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 January 2010
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Sun Tunnels . . . from page 1

Traveling on surface roads to approach Sun Tunnels from the north, one passes over these railroad tracks, continuing on graded roads to the forty acres envisioned as a place to draw observers searching for an experience not only with the land but with the heavens as well. Approaching from the north (from Highway 30) or from the south (a graded road runs north and south, parallel of the Pilot Range), one must eventually turn east to reach the tunnels. It’s from this turn that one begins to see the Sun Tunnels on the flat, desert land. Perception is a major component of this earthwork: how do we perceive a work that appears so small and inconsequential from far away, only to watch it grow in size and stature the closer it becomes upon approach? What do we make of four obviously constructed concrete tunnels that blend into the flat, beige, alkali soil dotted with colorless, stunted shrubs in late December?

Parking a stone's throw from Sun Tunnels (Holt’s request to keep the land around the tunnels free from tire damage) and walking towards the work heightens and shifts perception. The ground in December is hard and crunches loudly underfoot; the alkali dust mixing with a dust of snow. Just as you feel you can firmly place each tunnel in relationship with the others, a step taken to the left or to the right finds one tunnel melting into the other, disrupting assumptions of placement and space. The issue of scale comes full force: the tunnels are large, each measuring nine feet in diameter by eighteen feet in length. Standing in the middle of the tunnels X configuration (a potential “final” destination for this work) affords the most consistent, horizontally uncomplicated view. Moving clockwise or counterclockwise, only one tunnel can be fully viewed at a time, resulting in views of the other three tunnels falling away. In writing of the Sun Tunnels, Holt said: “I wanted to bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale…the panoramic view of the landscape is too overwhelming to take in without visual reference points.”1 Achieving human scale in the west desert is no small feat: human scale assumes a level of intimacy that no mountain or ridge in the region can grace upon us. Taking in the view from each tunnel not only frames the land from our vantage point to distances five, ten, or more miles away, the tunnel’s viewpoint serves as a human scale portal to seeing a new world.

Four tunnels, four constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. Holt had one constellation pattern drilled out of each tunnel, choosing the four constellations with the largest variation of star-size amongst them. Star sizes range in size from seven to ten inches in diameter, offering variation in pattern and view. Each star becomes a micro-frame: if the tunnel frames the land to human scale, each star frames the land to one brief moment in time. This marriage of time to a sense of place is further amplified as human space is linked to an unbounded sense of the universe. During the day, the tunnels are dark and always much cooler than the ambient temperature. Light enters the tunnels through each star-hole, illuminating interior walls in constantly moving patterns as the sun arcs over the land. At night, illumination is often afforded by the moon, casting light through the star-holes onto the bottom half of the tunnels, the spots of moonlight appearing ghost-like inside the tunnel walls.

Each year since 1976, on the summer and winter solstices, the sun has risen and set in the center of these tunnels. The polarity of these two dates each year – the smallest of winter and the largest of summer – points us to the opposing forces that are signified through Sun Tunnels. These round, smooth works occupy a flat land that points in all compass directions to jagged mountains and peaks. Light is brought into the dark tunnels in the daytime; then conversely light is brought into the dark tunnels at night. The difference between earth and the heavens is felt distinctly as the heavens are brought down to us, while at the same time we are lifted up to the stars. Most profoundly, the polarity between our bodies and the land seems almost painfully obvious when first experiencing Sun Tunnels. A shift takes place though, when the striking difference between body and land melts away and these barriers don’t matter. Significant land art allows the differences to disappear.

While building Sun Tunnels, Holt created a video as a companion piece to the work. The film appears as a documentary – time moves in linear fashion as we witness Sun Tunnels from concrete pour to placement in the west desert – yet is a work of art in its own right. Not a word is spoken during the video’s twenty-seven minute duration; the sounds of process and machinery move the viewer along: gravel crunches while poured into molds; a blade whirls its way through the concrete to make a star with the help of water; huge semi trucks zoom past the camera on the Bonneville Salt Flats; the drone of the helicopter drones as we take flight and view the finished tunnels from the air.

Not all is about the machine, though. There is a special shimmer in the air that occurs in the Great Basin; Holt’s camera captures the quality of air, the brightness of light, the stillness amidst collective activity as not only she but many others work to create Sun Tunnels. Without fanfare, the final sound in the video, as the sun descends during the summer solstice, is of the wind picking up. It whistles through the tunnels, swirling around the ground, empty and forlorn. No matter that the sun is golden and rich, never to been seen like this during December. Only when the credits roll after this scene, and the lights come back into the present moment, do we remember that there was a crew filming at the site, letting nature and art on the land do what it does best: transport you. It’s as if you’re the only one on the land, watching the slow descent of the sun, alone with shape and sound.
1 Holt, Nancy. “Sun Tunnels.” Artforum (April, 1977): 35.

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Film Review: Salt Lake City
Objectified at the Salt Lake Art Center

The anecdote goes something like this. On one of his lecture-circuit tours of the United States, Oscar Wilde was discussing with an American friend the differences between their two countries. When the American wondered aloud why America was so much more violent than Great Britain Wilde quickly responded, "Oh, I can tell you. It's because you have such atrocious wallpaper."

We should never doubt that Wilde enjoyed a quip for a quip's sake, but he did have a serious point: design matters. His opinion is shared by the interviewees in Gary Hustwit's new documentary, Objectified. A feature-length film being screened by the Salt Lake City Film Center this Friday, January 8th, Objectified explores the manufactured objects that surround us, the people who create them and our relationship to both.

For a documentary, Objectified is a stunningly attractive film. With interiors full of bright white spaces, sleek, sinuous lines and splashes of solid color, the general feel of this movie will appeal to the Mac generation. In fact, the visuals, including doting shots of the machines that manufacture the objects discussed, are as compelling as the narratives in the film.

Designers from around the world tell their own story. Obsessive, earnest, whimsical, neurotic, they all share an intense interest in the small details of the everyday objects we take for granted. For the most part the film concentrates on the bright side of design, from its humble purpose of making a pair of hedge clippers that will be easier to hold to its more far-reaching goals of making a better, more sustainable world.
Hustwit does flip the coin, if briefly, to look at the more damaging side of design, from the mounds of refuse that our desire for the new creates, to the greedy CEOs for whom design means a "value added" price tag and endless supply of new SKUs.

You'll leave the movie thinking about the objects in your own life. Probably with disappointment (not surprisingly, all the designers live and work in beautiful spaces). Wouldn't that Marc Newson chair look great in your loft? Would that peeler, with its rubber handles, make things easier for your arthritis. Should you buy the Japanese-designed toothpicks or the American ones? Will pulling the cord on Naoto Fukasawa's ceiling-fan inspired cd player give you the affectionate association the designer intended? If so, where will that old stereo of yours end up?

Exhibition Review: Logan
A Democratic Light
Christopher Terry in Logan

Utah State University art professor Christopher Terry is exhibiting a new body of work this month at the University's Studio 102 Gallery. Executed while the artist was on a year-long sabbatical in Essen, Germany, these paintings are filled with Terry's iconic interior settings -- open spaces centered around simple still-life compositions and devoted to the artist's true subject: light.

Terry, a native of New England who studied at Rhode Island College and the University of Wisconsin, has been in Cache Valley for over twenty years. He enjoys life in Logan, where he can get to almost everything on his bike. He makes yearly migrations to Rhode Island to assuage his longing for the ocean, and while he enjoys Logan's beautiful setting he admits that sometimes he longs for a more urban setting. So given the opportunity to take the 2008-2009 school year off he decided to spend his time in one of Germany's larger cities.

Terry has been to Germany twice before, both times as a Fulbright scholar. While he was living in California Terry had met Rudolf Knubel, and the two artists struck up a friendship. When Terry received his first Fulbright Knubel helped get him a Visiting Professor position at the University of Essen. For his sabbatical Terry returned to Essen, where he rented a 75 square meter studio that was a classroom in a former grammar school. In this large space, akin to many of his paintings, he set up his materials and began painting. Some of these were exhibited in Germany, and a few were sent to a gallery in North Carolina, but the remainder were rolled up and shipped back to Logan, where they have been restretched and unveiled for the Studio 102 exhibit.

Light is the force that animates and fills every surface in Terry's paintings, giving life to the polished floors and weathered baseboards as much as to the folds of cloth and mundane objects that make up his still lifes. Terry takes every-day objects and places them on a "stage," generally a table, fully covered by a long white tablecloth, in large empty rooms with an abundance of molding. In many of his works the still-life objects are so small as to be inconsequential so the "stage" that surrounds them becomes equally important. His light enlivens every surface, giving the paintings their sense of calm. But that same democratic light makes every abstract shape in the composition equally important, building up a slow, persistent sense of expectation.

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Terry's paintings do not differ in dramatic ways. Like Bach, in his "Art of the Fugue," Terry creates a series of variations based on an established range of elements, rearranging, amplifying and shifting tones in each of his works. These insistent variations build for themselves a deep and broad resonance, where a slight shift in perspective or the introduction of a sloping roof can be enough to separate one movement from the next. As in Bach's work, the variations are more striking precisely because of the relationships of between them and because of their collective majesty.

Terry is frequently labeled a "realist," a sloppy and broadstroke critical assessment often applied to any artist who still paints objects as they appear, with little distortion. His surfaces and objects are delicately rendered, but the artist does not spend hours before his subject, nor is his aim to re-present the object. Terry says his work "is based as much on memory and invention as it is on direct observation." The artist uses a variety of methods -- direct observation, photographs and 3D models -- to create his compositions. He says that in the end his paintings are for the most part "made up." Which is what gives his "secular altars" their idealized, dreamlike quality, an effect that makes the entire painting seem to float in a pool of light.

This quality is only achieved by a life-long devotion to painting. The act of painting is essential to Terry, who remarks that if he weren't able to paint he would probably give up being a visual artist altogether. As a teacher he endeavors to explain the physical process of painting, even when this can be difficult to put in words. "It's virtually impossible to explain [viscosity] verbally," he writes in his blog, which he began in Germany and his continued since his return. "If the paint has the right viscosity, it's easy to make it do what you want. If the viscosity is wrong, you can forget it." Terry realizes his "willingness to deal unashamedly with the mechanics of painting" sets him apart from much of contemporary art and many of his the more conceptual or theory-minded teachers -- "the kind of people who never miss an opportunity to use the word 'reference' as a verb," he writes, in the same blog entry.

Read the blog and you'll learn a lot about German culture and the types of movies Chris Terry likes to watch in his spare time. But you'll find little about his painting for the past year. When you are professor, bogged down by a heavy teaching load, and finally have a chance to do nothing but paint, there's little need to write about it. If you want to see what he has to say about his painting you'll have to read the report now hanging on the walls of Studio 102.

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