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 February 2010
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City

No School, No Problem
Utah red rock painters in the early twentieth century

The Continuing Allure: Painters of Utah’s Red Rock brings to us a unique set of artists who, early in the twentieth-century, used their skill and visionary perspective to seal the magnificence of the land of southern Utah in paint. The range of artistic approaches in this exhibit, now at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, is astonishing. The visitor will find a dramatic sense of invention and innovation in color palettes and styles, various and pronounced moods, and compositional structures that lean from the fantastical to the starkly realistic, and from the very refined to the highly abstract. The limitless sublime qualities of nature in southern Utah imprints each piece in this exhibit, yet the works are able to stand out as unique creations, capturing in color and form the fleeting moments of the ephemeral land.

In the early twentieth century, artists from the urban centers of the East were attracted to the Southwest, seeing in the region a chance to explore their modern version of painting in a remote and exotic setting. In places like Taos, New Mexico, these painters joined as collectives, pursuing their artistic ideology and devotion to the land as a group. Though Utah boasts some of the most spectacular landscapes of the southwest, UMFA curator Donna Poulton points out that no similar school or collective of formal aesthetic and philosophy based on the land developed in Utah. Utah’s red rock country was just too remote and inhospitable. The Taos area had been connected to the European world for centuries, first through the Spanish and then the Americans. But places like Zions Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and the Colorado Plateau had only been settled by Europeans in the late nineteenth-century and remained sparsely populated and inaccessible in the early twentieth century. As a result, only the few willing to brave the natural hindrances, were able to bring their aesthetic vision to the area. In contrast to New Mexico, no aesthetic movements emerged in Utah. But while the communal nature of the Southwest school in New Mexico tended towards homogeneous aesthetic visions, this exhibit shows that Utah’s situation results in a wonderfully heterogeneous collection of individual artistic voices.

William R. Leigh’s nocturne, "Rainbow Bridge by Moonlight,"|1| is a supreme example of an artist taking a close look at nature, here inspired by a spectacular natural formation. Done in 1922, the painting is the earliest in the collection and in it we see how Leigh appreciated the pictorial qualities of the arches that dot the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. Many have come to know Rainbow Bridge because of the relative accessibility provided by Lake Powell. But when Leigh painted the form he had to travel through rugged canyons, to the backside of Navajo Mountain. Leigh’s unique palette, suffused with greens, blues, mauves and a host of other nocturnal plein air effects, delights as much in capturing the sublime qualities of moonlight as it does in describing the unique shape of the arch. We feel ourselves in the desert, the cool air and calm colors of a lucid, starlit Utah sky turning a hot red rock into a romantic nocturne.

The Swiss-born California artist Conrad Buff congeals his imaginative powers and aesthetic ingenuity in the three paintings on exhibit. In the remote climes of Utah this early twentieth century artistic pioneer of the West, like those in New York and Paris, sought innovation in the primary elements of his work. "Canyon Land" |0| and "Canyon Walls, Zion National Park" are freed from any aesthetic norms, any rigidity of a school other than the artist’s own imaginative intensity.

In Harold Weaver’s "Landscape-Cloud Patterns," |2| we may sense a borrowing, from Matisse, of Modernist color theory or catch a hint of Picasso’s analytical approach in the skyline, but the palette is decisively Weaver’s own, and the structural composition totally unique and one of the highlights of the show. Perhaps freedom from the rigors of a canon liberated these artists to paint what they saw, how they saw it, following no manifesto and with no aims at painterly ultimatums.

If any artist was to influence others in this period of dust bowl days it was the husband of Dorothea Lange and great inheritor of Utah subjects, Maynard Dixon. Dixon may be “prophet of the red rock” and grandfather to a host of contemporary redrock painters, but what an antithesis he is to the trite contemporary stereotypes of today! "Moonlight over Zion" |3| owes a great deal to cubist theory. Dixon paints blocks of contrasting tone that together imply depth on a canvas, which is contrastingly flat. He uses no chiaroscuro for his subjects, yet manifestly implies distance. The painting feels earthy and natural despite its Modernist-influenced composition. Dixon’s signature abstractions seem to have influenced his contemporaries more than any other artist, if not because of working together then by some impromptu roadside diner encounter.

Plein air is the order de jour in this collection, as artists find hues within hues, tones within tones and all of the whimsy of that element to which the artist is always subservient: light. We can observe this in many paintings of the show, including Charles Muench’s contemporary masterpiece "Bryce Canyon Color."|4| The stalagmites of the paintings foreground sit in muted color, as if beneath a cool cloud of shadow, but as the viewer’s eyes move vertically up the canvas they encounter a burst of sun upon a tier of spires, revealing the intensity of their color and geographic splendor. The eye travels further through a sea of towers, and beyond to a plateau, a horizon of blues that extends into infinity. The painting is a monumental declaration of naturalistic effects that are ripe for aesthetic exploration.

The forms of southern Utah are solid, monumental masses, but they are also constantly in flux: changing with a shifting cloud, an approaching storm, the muted light of night or the bright glare of day. All of this did not go unnoticed by the early twentieth century artists who saw possibility in this land and created masterpieces. The show is an important one, as Utah artists may more clearly appreciate and understand their local heritage. The vastness of this subject matter remains to be further investigated. The artists of Continuing Allure show us that individual style gives room for limitless possibilities in describing the immense and ever changing natural dynamics.

The Continuing Allure: Painters of Utah's Red Rock is at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through June 27.

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Process Points
High-Jumping with Color
The Many-layered Works of Sherri Belassen

The exciting thing about art is the opportunity to see and experience the world through the eyes of the artist. Bringing her own unique way of seeing to the Phoenix Gallery in Park City is Sherri Belassen, an Arizona artist whose work is distinguished by her process of layering oil paint to achieve expressive, colorful works with both humor and depth.

Though some of Belassen’s work has been in the Phoenix for a few months, she will be their featured artist in an exhibition of 20 paintings that opens February 26. Describing her work as “figurative-abstract” and “multi-layered,” Belassen shared with me the process that yields large, colorful paintings with exaggerated, or stylized, figures, and other interesting shapes on a ground that dances with smaller shapes through which the viewer can see the “history,” of the painting, the many layers leading to the final work.

“Underpainting is very important,” Belassen tells me. Using a very loose, colorful, abstract wash of turpentine-thinned paint, Belassen covers the surface intuitively, not necessarily knowing what the finished painting will be, unless it’s a commission for a specified subject. When the first layer dries Belassen may repeat this process a few more times until she’s satisfied with the underpainting.

“Sometimes I do a pen and ink drawing,” she says, before beginning the subject layers of the painting. She may turn the painting on all sides considering what subject it suggests. Then she draws the figure(s) onto the underpainting using a brush and a “fun color.”

As for subjects, Belassen most enjoys painting semi-abstract figures, thinking about relationships among figures or “how the figure might feel in that space.”

Next, Belassen blocks in some big shapes of color using either palette knife or brush, being careful as she works to leave open areas for the underpainting to show through. She likes a smooth finish on her paintings, so she may scrape or sand the paint in places to smooth the surface. For her final layers, she uses Liquin as a medium with her oil paint.

For Belassen “color is very important. Color can give a painting a sense of power and strength.” As she works on a series of paintings for a show or for a commission, she may choose a similar color palette – predominately reds, or blues, or creams, for example.

Because she tends to work large (typically 48 x 72 inches), and because it takes time for the layers in the underpainting to dry in between layers, it may take a few weeks to complete a painting. But Belassen insists she has no timer driving the completion of a painting. She has several works in progress concurrently, so there’s always something to do as layers dry.

Belassen says her process and style have evolved over time. She always knew she wanted to be an artist, but in high school her passion was athletics, specifically, high jumping. “I thought I’d be high jumping until I was 40, but when I saw that wasn’t going to happen, I got a degree in art.” She studied at the University of Missouri at Columbia and received her Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Indiana University in Bloomington in 1989.

By the time she was 23, Belassen already had gallery representation. Then, for a few years when her children were babies, she didn’t paint much. But after divorce left her to raise her kids alone, she once again picked up paints and brush and began working full time as an artist.

The bright colors and stylized subjects of Belassen’s paintings are emotionally evocative. When asked to do a series of flower paintings for a children’s hospital in Phoenix, she did seven different types of flowers that were supposed to make people happy. For her -- and she hopes for her viewers -- accuracy is not so important as the feelings evoked. “It doesn’t have to be exact, right?”

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Sherri Belassen's work will be featured at Park City's Phoenix Gallery February 26 - March 15. An opening reception will be held during the Park City Gallery Stroll, Friday February 26, 6-9pm.

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