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 September 2010
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Dance Performance at Mind the Gap
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Mirror Mirror . . . from page 1

Fatima Ronquillo’s quirky, instantly engaging fantasy portraits are small enough to stand on a table, and one was so displayed near the entrance of the Meyer Gallery when we called. It was fascinating to watch visitors respond to it. Ronquillo is self taught, which may explain why instead of gathering specific techniques in isolation, she’s lifted entire manners, which she combines in winning new combinations. Her figures borrow from Latin American magic realists like Fernando Botero, while her backgrounds recall the proto-landscapes of Leonardo and Giorgione. The uniform worn by the girl in “Lucy and Majorette” |0| acquires an unsettling quality as much from resemblance to the pretentious, overly-ornamental uniforms worn by South American dictators as from the presence of this vulnerable, white outfit in a dark, looming forest. Yet most disturbing, because most disturbed, is the serious way this young woman holds in her arms not just a spotted pig, but a winged, spotted pig, cradled in her arms in a way that draws attention to the bright red ring she wears on her index finger. Another gallery visitor rushed up to one of these gems enthusiastically, and then, after closer examination, shuddered and mumbled a quiet demurral. A moment later, after a discussion of some of its references—for example, that ”Viola in Disguise,” |1| with the curly evidence of a self–inflicted haircut still clinging to her borrowed uniform, refers to “Twelfth Night”—her excitement rekindled itself.

In spite of the odd stories they enact in strange circumstances, Ronquillo’s women maintain a feeling of repose. Not so Brian Kershisnik, a painter at war with himself, whose folkloric figures emerge from a textured world of paint the way Adam and Eve came from clay. Kershisnik’s struggle looms so large because he has the most serious mission of any painter here. His deliberately naive style, while it makes him less intimidating, more approachable, is meant to uncover -- from the illusions we live with -- the true, LDS life. His didactic purpose reveals itself through a lack of context or setting beyond generic hints and the presence of occasional props necessary to a specific narrative. This pared-down presentation, with its emphasis on meticulously modeled gestures, can leave viewers aching to trade our messy world for the Platonic realm glimpsed in the painting. Just as war—any war—provides us with a life-and-death predicament in which our choices actually matter, so Kershisnik reproduces the mental world of a man who constantly questions human behavior, for whom everything matters. It works even for those not affiliated with the answers he starts from because his grip on the anatomy of gesture is so powerful. The woman in “Find Me” repeats her plea a hundred times, but it’s the fervent way she rises on one foot that carries her intensity.|2| She could be seeking salvation or just asking for someone to cross a moat of her own making and encounter her true, inner self. The man in “I Am Thinking of Something Else Altogether” gazes straight as us, but points in the direction faced by his occluded profile, as if we have incorrectly guessed what preoccupies him.|3| He seems to be telling us, as directly as possible, that it’s about another, less visible level of being.

In contrast to Kershisnik’s characters covered in paint, Emily McPhie brings her similarly self-referential figures forward in meticulous flesh and places them in oddly detailed, meaningful spaces. Yet while Kershisnik’s images come from ideas, hers emerge from interaction with her children and associates; her paintings are more fanciful, less pre-determined and controlled than his. Like Ronquillo’s, they are also usually of women. In both “Camouflage” |4| and “Come Sail Away With Me,” the pattern on her clothing repeats in the wallpaper. Tom Cushman relates this device to “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story is no more free of ambiguity than McPhie’s vignettes. Such protective coloration is certainly better than the misleading, false faces some of her other figures have donned. Many of her characters contemplate flight, while others seem unwittingly or willfully oblivious to their plight. What is really “on her mind” may slip past her effort to repress it, as in “Puppet Show,” by means of an allegorical tableau nesting in her hair. Puppets could be almost any responsibility, but in “Of Two Minds” one head clearly features children, while the other proffers a voyage of adventure.|5| Here she channels one of the most intriguing yet mysterious paintings in art history: an anonymous double portrait of the mistress of the king of France and her sister. The original was probably done to celebrate the mistress’s pregnancy with the king’s child, but 400 years later, even with the mother doing the painting this time, children remain a source of complex and unclear feelings.

Ray Bonilla’s naturalistic paintings stand apart here for their loyalty to visual fact, which here precedes action or events. Rendered in a space made palpable by an inky darkness, their thick impasto insists on the intervention of brush and hand. Although two of them portray outdoor scenes featuring anonymous city dwellers, they all feel more like portraits than anecdotes. “Bob” |6| and the woman in “Repose” |7| and “Repose 2” are clearly specific individuals. But more to the point, in them and in “New Morning, New York,” the figures emerge from darkness as though being drawn forth by Bonilla the way a portrait seeks to pull personality out of appearance. Even in the sunlit “Liberty Ave 1,” one feels how the lone grocer is coiled, waiting to act.

If Bonilla’s men and women are alive inside rather than in action, Chris Miles’ fantasy figures can scarcely be said to have lives. His archetypes and the landscapes they inhabit often suggest how Henri Rousseau might have painted if he’d had today’s ready access to imagery, though Miles is a better painter, using Old Master techniques to make his stuffed subjects and the equally stuffed-looking landscape surrounding them appear round and solid. In a time and place where Disney movies are considered suitable as adult entertainment, animals may as well enact the human comedy. The question is, what is the value of the originals that become illustrations? “Revelers” and “The Concert” are better seen in a child’s book than on a wall, just as it’s easier to picture “Peace and Movement” |8| on a greeting card. Yet occasionally, as in the cubist sea on which the “Castaway” floats, |9| or the way “Friendly Game” exploits the contrast between the angel’s anonymous back, with wings and halo in place, and the leering anticipation on the devil’s face, Miles pulls off something genuinely novel and, if not deeply moving, at least engaging.

Bronze sculptor Jim Rennert’s command of anatomy, even under the anonymous cover of a business suit, is matched by a knack for creating original visual metaphors. Both here and at The Face of Utah Sculpture VI though, he tends to mythologize more than examine the lives of his “Men in Suits.”|10| Here, as elsewhere above, the temptation to speak of the artist’s subjects as “characters” speaks volumes about the rise of narrative as a method in visual art. What that means for the future will bear watching.

Deadlines prevented us from seeing the work of Glen Hawkins, Fidelis Buehler, and Justin Taylor in person. Each is a well-known artist who will undoubtedly add a dimension to this exhibition. So do Ted Gall’s category-defying table top heads, which to talk about here would exceed the available space. Trust, then, that the struggle to achieve legitimacy by incidentally or deliberately popular means has engaged artists of real accomplishment in a project that, if the results remain mixed, continues to generate art worth diving into, capable of going beyond the mirror to show us different views of ourselves.

Special Feature
On the Spot Painting
Len Chmiel and Kate Starling at Maynard Dixon Country

Watching Colleen Howe set up her easel during the “wet paint” painting session is a defining moment. I get it. On the spot painting. I watch Colleen Howe squeezing tubes of oil onto her palette, squinting into the distance. She is soon immersed in her personal world. The painting that she is working on will go on sale within hours, thus, wet-painting. On the spot painting means making art, not subjects.

"On the spot painting" is the subject of Utah artist Kate Starling |0| and Colorado artist Len Chmiel’s joint presentation this weekend at Maynard Dixon Country, the annual event held in the remote town of Mount Carmel that was home to the artist.

Viewing Kate Starling’s sketchbook one can see just the suggestion of the subject. She prefers “painting every day outdoors, sun, rain, wind,” always considering how to see her subject -- not the whole, but what is compelling, the play of light, or how a cloud causes the slot canyon to melt into shadow. Obviously, the process can only take place outside, on the ground. On the spot painting is also about on the spot knowledge. Len Chmiel says that “while painting water, it isn’t a bad thing to be a fly fisher, no better way to study water. Then interpret your own authenticity.” Kate Starling says that after composing a subject, she likes to do something to surprise herself. But you can only do it if you are not mesmerized by the subject. The former National Park Ranger’s knowledge of geology is something she falls back on without thinking about it at all.

Knowledge is a tool, but not the goal. In the gallery catalogue for the event Susan Bingham quotes Chmiel: “ I used to try to control everything but now I allow my intuition to speak more. I try to stretch the truth of what the actual image is. I never wind up with a real representation. I do things that are recognizable, yes, but I have a much different intention.” The stretching of the truth includes multiple photographs of his unfinished painting, and using Photoshop to see if he should go bigger, or maybe tweak the tone a little. “ I look for the abstraction in the subject; I have to satisfy my own curiosity,” he says. “Sometimes [the Photoshopped image] helps me see what shouldn’t be there. [It] saves me a lot of scraping.”

One wouldn’t say the artists gathered around Starling and Chmiel are incredulous when Chmiel mentions the use of Photoshop, but some do turn to each other as if to say, “Did he really say ‘Photoshop’?” He did.

“I might take 3 or 4 images and stack the buggers up to see if I missed something. Look, I have close to 1500 pieces of art sold and hanging out there. I use every tool that I can when I’m in the field, but I still have to bring the painting or sketch in. And finish it to my specifications. We’re lying anyhow -- so what is the difference.” He has shaken up the 100 or so artists gathered, and ends his statement: “Photos have detail in them -- at times I only have 45 minutes out there ’on the spot.’ I don’t go for perfection out there. My favorite position at all times is “What if?” And Photoshop allows me to take the chance without all of the sketching. I do all of my drawing with my brushes and raw paint anyway. And I want to find a way to get more and more paint on the canvas any damn way that I can.” Starling does not use photos extensively, but does create abstract sketches, and if there is a photo of the subject, she uses it for shadowing, and to correct the many changes of light that take place in the field.

It is 4:15 in the afternoon. We sit on the back patio of Maynard Dixon’s home, restored by Paul and Susan Bingham. There is a pale flash of lightning. Over 100 of us have been here for an hour and a half. It rains a little bit, no one leaves their seats. Altogether there are 34 artists here of national and international repute. Add to this the art lovers, students and collectors and we are, in the best sense of the overused word, a “village.”

Starling and Chmiel continue their presentation.

From the audience: “How do you know when a painting is done?"

Starling: “When you look at the painting and start taking paint off.”

Chmiel: ”Look at the painting and know this, that you shouldn’t add salt to every thing. And make sure that you got a nice big set of clouds and some teepees in the thing.”

We laugh, and the sun comes out, backlighting the cottonwoods.

Chmiel: “Here’s a message about the importance of being an artist. Everything that we use today started in the head of an artist. The design, the beauty of the car or other item that we use. Artists are more a part of everything that is used in America than we think. This is my life’s work and probably yours.”

From the audience: “Do you consciously seek painting in a certain style. A lot of painters have trademark styles?"

Kate Starling: “ I honestly can say no. There’s enough going on, on the spot, that you don’t think about it. Maybe that’s what someone might see as technique."

Chmiel: “Now we are back to authenticity. I am not trying to be John Singer Sargent, as much as I admire his work. Style evolves over time. Just do the work. I earned a living as an industrial illustrator. I sold small water colors in the lunch room for $5.00. When I got enough money I went on my own. I paint for myself. You paint for yourself.”

Starling: “We have to mention our early work and how you build a foundation of skill and knowledge. And that foundation changes, grows. It happens over time just being yourself."

Chmiel: “Maynard Dixon started as an advertising illustrator, he gained a work ethic. He also had mentors. Mine was Don Putnam. But I’ll tell you the thing that stays with me now was his attitude toward life. The great joy. I gained great joy with Don and joy was a huge part of his artistic vision.”

Starling: “Maynard had his own vision. And you can see it in his style. Keep being yourself. I learned this from Maynard. But my style is totally mine, not his. It is my own. I keep being myself. And I will always keep doing this.”

Chmiel’s concluding thoughts sum up the feeling of the group. “We’ve enjoyed this. We hope that our art work is so good that it brings you to your knees.”

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