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 March 2010
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The Closed Circuit
Contemporary artists closing off the viewer

As much as the quality of paint, or the illusion of depth, the relationship between art and viewer is a fundamental element of what we call art. So what happens when an artist denies their viewer this essential relationship, cutting off the dialogue that is the product of meaningful art? What happens when either the artist’s sensibility is lacking, using art for novelty and showmanship, or the artist simply does not consider their audience? If the artist possesses vision, their subject may or may not open channels of receptivity. But if the art is lacking the necessary significance, their work will assuredly not enable a full, artistic impact on the audience.

Recently, I eagerly anticipated visiting the Salt Lake Art Center to see the work of celebrity artist Jamie Wyeth, the heir apparent in a famous family of painters of Americana. The work is a series of paintings depicting seagulls titled “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and before the show I pondered how the manifestation of the seven deadly sins, personified in the birds, had contemporary relevance; I knew there was deeper human significance and I eagerly anticipated asking Mr. Wyeth what that was.

In the open discussion at the exhibit’s opening reception, I asked Wyeth what importance and underlying theme he was trying to express in his work that I or any viewer could gain by looking at this art. His answer was that he “was not concerned with how the viewer will react to the work. That is up to them.” In disappointed disbelief I realized the paintings were merely well-articulated depictions of birds, using the novelty of a storied title to give the works some content beyond mere ornithology. In our pluralistic society, artists are free to paint at will: scenes of beauty are appreciated and needed and are recognized for their beauty. But for an artist’s work to be of high merit, as many consider Wyeth’s to be, the artist must be aware of his or her audience, broadcasting an experience that can be received and related to. They can’t, like Wyeth, rely on flashy paint and gimmickry. That type of work becomes a closed-circuit.

Some theorists will tell you that the artist, along with the author, is dead, but many artists act as if the viewer is the deceased one. The freedom offered by the limitless possibility made available through plurality of form and content seems to be tempting artists to ignore the crucial partner in a work of art: the viewer. Art is not to be found in layers of paint or in the bristles of a brush but in using these with voice and vision, where content and form reach a state that allows for the phenomena of an exchange where the viewer is as important to this dynamic as the art.

This is a dialectic centuries old, a relationship between art and viewer and the synthesis is something like the art of Tawni Shuler, whose show ecotone, is now on exhibit at the Woodbury Art Museum in Orem. Shuler depends on the full participation of her audience to act in the art of viewing; for her work to reach its potential requires the viewers to take time to fully contemplate what she is trying to express and put themselves within this synthesis and discover their own personal relationship with the art. Shuler cites Joanne Smith, who defines ecotone as “the place where forest meets meadow, desert touches river. It’s the frontier where communities of humankind and wild animals touch each other. It’s that shaky space between who we are and who we appear to be, the gap between reality and mystery, the certain and the imagined.”

The show is a series of pure abstractions, void of representation or iconography; but all the works have their ideological origins based on the idea of ecotone. Some are dark and others are light. Some are weighty, and some are airy. Some are intense and some are ethereal, some are in vibrant hues, others in monochrome black and white. Some are organic and some seem artificial. Yet all are sublime. The viewer is encouraged to discover their own ecotones: light and dark, presence and absence, past and future, truth and artifice, reality and illusion, life and death, mortality and immortality. The very subject of art and viewer has its own ecotone. This occurs within the viewer as they connect with the art and find themselves in this space, and discover their own polarity, like an apparition within the work that is an open-circuit.

In the ideal paradigm, the open-circuit exists in the work of the artist who is mindful of their viewer, whose artistic voice resonates in their work, whose subject is not a mere form, and is received by the viewer in an artistic vocabulary that initiates an artistic language that opens a free flow of meaning as the viewer contemplates the relevance of the work. The dynamic that exists where the viewer’s contemplation perpetuates a plurality of meaning gives art a weightier, profound function in contemporary ideologies, addressing philosophies, beliefs, histories, ideas.

What denies art its full potential is the closed-circuit, where the artist has no voice and does not consider their audience, has forgotten that many will look for meaning and find no significance. Art loses its value when it is used without purpose, without thought, ultimately leading to insignificance and oblivion. The engagement between art and viewer cannot be accomplished when no connection has been established and is used merely as a display of an artist’s rendering skills.

For centuries, the relationship between art and its audience has been a critical synthesis that allows for education, enlightenment, thought, or inspiration. To the uneducated masses of the medieval centuries, when the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins was an intimate part of life, art served as a unifying factor, fulfilling the purposes of the church to teach the gospels. In the Renaissance, the classical model acted as an agent to civilize European society. In the Enlightenment, art revealed new truths, and during the Romantic broadened the perspectives of many. The Modern required that its audience be informed of the manifestos and experiments of its many artists to fully understand its aims as limits were being pushed. Today, as there are no limits, the artist is open to explore their own unique perceptions of reality with no formal barriers. Always, the audience was a predicate in the dynamic, and today, as always, the artist must rely on audience receptivity, serving a utilitarian placement in society.

An open-circuit dynamic is essential for good, relevant and important art today. Not only is there a plurality of form and content, but the audience itself is also truly diverse, of all ages and ethnicities. An open-circuit takes that into consideration. Art has always served a higher purpose, operating on a different level, as a venue of ideas, a human exchange of cultural expression. For those with nothing to say, with no insight into what being human really means, an ability to render the visible world counts for little. The integrity of art relies on the artist to express through their visual manifestations the product of their artistic sensibility and perspective, always mindful to connect with the viewer and leave the circuit open.

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Higher Ed
Weber State's DOVA

This month in the Higher Education column, we travel north to Ogden and Weber State University. Weber’s Department of Visual Arts (DOVA) has started 2010 with a successful juried student show in their own Shaw Gallery, followed immediately by an art talk with performance artist Angela Ellsworth.|1| Ellsworth was brought in jointly between DOVA and the Central Utah Art Center (CUAC), the most recent collaboration between the two institutions. Even though they are separated by about 150 miles, they have found these collaborations very successful. They alleviate some of the financial pressure on both sides and help increase attendance at both the talks and the shows. CUAC board member Adam Bateman is very enthusiastic about these collaborations and believes they'll help continue to bring world-class artists to the state of Utah and provide a special opportunity for students at the schools willing to work with the CUAC. He is excited to continue these programs and looks forward to more collaboration this coming fall. If you missed Ellsworth’s lecture, it is available in its entirety on CUAC’s website.

One reason DOVA collaborates so well with the CUAC is that one of their most active faculty members, Matthew Choberka, is on the CUAC board. Choberka started a dedicated Facebook Page for the DOVA so that students (already spending too much time on there anyway) can keep up with events at the DOVA, look for calls for entry, and check out links to current events in the art world that Choberka and other faculty members share. Students can also RSVP for events like the upcoming lecture by San Francisco-based painter, Seth Curcio.|2| The talk is this Thursday, March 4th, and will discuss recent studio, curatorial and publishing projects. Curcio is the founder of the popular art blog, DailyServing.com.

If you are interested in learning more about performance art, local and internationally recognized performance artist Kristina Lenzi currently includes six weeks on the subject in her Studio Art class for non-art majors.|3| She is getting an enthusiastic response from students and hopes to continue the curriculum in the fall. Images of students’ performance pieces can be seen on the DOVA’s Facebook page. Lenzi recently performed two pieces from her "7 Deadly Sins" at the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California and is off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to perform “Clumsy Cakes Returns’ at the Meme Gallery.

Choberka’s work was recently chosen to be included on the Drawing Center’s artist registry and his work, “Position Papers,” can be seen this month at Universe City Gallery in Ogden.|0| Make sure to check it out if you are out and about this Friday on First Friday’s Art Stroll in Ogden.

Another painter and professor at DOVA, William Emerich is enjoying a new situation in his teaching experience.|4| He usually teaches Design: 2D and Drawing I, so rarely sees how his students evolve. But this semester he has had the chance to teach figure drawing and get students from his earlier classes. “I am pleased to see how far they have come. They are starting to take responsibility for their education and are developing into articulate artists.”

Recent graduate Tyler Hackett came to the DOVA as a transfer student when his wife began graduate work at the University of Utah.|5| He chose Weber because he felt a connection to the faculty and department. It was somewhere he “would want to be on a daily basis.” He believes his successful growth as an artist came about because of this connection (and to his first school, Fort Lewis College), and he was very active in his education taking away valuable information from critiques and other subjective discussions. He looks at his BFA as preparation for pursuing an MFA and having a successful career as an artist. Hackett most recently had a solo show at A Gallery and is currently learning to balance being a stay at home dad and full time artist.

Upcoming events at the DOVA will include the 5th Annual Northern Utah High School Art Exhibition in March, and in April, the BFA Thesis exhibit. For current events and to keep up with the DOVA, please check out their Facebook page.

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