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 December 2010
Published by Artists of Utah
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Shawn Porter . . . from page 1

Porter says that "growing up I was always the dumb kind, and that's always been my screwdriver in the chest, so to speak." So even though he's been at the University's art department for eight years, and has participated in significant exhibitions and received important commissions for his work he still feels like an outsider. "I've always felt llike I've been on the fringe of the art world . . . maybe because I don't have the art education in the traditional sense."

The "dumb kid" label is something self-imposed, but Porter does exist in a sort of borderland at the department. He may give a lecture now and then -- "a three hour lecture on studio safety where every once in a while I have to interrupt the increasing drone of my voice by turning on a machine" -- but he is not part of the teaching staff. His job is to keep everything in the building -- kilns, presses, tools -- operating, and making sure staff and students know how to use them properly. Students frequently come to talk to him about their work and he's happy to discuss technical questions but he tries not to intrude on the territory of the professors. He enjoys the interaction and says he wouldn't mind teaching, but doesn't think he'd enjoy jumping through the hoops necessary to get an MFA. Besides, he's already frustrated that he has too little time to get out all the ideas that are going on inside his head. "I get antsy when I can't execute my work."

That work has been gaining attention in recent years. Porter first came into public view in the spring of 2007 when he participated in the original 337 Project. After lots were drawn and he had chosen a top-floor room to work on, he began struggling with the idea of his piece. An initial concept involved building a destructive tool as part of a performance that would slowly destory the room. Another was based on a video projection dealing with the lives of those who had used the building. Ultimately Porter settled on something simpler and more elegant. "I was tearing back layer upon layer of the building and I thought, why not make something on impermanence and how temporary everything is . . . The building was going to be torn down. I was interested in representing something that is failing. I wanted to embrace failure, that nothing is forever."

Which is how what has become referred to as his "stick and balls" works came to be. In these installations a series of long, thin sticks are bound together to form containers that hold roughly hewn plaster balls of various sizes.|0| Because he couldn't find any manufactured products that would serve his needs Porter constructed the material himself, stripping down planks of ash into one inch strips and experimenting with various mixes of plaster in the plastic molds he created for his balls.

In 2008 a new iteration of the work was revealed at the Salt Lake Art Center's Present Tense show: two bound onion-shaped structures pulled against each other to form a fascinating structured that managed to appropriately fill the space of the Center's expansive main gallery.|1-2| As the three month exhibition continued, the tension in the pieces slackened, allowing balls to roll free onto the gallery floor. Another iteration was installed at GARFO in 2009,|3| and Porter has spent the past week installing the newest version at Nox Contemporary.

At Nox Porter has had to engage with an alcove space in the gallery, the center of which is dominated by a large, steel pipe. The ash sticks emerge out of a gallery wall (thanks, Porter says, to the generous permission of gallery director John Sproul), intertwining and rising up to the ceiling before cascading down into the center of the gallery. The elegance of the ash sculpture is contrasted by a makeshift structure of beams attached to the pole. This structure is a practical solution to a real problem -- it holds the sculpture, which might look light and airy but has about 400 pounds in materials as well as considerable pressure from built-in tension -- but it is also part of the piece's idea. An elegant structure doomed to fail is propped up by a bulky mess that can only serve as a temporary hedge.

As in its other iterations this work is metaphorically rich and Porter is wise enough not to straightjacket the piece by spelling out any particular intepretation; but it doesn't take an observant viewer long to construct one of their own: as with Porter's piece, an economic structure like ours, built on market speculation, is doomed to failure and any makeshift repairs that attempt to prop it up will themselves succumb to the system's weaknesses. As topical as one can make these works, however, their strength is in their poetic beauty and their thematic breadth that will continue to speak to the human condition even when (or if) we extricate ourselves from the current economic malaise.

Systems and the human condition have been themes in Porter's other work. For the Pickle Company's Exposed exhibit in 2007 Porter created a suspended terrain that mapped out the series of explosions in a nuclear testing area.|4-5| Each explosion became a hole that was lit from beneath in a work whose haunted beauty both concealed and revealed its tragic referrant.

In all of his work Porter is driven by the idea, but it is apparent that he also enjoys the mechanical aspect of his projects. "The work is driven by the idea; and the material is driven by the idea, based on my skill set and how I think I can pull it off . . . It comes down to the mechanical challenge. I want to see if I can do it."

The joy of the mechanical challenge is likely why Porter is as comfortable and successful in his public works as in his gallery pieces. He's created two "Flying Objects" for Salt Lake City's ongoing public art program,|6-7| and the pair of pointe shoes he created for Ballet West's fundraiser last year is now being used by the organization to advertise this year's program.|8| These public art pieces give Porter a different sort of challenge. Public art, which he thinks is critical, needs to touch communities. It can't be heady or scary. So for these pieces he has had to shift registers (entropy is not likely to be embraced by UDOT in the TRAX station piece Porter is currently working on), and reveal his more playful side.

Not all educations come with a diploma, a fact that Porter recognizes when he jokes that his education plan has been to get a job: "Whether it's some technical aspect or understanding a dialogue or discourse . . . when you're in the middle of it you learn it." However Porter might see himself, he is a long way from being the "dumb kid." His art works have become some of the most mechanically developed in the area, and some of the most metaphorically rich. As Porter points out, ideas are important, but an idea that cannot be executed is of little worth, and a hands-on knowledge of materials and mechanics can bear as much artistic fruit as years spent studying history or theory.

Legal Help and Cultural Development

Utah Lawyers for the Arts
Since 1983 Utah Lawyers for the Arts has quietly been providing free legal services on art-related matters to low income Utah artists and art organizations.
It is modeled after numerous Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts organizations throughout the country. It also seeks to educate artists and arts organizations on legal matters and to encourage lawyers to support the arts. Over the years it has provided seminars and workshops on art law for artists and has sponsored art events for lawyers.

Earlier this year, former ULA president Susan Vogel became involved in exhibits of Mexican art at the University of Utah's Museum of Fine Arts and noticed ULA's role in the community could be a little louder. "The Utah arts community has become so vibrant and exciting and new technologies are creating interesting issues in art law," she says. "I suggested that ULA run seminars for artists, and the ULA board generously offered me back my position on the board! We are hoping to increase ULA's involvement in the community and expand our advisory board based on what we learn are the needs of Utah artists and arts organizations."

Artists seeking legal assistance can visit the organization's website, read their policies, and download an application. "When we verify that the artist qualifies based on income and an art-related legal matter, we email our volunteer attorneys and offer the case," Vogel explains. Cases range from book and film contracts to First Amendment issues, applications for non-profit status, to licensing.

The group has also begun monthly gatherings on Salt Lake City's Gallery Stroll. Interested lawyers and artists are welcome to check the Utah Lawyers for the Arts Facebook page where you can see which place the group will be visiting and provide feedback on how the organization can help the community.

GARFO'S Future?
At a November 8 meeting Westminster College reviewed its Master Plan, including the use of the Garfield School, which was purchased from Salt Lake City last year. Currently the school houses the headquarters and primary teaching facilities for the Visual Art Institute, as well as their contemporary art space, GARFO. The College's revised master plan has designated the former Elementary School as the future home of the school's art program. This may be a positive step for VAI (and GARFO), if it is able to work out a symbiotic relationship with the incoming art program and retain their space in the building. Nothing is certain, though. Westminster has repeatedly changed its stated plans for the space since they first began the purchasing process. And the City has not yet officially deeded the property to the college.

Salt Lake City Arts
Speaking of Salt Lake City, Mayor Ralph Becker has been busy the past six months with a series of meetings involving members of the cultural community in the City's hopes to develop a "Cultural Core" in downtown Salt Lake. The Mayor's office recently announced that they are developing "a new funding mechanism that will produce nearly $10 million to enhance marketing efforts to support activities that add value to arts organizations and activities in the Salt Lake City cultural core over the next 20 years." This is being achieved in partnership with Salt Lake County, made official at a signing on December 1.

County Art
Despite having their acquisition budget slashed by 75% the Salt Lake County Art Committee was able to make substantial additions to the County's cultural patrimony this year. With their $10,000 purchasing budget they acquired works by local artists John Bell (below), Joey Behrens, John Pugh and Virginia Palyka. In addition 13 works, worth over $35,000, were donated to the collection from Wells Fargo Bank, John Neels and Loa Black Clawson, and the estate of Bevan M. Chipman. Among the donated works were pieces by historical artists H.L.A. Culmer, Frank Zimbeaux and J.H. Stansfield, the recently deceased Gaell Lindstrom, and living artists Brian Kershisnik, Steve Larsen and Denis Phillips. These works will be on display at a special reception, open to the public, at the Salt Lake County Government Center (2001 So. State Street, No. Building Atrium) on December 7, 5-7pm. County Mayor Peter Corroon will speak, followed by the presentation of short video interviews with Behrens, Pugh and Bell.

Elegant Universe #1 by John Bell

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