and this is what has led the artists in Branded and On Display to make these works. But it may be more accurate to say that they are opposite mediums. Though they both share a visual space and can have powerful visual recognition, art will always be more refined than branding. Branding can attempt to reflect art in many ways, but art will never be branding. While conveying their pieces through metaphor or irony, each work in this exhibition stands alone in the quest to challenge the viewer to examine the line between the two.

Branded and On Display, organized by the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is at the Salt Lake Art Center through May 23.

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Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003, Digital C-print mounted to Plexiglas, courtesy of Jacqueline Bradley and Clarence OtisJr.
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