Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Music In Paint
Don Olsen at the UMFA
The visual arts have regularly been considered with regards to their relations: in the heyday of oil painting literature was the next of kin. In contemporary art the closest cousins are philosophy, and her bastard child, theory. But for a few decades in the middle of the last century, when non-objective painting reigned supreme, the visual arts could be mistaken for music -- which meant it was a good time, if there ever is one, for a talented musician who has found his career cut short by throat cancer to turn to the visual arts. In the 1940s, at the age of thirty-five, Don Olsen put down his violin and picked up his paintbrush, and became, with Doug Snow and Lee Deffebach, one of the godparents of abstract art in Utah.
At the end of last year, in time to celebrate the centenary of the artist's birth, the UMFA unveiled in the Great Hall a retrospective look at ten large works by Olsen. The earliest dates to 1957, and the latest to just before the artist's death in 1983. Despite shifting modes of surface treatment, from juicy expressionist work to hard-edged coolness, the paintings here share a common compositional tension that gives the whole ouevre a personal voice.
Though Olsen's voice was personal, it was not particularly original. He made frequent trips to New York, developing his abstract vocabulary either by active study with artists like Hans Hoffman, or simply by observation in the many galleries that sprung up in the post-war boom. He returned to his home state a proselytizer if not a pioneer, influencing a generation of painters that came after him.
Olsen may have put down his violin but as these paintings aptly convey, music never left him. His familiar forms and strokes, repeated within a work and from one piece to the next, are like the recurring motifs of a classical composer. His teacher Hoffman called it "push and pull" but Olsen might just as easily have given his visual strategy of combating ground and planes musical terms: piano/forte, counterpoint, consonance and dissonance all come to mind. His paintings sing, whether with brass and strings as in the impasto work from the sixties, or oboe and bassoon in the weighted, hard-edge work of the seventies.
Art these days does many things. We read -- ad nauseam -- how it questions, explores, interrogates and references. Don Olsen: Abstracts from Nature reminds us it can also sing.
Exhibition Review: Provo
The animals may be brilliant, but the light is another matter . . .
Jacqui Biggs Larsen and Lance Larsen at the Harold B. Lee Library
We expect alchemy from poets and artists. To hear Lance and Jacqui Biggs Larsen tell it, some of their audience expects more from them. In the text introducing Animal Brilliance, their collaborative exhibit of her paintings captioned by his epigraphs, they report being made to feel they should produce work together. It’s rare enough for two painters or two poets to do this, and there is no reason to expect artists whose media are so utterly different to do better in such an effort. A visit to the Auditorium Gallery on the first floor, where the Larsens have mounted a valiant effort to meet their supporters’ wishes, holds no surprises. Rather, as might be expected, when the painting is working it does so without need of words, while when the words work they create their own pictures in the reader’s mind. It would feel great to say, “But never mind; go see the show, which triumphs over such concerns!” Alas, one must stop at “Go see the show!” Those who do will find two separate metaphorical channels, each proceeding along its own challenging path. Either is good as far as it goes, but neither will help a viewer to better follow the other.
Jacqui Biggs Larsen’s paintings, contrary to what one may have heard, are not mixed-media collages. She does draw her rich, layered imagery from the wealth of illustration that inundates anyone with open eyes, but she carefully unifies them in paint. Instead of a curatorial challenge of contrasting materials to be reconciled, she presents a unified surface viewers can tease apart for its various sources, or accept as a metaphor for how our minds construct fantasies and memories. The works should be seen, even though they must be peered at through the worst gallery lighting in memory. In fact, looking at the light running down one margin of an otherwise dark canvas, or elsewhere at the hot spots falling without reason, or where nothing hangs, one of our party guessed that the show hadn’t been lit at all; that someone had neglected to reset the lights from the previous exhibition, and we were seeing a luminous ghost of the gallery’s recent past.
As I write in our article on poetry (see page 5) Lance Larsen’s brief, caption-like lines cannot do what he is capable of. “Savanna zebras, zebras in zoos, / some of us so fleshed in our stripes / we have forgotten why we are hiding” is good, but his true strength can be found in anecdotal narratives of twenty, thirty, or forty lines, in which he argues with himself before finally accepting the wisdom of his circumstances. Yet these epigrams give good reasons to seek his poetry in that longer form, where he traces the voyage of strangers, one who writes and one who paints, who become a couple, and then a family that includes a painter and a poet.
One may speculate at this point whether Jacqui Biggs Larsen could illustrate the heart of her family the way Lance Larsen has dissected it, or if he could give up his scalpel and assemble the details of awareness the way she does. They are certainly welcome to try again, but they’re also free to continue doing what each does so well alone. Either way, someone will be watching to see, listening to hear.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
Patterns We Create
The UMFA's Salt 2 presents the work of Sophie Wettnall
"Over the Sea" opens on a pair of black shoes with extremely high heels, unstable bases that support a pair of legs in dark stockings, fluted by seams running straight up to where they, and the legs, disappear beneath a fluid, acid-green skirt that whips back and forth as their owner briskly strides across a city square.|1| For the next ten minutes we will follow these feet, remaining at their level and just behind them, as they navigate terrain that ranges from antique flagstones to shingle pathways and finally to a raw rock outcropping overlooking a bay, where we finally leave them behind to gaze on water surging unhindered, as it has since before there was life on earth. Along the way we see persons move discreetly aside, or pretend not to see the camera; a pair of dogs approach without guile, clearly interested, then pass by. The variety of surfaces the shoes and their operator accommodate—with difficulty, sometimes poorly, but in the end successfully—and the intermingling of manufactured and natural surrounding through which we pass lend their stories to a narrative that lacks an obvious motive beyond the old punchline: to see what’s on the other side.
Late in his life the photographer Ansel Adams began to contemplate how we have gradually built a buffer of manufactured goods between us and nature. Consider how almost every surface we walk on, whether floor, lawn, or garden path, was put there for the purpose. Ironically for Adams, as he was trying to bring the natural world back to the center of human contemplation, inventions like television were increasing the distance between our senses and reality. We think we see more, like the arctic ice and frigid sea in Whettnall’s "Waterfall," which we are unlikely to ever encounter in person, but in reality all we see is light flickering on a screen.|0| Remember the comment on 9/11: “When the plane hit the building, it looked just like a movie.” Because that’s what it was . . . a film of something we didn’t experience. Even those who saw it in person have had their sensations multiplied by other versions from other points of view.
Whettnall is Belgian but, like many of today’s artists, travels extensively both to create her work and to show it. Where the previous Salt artist, Adriana Lara, found unfamiliar, even wonderful ways to make familiar points—a roll of toilet paper in a gallery asked whether an artist really can, as Duchamp and Yoko Ono have said, elevate anything to be high art—Whettnall uses tropes familiar from decades of video to make a philosophical point that transcends art. In "Shadow Boxing," a professional boxer throws punches at the artist that, in close up, come as close to her as they would in a stunt shot in a movie, but her stolid immobility in the face of the threat requires sorting out everything from her creative motive to our many levels of reaction. Fictional violence can generate a real response—has done so since the Greeks invented stage action—but what if the violence is both fictional and implicit?
The media that “mediate” between us and the world include video cameras, which are direct descendants of paint, brush, and canvas. They can be manipulated in many ways, including slowing and stopping projection. So can their sound tracks, which here boom, crack, echo, and ring. But “media” also includes our clothing, language, memories, and preconceptions. When "Waterfall" snaps on in a dark room, at first we think we’re seeing a still photo. The first inklings of motion are likely to be discounted. Our preconception argues with new facts. Like a research project, we gradually learn to see what is in front of us. But except for things we are absolutely certain of, perception is always a research project. A still photo, like the untitled drawing that extends across the doorway to "Waterfall," is by its nature different from a film. We think of a film as something that takes place in time and must be assembled in the mind, while a drawing can be taken in all at once. Yet while a viewer can see the drawing all at once, only a small part is ever in focus. Exploration of a drawing—especially one that runs from one wall around a corner and jumps a door—has something of the quality of a film.|2| Think of the “Ken Burns effect” that has taken over documentary film.
It’s an artist’s dream to perfectly, completely control not only the work of art, but the viewer’s response. To that end, many of our contemporaries have set up their own museums, or at least their own galleries, where they can control the experience, including lighting and angle of view, as much as possible. Sophie Whettnall has done something simpler, but more profound. Instead of fuming at the increasingly small space that remains beyond her control, lost in indecision between the stimulus and the response, she crafts works that make us become the gallery, the context, of what she sets in motion in our consciousness, and require us to acknowledge the continuity between a frozen waterfall, a woman in motion, and our awareness. Ultimate solipsists, we are not present among them. They are present in us, made of patterns we create.