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May 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
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Micol Hebron sitting under Daniel Luchman's Mobile Distraction in the Salt Lake Art Center's Expanded Field show, photo by Jared Christensen
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Accessing Contemporary Art . . . from page 1

The layman contemporary art fan has probably not been privy to those conversations but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room to participate. The Salt Lake Art Center recently hosted a panel discussion titled "The Role of Sculpture in Today’s World" where winner of the 2010 International Sculpture Center Student Awards, Davey Hawkins, spoke to an audience about his winning video piece that appears in the Art Center’s current show Expanded Field. Micol Hebron, Senior Curator at the Salt Lake Art Center, |0| says, “One of the winners (Hawkins) in the sculpture show right now, it’s a video piece and people were really uncomfortable with the idea of video as sculpture. But my question is what happens if you just accept video as sculpture? What happens if you say, ok now my understanding of sculpture has to change, it has to expand, and how does that affect what I used to think and how does that affect what I will think moving forward?”

It might be an uncomfortable shift to go from thinking of sculpture in terms of a classic work like Michelangelo’s David to changing your definition to include video work alongside the traditional masters. In some capacity that is the role of contemporary art: to help shift perspective and engage people not through what is already known but through the possibility of something new, something that makes you question things at a deeper level than you might have before.

“The artifacts of cultural production that are really making statements or exploring new ways of using material, or that are finding new ways of saying something or finding new things to say, are of course going to be uncomfortable for some people, and I don’t think discomfort is a bad thing," Hebron says. "I think sometimes that can poke people a little bit and encourage them to respond or to state their own opinions or to ask questions.”

Perhaps the question in viewing contemporary art isn’t whether or not you like it or whether or not you understand it, but instead: What does it make you think? Any response to a piece of art is better than none at all. And one that elicits discussion long after the viewing is over is perhaps the best kind. There are many examples of this kind of work around the state, including Adam Bateman’s recent installation at BYU, which may be a little more comfortable for people to respond to because it recontextualizes something familiar. The work, "The Four Thousand Years,"|1| is showing as part of the BYU Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, The Matter of Words. The piece is a gargantuan cube shaped from books, their spines all turned inward so only the pages are visible, arranged in waves of intriguing, hypnotic patterns. This piece is comfortable and accessible because as Lambson says, everyone has a relationship with books.

Another work in The Matter of Words, by Harrell Fletcher, includes photos of Bibles opened to densely-highlighted passages.|2| Without understanding the work's back story a viewer could have trouble understanding the piece, and Lambson says the museum has already had quite a few complaints about the work, which some people have seen as blasphemous. Yet that was not the intention of the Bible's owner or the photographer who has presented it as art. The piece began when Fletcher encountered Veda Epling, a homeless woman who was frantically marking a Bible; Fletcher felt compelled to commission her to mark up the pages for him. Lambson notes that for many people it is common practice to highlight or underline bible passages.

Other pieces, while they might be less controversial, are still tricky to analyze. Keith Hoyt's work at Expanded Field is a large shipping container that is made entirely out of wood.|3| “He’s playing with our expectation that he’s representing an otherwise utilitarian object with fine craftsmanship, so now it’s made in an unexpected material and it’s no longer functional; it’s completely aesthetic,” Hebron explains. She continues by saying he is playing with the idea of the ready-made and asking us to consider the possibility that all things around us could be art, and if that were the case how would that change the way we look at those objects? It’s a question similar to the one posed by famous contemporary artist Marcel Duchamp who put a urinal on display as art almost a century ago.

Carefully examining a work, understanding its context and construction, can help a viewer build an interpretation of the piece, as Dawsey shows when she discusses Tacita Dean's piece, "Rozel Point, Great Salt Lake."|4| “I can imagine this piece might be initially puzzling to some viewers. One enters a dark gallery to see a single still image projected on the wall via a slide projector. The image depicts a landscape, and a body of water, which may be recognizable to some as the Great Salt Lake. But beyond the sky and the lake, we can see no activity, nothing of any real consequence. Why might the artist present this empty, placid sky and lake to us? Exhibitions tell stories and make arguments, and I hope the fact that the viewer enters this space from another gallery full of images of 'Spiral Jetty' will offer a clue. Why use a slide projector? We are shown a single image--why doesn't the slide advance? Why use an antiquated form of technology to begin with? Asking questions like this, one may get the feeling that this piece has to do with time, and place, and that it's more concerned with what is absent than what is present. One may begin to understand that the artist is interested in things that have disappeared, gone missing--things that are lost to us. For a long while, before the water levels dropped, the 'Spiral Jetty' seemed to be one of those things.”

These explanations from prominent curators at BYU, UMFA, and the Salt Lake Art Center serve as a useful starting point for approaching works of art that may not be understood at first glance. You can always look for interpretive materials like accompanying brochures or cell phone tours that enhance the experience. Lambson observes, “Our institutions: BYU, UMFA, the Salt Lake Art Center and Central Utah Art Center have a great relationship. Each of them is trying to grow the community of artists and those who appreciate art. It’s a collaborative effort.”

As these institutions cultivate an audience and offer tools to help interpret the artwork, it seems the most important tool is an open mind that is willing to explore. As Hebron says, “I think one of the best things you can do is bring a friend and talk about it while you’re there, have someone else’s perspective to bounce your ideas off of, and there isn’t a right or a wrong way to look at art. The only wrong way in my mind is to ignore it. But as long as you’re looking and responding and asking questions that’s the most important task of a viewer, to be engaged. I don’t want everybody who comes through here to be an immediate convert but I do want them to foster a sense of curiosity and inquiry and open mindedness. Just give it the chance to stimulate your brain a little bit and see what happens.”

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Drawing the Light In
Lenka Konopasek at the Salt Lake Art Center

With its emphasis on living artists, supplemented with lesser-known works by recent masters (e.g. small paintings by New York’s Abstract-Expressionists) and shows that fill in missing pieces of the big picture, like “Masters of West Coast Assemblage,” the Salt Lake Art Center is never a dull place. For the next month or two, though, it will be particularly lively and engaging, and not least due to an apparent, if unstated and possibly accidental, theme that unites the three current events. Note that’s “events,” not “exhibits,” and the difference points to what may be so exciting. All three gallery spaces contain things that make us feel we are witnessing a passing moment, soon to be gone except for photographs and our memories. On the entry level, Robert Fontenot’s witty portrait of Utah sculpted in bread—bas reliefs of several hundred of our iconic images and features—introduces an artist whose work is a kind of mirror-image of Annie Kennedy’s. Both artists work in non-artistic materials and techniques that draw on folklore to render the interior experience as much as the surface of the local scene, Kennedy an insider while Fontenot, though an outsider, plays the role of tourist straight, affectionate curiosity in place of irony or sarcasm. Downstairs, the large space hosts Expanded Field—scattered, unruly projects by recipients of the International Sculpture Center’s 2010 Student Awards. While there is plenty to like, one particular favorite is Bryan Schoneman’s “Dirt Crown: Portrait Study #1,” in which the universal experience of mud-pie making leads to hilarious commentary on the fate of human ambition. And just past the video player, stool, and dirt field that are the artifacts of his performance is the doorway to “Drawing the Light In,” Artist-in-Residence Lenka Konopasek’s radiant transformation-in-progress of one of the Center’s row of tomb-like chapel galleries into the promisingly-titled “Exit Gallery.”

Prior to becoming artist-in-residence here, Konopasek was known for work in various mediums that explored modern disasters. Her large paintings of flood waters after Hurricane Katrina included an unforgettable aerial image of an elevated freeway that emerged from, or disappeared into, an inland urban sea, the water reflecting the sky. In another series, tornados rip through suburbs fashioned of paper, gathering up cars and fragments of architecture as if they were nothing more than . . . paper. In an ironic note, some of these works are scheduled to be shown later this year in some of the southern states that were hit with devastating storms only last week. Her work in the Salt Lake Art Center, then, has a very different feeling. Last August, she was offered a choice of any of several small rooms along the side of the building that faces the sunken courtyard, above which runs the lawn and fountain in front of Abravanel Hall. She declined one that is used primarily for video presentations and has no windows, admitting, like many artists, to a touch of claustrophobia. Next to it, though, were several small rooms with windows that had been painted over years ago. The Center’s new managers wanted to open these up to the environment outside, but Konopasek, on reflection, also felt uncomfortable with the idea of becoming an installation in a fishbowl and having passers-by watch her back as she painted. The evolution of creative ideas is rarely simple, and gets complicated when an artist is required to reveal her intentions in order to get funding. “It’s a challenge to keep the concept clear without giving away what I’m going to do,” she explains. Not that is was a secret, but that she needed freedom for the project to evolve as it went along. In any case, her idea was, in large part, for the project to be the transition over time from a dark, closed space to one flooded with light and with sight-lines to and from the patio, hillside, and beyond. She began by cutting away segments of paint. Many of these cuts are rectangles, merging together into dashed lines that flow together from the floor before rising dramatically and bursting into flame-like arrays overhead. In other places the marks are irregular, more rough and gestural in themselves. The effect is a kind of ambiguity seen occasionally in stained glass: there is an elaborate drawing visible on the plane of the glass, or the eye can re-focus on the view outside, including “Column 24,” a painted steel sculpture by Ilya Bolotowsky. The light entering also falls on a forest of paper strips, hung from the ceiling, that viewers can explore for its own sake and for the way it interacts with the pattern of window and light. It’s a remarkable visual experience to enter this small, seemingly-submerged space, where we swim like fish in water made of light.

Drawing in the Light by Lenka Konopasek
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