Randee Levine (Dibble Gallery)

 

Randee Levine

 

The life of Randee Levine is one based on making decisions and arriving at the here and now, with a life that flourishes and with many avenues of expression; her long practiced psychology translates into her art, into her perception of herself, those she interacts with, her life, is a development. Levine was born in Manhattan and grew up in Bronx and Yonkers. She was raised in a first generation Jewish family, which, although not currently active, her heritage has had a significant impact on her life and her art.

 

Her mother and father moved to Yonkers once they had a family. Ultimately, Levine set her sights on fine art and entered State University of New York at Purchase and receiving her BFA in visual art. Levine is emphatic on how she gained and enjoyed this learning experience; her colleagues, her learning, and her mentors, many of whom had direct influences in the NYC art community with associations such as Josef Albers, formative to Levine’s studies.

 

As a struggling artist living in NYC, Levine did much of what other artists did, she sang in bands, she waited tables, and she did visual research many designers needed. In the process of survival of being an artist in NYC, Levine met a musician and “We decided we didn’t want to stay in New York; he had some connections here because his parents were ‘transplants.’ We decided to move here, it was great here, and developing the connections, and the gigs that I got,” she says.

 

In 1986, Levine and her husband moved to Los Angeles, Levine practicing celebrity photographing and only then, after, she states with experience, “Leaving New York to come to Salt Lake City, I realized I do better in a more relaxed environment. Coming back from LA and coming here, through going to a therapist here for my own personal needs, I discovered something called ‘Process Oriented Psychology.’ This affects both personally and professionally the way I view the world and my life. I work professionally, as well as privately with individuals, couples and groups, developing awareness, compassion, and communication,” she says.  

 

“Process work is not traditional psychology, it has a strong Eastern Asian Philosophical bend; it draws out of Jungian psychology. The whole idea is that it’s potential oriented, that everything we experience that is troubling or disturbing, has the seed for potential growth.” she continues, “I like to make a distinction between new age thinking and Process work. We don’t invite things into our lives but face those disturbances. For example, if you are depressed, we don’t prescribe something for depression, we discover the meaningfulness of that depression and doing that often relieves the symptom. Things manifest as disturbances, but if we can become congruent with these things, they flow more easily,” she says concertedly.

 

In this case, it is hard to say what comes first, the philosophy or the art, or, the art and then the philosophy. According to Levine’s philosophy, her art is an extension of herself, of reaching out to face challenges and life’s many disturbances and to face these disturbances and to understand them and progress. Art, on the other hand, might not be understood as a “disturbance,” yet still it is a coming whole with balances and manifestations for life congruencies to harmonize; in reality, a life long process of an ongoing processing.

 

Levine will be showing more than 10 major works at Dibble Gallery to open on the 15th of July third Friday gallery stroll, and with this opportunity, Levine is able to reach a congruence with those who may come to appreciate her expressive process, the psychological being of her work, and the elements that reveal this being through processing.

 

Levine’s standard medium scale canvases, are the kind that can be read with a symbolic intensity, so much that the viewer might come to an understanding of the thematic elements of Levine’s figural expression, with emphasis and how this resonates with the viewer’s phenomenological attachment; meanings, and understandings. Color, shape, scale, formal implication, one element to another, meaningfulness and discovering through process a revelation of the processing self as a relationship, is created through the expression of the figure. The meaningful presence is to be absorbed with a congruence of understanding. Coming to understand this work can be challenging, but at the same time, fluid and open with the figure and personal connectivity. For example, the prominent yet simplified symbol of female gender in “Woman with dog on green,” gestural, almost hidden, with breasts, prominently high just below the neck, seen as cones protruding, these definitive provocative symbols may confront personal connectivity with myriad processing that is instead evocative.

 

In 1945, Jackson Pollock painted a series of “Totem” paintings. These were semi-figural and have a strong parallel with Levine’s work. Pollock had a long-running interest with Surrealism, and the abundance of meaning that can be read on a subconscious level, with parts to the whole and emphasis given from part to part with symbolic awareness. This is very much like the work of Levine, whose painting is based on process and the processing that renders totem-like figures, comparable in levels and hierarchy of meaning, that build the structure of Pollock’s as much as the verticality and meaningful emphasis of Levine’s figures.

 

Says Levine, “I think that showing things that aren’t always exposed is part of my psychology and who I am. I tend to be an expressive and authentic person who shows things that others might be shyer about, something that might be reflected. This is getting along with what is actually and not trying to cover things up and make them different;” a core basis for Levine’s philosophical practice and her art practice.

 

“I am connected with dreaming and what’s inside,” says Levine. The environmental phenomena of personal psychology and the coming together of Levine’s art is achieved, so says Levine, in the subconscious.” Like the others, there is a structural flatness here that unifies while projecting core inner elements. “Yellow and red woman” has a very widened head with eyes rendered as hypnotic. Two cone-like projected breasts are placed just below the neck, the child-like rendered arms are bowed, the feet are heavy. At her core is a visceral representation, the abstraction of her inner-core. The colors are bright, but a compendium that seems to have no rhyme or reason.

 

In “Yellow and red woman,” the dream is rendered in a Frieda Kahlo-like manner, a visceral awareness of the core of self and not being afraid to look deeply within and not be afraid of confrontation that, which may be a harsh reality, but in Process psychology, one is encouraged to face inner demons, not by aggressively challenging, but meeting whatever this may be on its own terms, with a congruous understanding of being.

 

As Levine’s current work acts on a myriad of subtleties; it has not always been figural abstraction, but for much of her professional career, Levine has had the quality of total abstraction. However, the artist’s abstract work functions in much the same way as the figural work, with meanings that evolve from symbol and structure. “Red and green abstract” is one such example, possessing totem symbolism, layering from top to the bottom strata, with an irrational element in the heaviness at the top and a looser application towards the bottom layer. This pressure, with scribbles and blending through each layer, causes a different dream-state. “Black and red abstract” functions in the same manner, with the top tier far more intense than the bottom and sketchiness of hue creating a psychological, irrational response, thus sensitizing or desensitizing by the effect of the linearity

 

These charged works are a study, of sorts, of what is personified, what is portrayed, and who, what, where, when, why and how the response is projected; the purpose of process, the movement of self, the movement of spirit, a moving of mind, and ultimately the courage in processing this psychological and personal journey. Ultimately, an expressiveness of Levine’s putting her own art “out there” is facing her own life, mistakes, misfortune, arming herself and the viewer; projecting blindness with color and personal connectivity with the unknown    

 

 

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David Maestas (UTah Artist Hands)

Maestas 5

David Maestas always has been a painter, his reality is one of a painter, and no matter what curve balls life may throw his way, he always will be a painter seeing and understanding life through the eyes and cognition, and spirit of an artist. As a father of three daughters, he had to make some changes with the economic situation, which in 2008 slowed sales and had to relinquish the total freedom he once had to paint at total liberty as an artist, with his last major show in 2010. But things are day-by-day looking better for Maestas, and for the economy. It is very likely, as his two older girls will soon help support themselves, that Maestas will once again very soon have the total autonomy to be the self-supporting artist he always was, yet with a renewed outlook. “The best paintings come from the journey, and never knowing where it’s going, and never knowing what is going to happen,” says Maestas.

For Maestas, his painting is very much a personal expression, that is a mastery of the mechanics of abstract art of 20 years, to the degree that his work is an open door to his spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and transcendent struggles with life, as he faces the trials of his reality that become manifest in relationships of strong color and bold tonality. Although his life is one of both happiness and hardship, Maestas has found his work to be a symbiotic tool with the workings of his sensibilities to process life’s more challenging aspects. The result is always beautiful. “Her Soul is like a Waterfall” is like much of Meastas’ work and a collision of forces. Here it seems as if he has occupied a particular space of hardship, blue blackness, for far too long. The levee has ruptured, and the beauty that is her soul, like a waterfall, has come rushing in, overcoming a darkness with a glassy effulgent orange, and life and vitality fuses with the space of emptiness and despair.

Maestas does not regard being an artist as a career choice or something he necessarily initiated at some point in life. For him it is a way of life, and how life has always been. He says, “I think being an artist is a full time thing from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and it is your power of observation, the way you look at things. It’s almost like a sensitivity to things that most people would miss. Maybe you walk into a room and you see things happening all around, but your mind fixates on a ray of light breaking through glass or a salt shaker, the way it makes a star; it’s having that sensitivity throughout your day, and having that awareness and taking it all in- it can be a bit overwhelming.” For Maestas it is a total reality that became manifest when he was a very young boy.

Maestas, who was born in Chama, New Mexico, recalls “I think the first time I remember picking up a brush was with the little Crayola cakes, the little set that you bought for $1, and I could always remember when I was 9 or 10, and coming from a family of 6 boys, messing around with the paint and seeing the paint and what it would do, mixing it with water and moving the paint and turning the paper, and seeing and being fascinated with what the paint was doing, not even being concerned with creating anything that meant anything to anybody. It was just about the paint and the paper and what it would do, and how they would interact. It was experimentation and I remember being lost for four or five hours in the process. I would lock myself in the bathroom and my brothers would tease me, “What is that?” I didn’t know what abstract art was, but I knew it felt good, it felt right, it felt right creating it, so I’ll always remember saying “This feels good.”

“With the six of us,” says Maestas, “none of them had the discipline. They all had the ability from my mother, but talent will only get you so far- that ability to create- but for me it was an impulse.” He continues, “I think I found out early on that art was what I was good at. When I graduated with a B+ average in high school, it was a struggle, with math classes, English, but when it came to art, I was in a different place where it just came easily. I got scholarships. Every time there was an art contest, I would win- I knew I was good, but I was creating work people wanted to see, using rendering skills: portraiture, wildlife. I guess I did it because I like the reaction and the praise that people gave me.”

It was at the University of Utah that Maestas found his footing as an abstract artist and felt justification as an abstract painter, as he became educated in the histories of abstract art. He says of Jackson Pollock; “He’s probably my favorite American Painter. If there was anyone to do something different, to say, ‘This is mine and this is where I’m going to take it,’ it is Pollock, and I like that courage, it’s a beautiful thing to have that courage to be able to pursue that.” Meastas is not one without his own resources of courage, and those who know the artist and know his art, know of its intensity and his own personal battle for courage. The symbiosis that is the life of Maestas, that finds its reality mingled with art, growing stronger day by day, was never born in a vacuum, but has a very real genesis in a child’s sensitivities and longtime struggles with acute anxiety and depression, translated as a real driving force of power in art, taking on myriad forms. Maestas has had to live with this condition and process this and his process is art as his life and his art are one.

There is much about pain that can be seen in the intensity and the forces at play in Meastas abstract cognitive manifestations, which become purely emotional. After the death of his brother in 2001, his death motivated him to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. He applied for the Kimball Arts Festival and was accepted went on to sell work and getting into Utah Artist Hands Gallery. Pain is not all that Maestas’ work is consumed with, but in his most recent works, there is a tremendous forcefulness present as Maestas as of late has been facing his life head on. In “Road Paved in Gold” we see what might have been a road paved in gold, a hope that might have at one point given way to despondency. There is a darkness that consumes, and a light that seems to be losing its way to blackness. It is not a happy painting, one perhaps redolent of childhood recollections, when hope was brighter. In this painting, there is a sense of being consumed with spiritual, emotional and intellectual disturbances, and a feeling of being trapped in a space inside the mind and body, to what feels like light shrinking, and fading dimmer and dimmer as gradations of shadow overcome. But there is a radiant gleam from the right side, a pure light, saturated, where can be found a purity of optimism.

Meaning “House of Glass” in Spanish, “Casa de Vidrio” is a painting that is brutally beautiful and honest and like a house of glass, can be interpreted in various ways. For Maestas, he is a prisoner of anxiety and depression, in a subjective place that he can see out of but nobody can see in. With chaotic blackness above and devastating maelstroms below, what else is there? But for those with an objective eye from beyond, who can witness the sublime beauty that Maestas has created, it is all a matter of perspective. Many who see Maestas’ creations may marvel at the astonishing power and beautiful intensity and remark at his mastery of abstraction and the forcefulness of the emotion and do not realize the artist who created it whose art is his very recompense and release for his suffering.  

Says Maestas, “When you have anxiety and you are an anxious person and you constantly have to be moving, it’s a mental disorder, both anxiety and depression, and I think part of that anxiety comes from having that sensitivity to everything that is going on around you. So when I start painting, it’s kind of a release. But when I try to do it consciously, it does not work. The only way that it works is if you have the courage to start a painting- and the best paintings come from the journey, and never knowing where its going, and never knowing what is going to happen.”

Maestas also paints canvases loaded with color such as “Vida Mia Dolores” and this means, “My Love Dolores.” In the painting full of color one can feel this love Maestas has for his wife Dolores, a love from Maestas that is very real and potent and even though the canvas is very powerful, at times dark, it is passionate and overwhelms with vida as Maestas overwhelms with his own vida of Dolores and life and art.

Painting and art for Maestas is mental, emotional, and spiritual state of progression towards self-mastery and self-realization and he could not have one without the other. He says, “If I can get in a relaxed state of mind and start moving the paint around, it’s like music, it’s like jazz, this thing happens and I respond to it, then this thing happens and I respond to it. Anybody can do that, but what you can’t teach somebody is to know when to stop, to know when it is done, because it has been 20 years, the only reason my work is at where it is now is because I know where to stop. I know what the process is, but knowing where to stop is what most people can’t get. I’m still working on it.”

Maestas knows he cannot stop now as the journey of self-mastery continues and the adventure of creating fine art is just reaching its most fecund stages. Now, more than ever, is the time for Maestas to utilize the synergy of life and art and maximize on both and harness both to become a greater abstract painter and become a better man, husband, father, and self… as “the best paintings come from the journey, and never knowing where its going, and never knowing what is going to happen.”

Andrew Ballstaedt: The Meyer Gallery

Ballstaedt

 

Coming to a full realization of an artist’s work can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: artistic influences and inspiration must be fitted together with conceptual frameworks; works of different size and media must align with an understanding of how earlier work influences later. With good artists, though, these pieces come together to form a unified whole that brings new insight to the appreciation of their work. Andrew Ballstaedt is one of these artists. His latest work, which can be seen this month at Park City’s Meyer Gallery, is somewhat puzzle-like itself, interlocking bands of color fitting together to form palette quilts that he calls “Family Flags.” These non-objective works, however, are part of a whole with earlier series, including cityscapes and naïf monster drawings.

 

We can begin piecing together the puzzle of this artist by looking to a motif found in earlier works like “The City With Scribbles.” Anyone familiar with work of Paul Klee, who Ballstaedt cites as a strong influence, will immediately recognize the tightly knit community of pyramid-roofed houses. The representation of the city, a tightly-knit community of pyramid-roofed houses, gives no heed to depth but only a frontal grid-like structuring where color that takes the form of what the artist calls “color families” is an early indication of Ballstaedt’s concern for community

 

Ballstaedt grew up in a large family of twelve children, in a close-knit community.

“My mom always wanted to be an artist but in elementary school she had a teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. She didn’t do art, but used that experience to encourage all of us to do art as a family through activities together. She would tell us to draw stories from the Book of Mormon and she would tell us a quote from a prophet; ‘the greatest art hasn’t been done yet.’ It was magical because we had a mom who valued art and believed in us.” Ballstaedt’s heritage and the faith that grounds it are important to him. His work begins and ends with family and community and is definitive of the philosophy that nothing exists as a single entity as “every atom in the universe is connected to every other atom in the universe.”

 

This motif of the city appears again and again in his work. Sometimes it is just a couple of houses, sometimes a score; frequently they rise up on a hillside or form the shape of a hill; they may be protected from danger by an overarching rainbow; all, though, give a sense of warmth and safety, of the strength found in community.

 

A second major section of the puzzle is found in his drawings of various sizes and finishes, some fully realized miniature paintings. He calls them his “monsters.” Made of the most rudimentary shape, loosely rendered, with a large bulbous head, a gaping mouth with teeth like little daggers, squat legs and squat arms, with little daggers for fingers and toes, four of the former and three of the latter, great white spheres for bulging eyes with off-centered pupils, these monsters are hardly scary. Many in the very exhaustive series of monsters become fully realized paintings, articulated beautifully, their basic body a warm banana yellow with fine tonalities of a rusty melon to add real dimension, the figure sharply delineated and painted against a bold black ground. But what makes them truly a work of art is their cross between arbitrariness and the absurd.

 

Above this monster, in colorful, sharply delineated lettering, are the words “i think i may be happy.” This sentence may be read as a spontaneous verbal gesture, something fragmented and detached, random for its own sake, somewhere between the very fecund zone of the arbitrary and the absurd, just like the form of the monster is somewhere between this zone of the arbitrary and the absurd. But just as nothing exists on its own, together they create a composition that pleases, delights, enchants, and causes one to wonder at the imagination of Ballstaedt who makes manifest such an original jewel of a miniature painting.

 

A second monster, with the same simple bodily structure, but painted in rich mandarin orange with vermilion red for tonalities, is not frontal like the first, but in an act of valor, is turned to the side, his head in profile, jaws gaping, his right arm high above him holding a dagger, his left arm in front of him also holding a dagger, is causing no harm, and not to be feared, nor could he be, this delightful mandarin wide-eyed monster, sharply delineated against a robin egg blue ground. Above him in bold and colorful lettering are the words “relax I’ve got your back” and below the forward thrusting arm, “i’m your big brother.” Here, again, the words are somewhere between the arbitrary and the absurd, as is the monster, but together, these nonsense words and this delightful monster make a unity and a narrative structure that is focused on color and imagination and child-like rendering and sophisticated painting that charms and amazes in their freshness and unique presentation. This is important work.

 

These two bodies must be understood fluently before the later body of Ballstaedt’s large-scale non-objective painting is to be understood. Too call one body later, however, is deceiving because Ballstaedt has, over the past several years, worked his way back and forth through the series, even including the monsters in some of his city paintings. Most recently, though, the non-objective aspects of his work have come to the fore. “Wire 1,” for instance, is an astonishing achievement in painterly precision and articulation. It is both multi-leveled and multi-dimensional, painted in a criss-crossing of myriad bright hues and subdued tonalities. As the myriad lines cross, they form connections, and in some areas this is entirely dense, and in some areas this is somewhat thinned. We can see that Ballstaedt is still interested in the idea of relationships, of connections, we could read this as another meditation on the dynamics of relationships, the irregular horizontal and vertical white that is beneath the lines forming a grounding structure, like a family or community.

Now that there are all the pieces placed, the bigger picture can be seen, and can be seen clearly and lucidly in Ballstaedt’s current work that is a compendium of all of the above. These are his flag series. “Family Flag 10” is a composition of color, line, horizontals, verticals, patterns, proportions, and as a work of pure formalism, it is a masterpiece in the vein of the Minimalist form, which the viewer might commune with the essential structure and cogitate meaningful relationships thus completing the work as fine art beyond fundamentals of pure form.

 

And the viewer is free to do just this with Ballstaedt’s flag series and embrace the essential beauty. But this is not the purpose of the artist in their creation and the fabric of meaning is something very substantiated and can resonate as the larger picture is understood and as one comes to understand Ballstaedt himself. Says Ballstaedt, “In elementary school I would talk my cousins into coming into my room and doing marker versions of the same thing listening the Beach Boys with this community of cousins. There is something deeper to them, something tribal about them, it’s almost subconscious but I think there are things that families have done together artistically for thousands of years and I don’t think it’s surprising I’m doing these. We have a totum pole and I have of my flags next to it. It’s not that different.”  From the “city drawings” and other drawings come the “color families” that translate as the color patterns that becomes vertical bands composed of short horizontal lines of color families. These vertical bands might be evenly or irregularly spaced in width, or can even have a lovely curve to each. Some liberty is taken with some of the families and some are strictly adhered to. Each happens in the best of families.

 

And beyond a Minimalist reading there is a narrative aspect to these abstractions. So finely delineated in color and crisp line, left alone, taken as a single unit, each band would be something between the arbitrary and the absurd. As a painting it would be nonsense. But as a compendium, it is something entirely original, it is something exciting, bold, unique and fresh, full of energy and full of life, as the best families can be. The flag series is just that, each a flag, each one special, to represent family, Ballstaedt’s family, seen in each with a renewed and enlightened cognition. “I’m really fascinated by growing up in Salt Lake with most mostly white but you see Polynesians and they have a tattoo representing their family or a sarong representing their family and I like the idea of each flag and when you see it you think, ‘That represent’s Andrew Ballstaedt and a part of a line of a family and I existed in a long line of family and there will continue to exist a long line after me.” The quantity of connections is infinitesimal, and the complexity and dimension of the structure is eternal in possibility.

 

It is safe to say that Ballstaedt is forging his own ground as an artist. While many artists are determined to stretch far left of center by the manifestation of obscure concepts tenuously linked with obscure form, Ballstaedt is certainly a unique and original artist by being honest with himself, and using as a vehicle for his art, the truthful expression of his tremendous love for family, his family, and the importance it has had and has in his life. As a subject, it is about love, the tie that binds, especially in the best of families.    

 

 

Ron Russon (Utah Artist Hands)

Ron Russon

 

Sometimes what an artist most needs to get themselves involved “is a kick in the butt,” said artist Ron Russon of Lehi, UT who had graduated from BYU in 1996 with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Illustration Design. Working on books and magazines and commercial projects, apparently, “I had made the right choice, I was doing well. But the subject matter. That was lacking. I liked the editorial content where you get to use your mind with it, you get to use metaphor, and instead of a strait ‘this is what we want,’ art directed kind of material. But from a student to paying the bills, that wasn’t bad.”

 

Everything was a young collage graduate’s utopia until the technological era caught up with Russon and began to pour on his parade. “Soon after,” says Russon, “these guys who had been illustrating for 40 or 50 years, discovered the scanner, that scanned 50 years worth of images, put all of it on one disk, and sold the rights. So, in one year, the same job, that was $2200 went to $300 and the same year ‘Will you do it for $75?’ At that point the fine art market became flooded with artists who had been illustrators.”

 

To continue the transition of the illustrator who would be fine artist who needed a “kick in the butt,” in ’98-2000, Russon began to take being a fine artist seriously. It was something he had always toyed with and considered. Illustration had always lacked the depth for him that he desired. He describes an incident as an illustrator when he drew an Uncle Sam over a house with a large piece of red tape over it and thought, “What am I doing? There was not a whole lot of artistic integrity there.”

 

Says Russon, “I come from an agrarian background, farming, so it’s really about practicality. With art, you can’t eat it, you can’t live in it, and so it is really impractical from my background. But it is something I had always been interested in since I was a young kid and I went to Lehi High School, where they really did not push art, but after my mission, I had to fulfill an elective at UVSC. I took a drawing class. And after I took an art history class, and I saw the abstract expressionists and it blew my mind! And I thought, ‘you don’t have to be a Norman Rockwell to be the next big thing. From that practical background, thinking Norman Rockwell is high art, till you sit in a room with Rothkos and you get it and there is this huge impact.”

 

From that point, Russon got his “kick in the butt” and states that from then on, “I’d live in a box if I have to because this is the right thing.”

 

For Russon, the transition into abstract art was wildlife painting. For the artist, metaphor has always been the primary concept to his work. “Wolf Trio” is a manifestation of his spiritual beliefs as well as a manifestation of his abstract manner of expression of composition, which has a singular presentation of its own. Russon tells me he likes to use the number three with his religious expression, but the idea of the lone wolf, together in a unity takes on a new metaphorical reality. “For me, my story comes from the religious aspect, or if I’m dealing with an issue of my own, I see it from a spiritual perspective.”

 

Although Russon’s lens is specifically spiritual, it is entirely universal, and his metaphorical abstract expression can be read for meaning on a personal level as Russon describes the metaphor of the wolf being descriptive because “it stands for what it is and that cannot be hid.” The viewer will find their own reality in Russon’s work, while open to many possibilities, although it is what it is, and is descriptive of certain states of being. For “Wolf Trio,” these certain states of reality are metaphor not in what they are not, but what they are, what qualities the wolf possesses. This is NOT conceptual art. This is why Russon paints wildlife and nature, and the qualities contained therein that offer a wealth of meaningful possibility for abstract painting.

 

The wolf is strong and is a pack animal. It will defend the other, it will fight for the pack, hunt and kill. For these qualities and not for qualities that are figurative does Russon use the wolf but for literal ways of its being, also focusing on the structure of its body, and like a cubist, looking for the truth of its form, in and of itself representational of its strength, its natural beauty and creation. The wolf already IS the metaphor for attributes that Russon’s audience might relate to or attain to. Standing as if on a mist, within a green forest, with salmon pink light coming through, we find them as representational of the trinity, or representational of whom or what we might aspire to be, our fight, our steadfastness, as we walk the mists of life, never alone, and seek for our own reality, for the good of ourselves and the good of others.

 

An entirely different piece is a landscape, “Green Hill.” Here again, we find Russon’s own singular use of metaphor; using a literal meaning found within iconography to convey through a metaphorical reflection the wealth of meaning it contains. The question… is it abstract? Compositionally, yes, but metaphorically, it literally states all it needs to. There are no conceptual leaps and bounds necessary. Russon uses the meanings of his abstracted landscape on a literal plane. Once again, we find the center in three red trees. The implications in this painting are too vast to grapple with, their universal possibilities are immense, but as Russon describes it to me, the line falling vertically could represent ancestry… it also represents one’s own past as it has been, a personal history, the passage of time, and the central bold line of red the ground, the present. Russon uses the lines as a literal manifestation of so much possibility of literal meaning, although there is a heterology; temporality, past, present and future, ancestry, history, these lines are what they are. There is a certain practicality to this approach; a utility to it, there is substance to this that is the kind that comes from the agrarian, the farmer, but the structures, the abstract composition comes from the artist.

 

Very different in nature that reveals an acute level of practicality and artistic utility is “Bison Tribes.” Here we see in a somewhat Andy Warholian mode, a background that is still literal in substance yet its whole has been abstracted, a webbing of forest, a dense and fibrous articulation of flora that looks almost jungle-like. In the space that distinguishes it, we find an even lighter salmon pink that seeps through that is very bright. Like Warhol, Russon has taken a bison and with 4 different layers with three on each layer, has applied a different highlighted color to each layer, orange, turquoise, yellow, and steel blue.

 

How is this in anyway practical? By using the literal metaphor of the animal and the character of the bison, by what we see on the canvas in this abstract articulation of form, we discover the reality of these animals, and we project of the essences and ideals of ourselves as we perceive these creatures. They are each in a tribe, assuming a unique color, a different color, and in that tribe- again the number three is adhered to- one follows the other, and is secured to and grounded by the other. One is never alone. Yet there is a mass, a universality to the total, a universality of difference, that together finds a unity in a harmony of commonality and likeness, yet each remains the same in their essential differences, guided by the other, through the density and through and towards the light.

 

Ron Russon got his “kick in the butt,” but he did not have to loose himself, and was not dishonest to his own reality in doing so. In his truth to himself as an artist, his method is singular and definitive of his past, and present and who he is spiritually and in humanity as an artist. Russon is an exemplar that one need not “sell out,” that one might remain authentic and be true to find the greatest success and happiness both inward and outward.

Hadley Rampton (Phillips Gallery)

Hadley Rampton

 

When Hadley Rampton travels to countries like Budapest, Turkey, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Armenia, she says “I am drawn to the old places.  There is history there.  When I travel that is what really intrigues me, that is what really excites me… and I also really love history.  I want to get to what the truth of these places is and that is what excites me when I travel.”

 

There is something very special about humanity, that through wars, recessions, famine, natural and human caused disasters, we can still, through it all, look to art and the messages it speaks, and at these peak times of turbulence, most often it will be about what it means to be human: truth.  More so is the phenomenon of the artist who herself, not a spectacle, is very private and personal, who through necessity, not self-imposition, lives a life that is the search for truth.  This is the undisclosed distinction of Rampton whose art is her means to find, to express, and to learn “about what it means to be human.”

 

Says Rampton, “These are parts of the world that were under communism and have strong senses of themselves.  Then you look back over the centuries and their history of invasion, by the Byzantine Empire, and then it was the Ottoman Empire, and then the Russian and communism, they all still have their own pride in who they are.”

 

For Rampton, these travels “are a better way of understanding the rest of the world than through the headlines.  I like to take the trains, I like to get past what is put on for the tourists, and to really get into what the real feel of the country is, what the real people are thinking there, and what their lives are.  I feel like for many this would be something very advantageous.”

 

It is decidedly advantageous for Rampton whom works in two primary modes.  The first is watercolor, which is the produce of her travels.  Watercolor has a magnificent history from major artists and artist travelers whom enjoyed the practical as well as aesthetic benefits of it.  Its malleability of application as well as practicality are very desirable for those who can appreciate milder tones and enjoy their structural interplay and relationships allowed.  These requisites define Rampton’s work who is an avid colorist and uses pen and ink to define all structural edges thus adding immense dimension and making the whole piece “pop!”  Her colors do not get lost at a distance but in her method stay true and strong, no matter haw far away the viewer may be standing. 

 

What a fine piece of Rampton’s oeuvre is “Adhan, At Dusk, Istanbul” watercolor and ink 12” x 16”.  One sees the 6th century Hagia Sophia presented in the distance under the late afternoon sun.  Truly an iconic image.  In this seminal work the viewer may see through the eyes of the artist.  This is not a Byzantine Empire or the world of Constantinople.  It is not the Ottomans or a country stifled by communism or any other totalitarian regime or Empire.  It is an old world.  But it is a post-Modern world like the rest of the world. 

 

One can see in this painting the signs that Rampton sees, the bright colors of the automobiles, the youth with vivid nylon backpack on their backs, women walking about freely together with varying degrees of dress, a kiosk with a bright top serving refreshments for a hot late afternoon to a population that one cannot be sure is Turkish.  Where is Istanbul?  There is Hagia Sophia but what else is there to document Rampton’s travels… to tell her “I am in this great land of the Turks.” The reply is unequivocally “Where is the truth I seek?”

 

This great work of Rampton’s predates her current body of watercolors.  “Early Evening, Budavari Palota,” watercolor & ink, 12 X 16 inches, may lend an initial impression, that this, like the others in the series, is a romantic composition.  But any viewer, upon closer look, would be wrong with this inference.  Rampton’s color palette has changed, it is less Raphael, in his academic use of color willfully working with combinations and relationships, such as “The School of Athens,” as seen in Rampton’s early markedly stronger realism.  The new has playful tones of Watteau conducive to the grandiose settings.  To realize these watercolors is to recognize the realism that they convey and appreciate in their subtleties. 

 

In this plaza, with its historic monument and late-neo-Classical edifice, it almost resembles a history-piece, but not too distant from the frontal plane, sitting on the rim of the plaza, are two young women with their backs to the viewer, who are unmistakably 21st century in hair and dress.  This, as well as the exaggerated pen and ink that is Rampton’s signature method, is far more liberally applied here creating greater depth to crevices and breaks in masonry in and around the plaza creating the history in the past tense.

 

As exquisite as Rampton is with watercolors, she is equally adept with oils.  Her ubiquitous subject when she returns to her home in Utah is nature, primarily landscapes of aspen groves with a singular style, and as we will discover, approach.  She states, “this kind of energy, this excitement that I feel when I am traveling, as much as when I work with oils, I feel the same.  It’s exciting and I am energized and I want to do something with it.” 

 

This excitement felt for the vestigial remains of ancient civilization’s … this is the same for a grove of aspens? How can this be?  Says Rampton, “Whether I am traveling or up in the mountains and it is gorgeous, it is the same.  I grew up here, our nature is a huge part of who we are.”

 

In the dusty streets of Armenia, Rampton shies from the touristy brightly lit bistros and experiences the most essential Armenia she can.  What is essential about Utah to Rampton?  It is our nature.  It affects all who live or visit here and the honest manner that she employs in her brilliant work is true to the nature of Utah.

 

Rampton’s approach is not to paint the structure of a particular tree, one defined against the next, to form a grove.  Far from it.  Just as in her watercolor, Rampton is fascinated with color harmonies, contrasts, groupings, and looks to the light of day and the saturation upon the grove, to create a composition that when looked at, without the spindly delineated line of the tree, would be entirely abstract.

 

Says Rampton, “I am very much drawn to the abstract expressionists and their way of thinking, for example, this is paint on canvas, so I am drawn, especially with the newer work, to heavier brush strokes, much more broad so you are really thinking about color relationships and how to create these strokes, not blending.”  Further, “A lot of it is that I really enjoy different ways of applying paint.  I do love color so both in my oils and watercolors my color is enhanced, not in a fauvist kind of way, but I am always interested in color relationships.”  These very real aspects of painting are very much the proto-Modernist way of thinking, about considering the reality of painting and the reality of paint, as opposed to trying to fool the eye with illusion, using the same formulas the academies have taught since just after the Renaissance.  

 

As Rampton seeks reality in her travels, with every fragment of truth gained, she can learn about the people she meets and their ways of life, as much of this remains indigenous.  Rampton does not stop being a seeker once she returns to her home.  Her methodology to her painting of wild life seamlessly grants her recourse to her unending search for truth and deeper understanding of the world she exists in.  More importantly, and more fundamentally, she finds in her search, a greater manifestation of her personal, very private, very real, and honest reality.

Namon Bills (Alice Gallery)

 

JutinAlice

When norms of limitation are broken by someone doing something exceptional, this is unique.  Namon Bills is an exception to quotidian norms of the professional curator. Driven, not by ambition, but to curate solely based on strong convictions, his desire has transformed into a devotion for something he is now expert.  Call him amateur, he does not mind.  “I like the word amateur,” says Bills unapologetically.  “I learned that it comes from the root words for ‘love of’ and I like that.  I like the word amateur.” 

 

“I have always wanted to be an artist, but curation came organically and developed on its own,” says Bills.  This development was grounded “on strong convictions” that have come to affect every aspect of his curatorial process.  This involves freedom encouraged of each artist, involvement from all throughout the project, and an overall spirit of unity.  Bills relates, “One of the most exciting things for me as a curator is to come up with ideas, and then find what the artists come up with- to let them take it and run with it- to see their creativity in a way they choose to interpret the concept and where they choose to take it.”

 

For such reasons Bills’ current show “That Thing You Hate” at the Alice Gallery is his seventh major curatorial group show, dating to his very auspicious beginnings with “The State Street Project” in 2008.  Fundamental to this success and each subsequently is a core concept for the project.  A gestalt experience results from Bills’ work, as each show functions on more than form, but on an idea that creates a fabric of meaning.

 

In the current show, three artists were paired with three other artists, the first group being the mentees, the second the mentors.  Each of the mentees: Namon Bills, Linnie Brown and Justin Wheatley, were to consider an artistic type outside of their comfortable milieu.  Says Bills “We each chose something that we see as having value but don’t like to do, but we recognize that if we were to dedicate ourselves to this thing it would probably be useful for us.”  The mentors chosen were Jeff Pugh, Chris Terry and Casey Childs. 

 

One of the most striking compositions of the show is Jeff Pugh’s “Flooded Field.”  Pugh has a singular manner of creating lush canvases thick with rich hue using a technique synonymous with his name that lends him his distinction.  Elementally, Pugh has an affinity with geometry, and as bold as are his colors and as vast as are his vistas, they are characteristically reduced.  There is a lack of nuance, and what we see are exciting shapes and motifs that are closer in style and substance to Paul Cezanne than they are to LeConte Stewart. 

 

One result of this collaboration is Bills’ “Plane.”  No landscape could be more different to Pugh’s.  Bills’ is, true to his nature, experimental, and reductive on a different level completely.  Bills’ work universally functions as responded to visually evoking cognition.  Here, two planes, a larger upper plane that is five sixths of the canvas of powder blue gradates to white towards the bottom.  The bottom hits a horizon line straight and horizontal one sixth of the canvas.  Its tones of green and patches of blue are varied.  This is neo-Minimalism at its boldest and with it comes a strong response.

 

 

“Unveil” is a stunning figurative composition by Childs.  She beautifully leaves her brushwork open, enough to convey a striking and definite figure, but allows a multiplicity of responses from viewer emotional and cognitive sensibilities.  Most striking are the contrasts.  The background is teal blue, rough and coarse, thus accentuating the softness of the skin of the sitter that is rendered in shades of ivory and milky white and pale.  This in turn accentuates the deep chestnut hair with dispersed streaks of red incorporated and pulled back in a flare of chestnut brown and crimson red.  In the classical style the model has her lower portion loosely draped, but here, even bolder contrasts are rich folds of pomegranate red.  It is a marvelous portrait rendered in a classic mode with splashes of contemporary flavor. 

 

How does any of this translate into the mixed medial figural post-Modern works of Linnie Brown?  Brown’s style is very much her own, but most certainly the mentorship was a successful one.  Displayed are unique creations of mixed media with only portions of hand drawing, yet all of Brown’s works succeed in the academic requirements of figural rendering.  “Figure #26” is intriguing; as goes contemporary mixed media, this work stands alone.  It is a brilliant play of raw materials using only the barest traces of the hand, and compiled into form remarkably like Kurt Schwitters getting a hold of paper dolls.  Although left to the pure medium of collage, the subject is rendered fluidly with a high degree of naturalism.

 

From still life virtuoso Christopher Terry comes a work of technical near-perfection “Fluorescent Halo.”  Not a minutia of detail is left to the imagination but every fragment is rendered with a draftsman’s precision.  The folds on the tablecloth have a satiny sheen, the reflection of this sheen is seen on the glass smooth floor, the objects on this table are set perfectly arranged and ordered centrally and the “fluorescent halo” casts the ideal light to create the illusions of depth, light, shadow and space. 

 

Although not one to choose still life as a preferred artistic type, Wheatley’s “Camille’s Kenmore” is so compelling, it might initiate a new direction for the artist.  Wheatley uses as his subject a vintage sewing machine that, true to his signature form, has palpable gravity and weight.  Instead of shying away from the example of Terry, Wheatley meets it, albeit in his own manner.  The two compositions are not dissimilar, each have a central squared structure occupying the central lower half of the canvas on a flat smooth surface and bold play of light above.  Using this formula and appropriate precision, Wheatley creates a backdrop of smoky white, lit from either side, and not from above.  The focal shape is rendered with accuracy and exactitude, but Wheatley is not aiming towards illusion, he is seeking the reality of the piece.  He focuses, like a neo-Cubist, on the many planes of the machine set at various angles and differentiated only by contrasting intensities of tonality, lending a Modernist lack of similitude and implied depth; an analytic approach decidedly not of traditional illusionistic representation.

 

The concept is not esoteric, but meaningful in the manner the artist is motivated to traverse beyond their sphere of comfort, to transcend their personal boundaries, and attempt something new and expansive.  This raison d’être, the fundamental quality of Bills’ curatorial projects, is a benefit to the artist unique from the benefit of the patron.  These are opportunistic challenges to self-imposed norms of artistic and aesthetic limitation enabling growth and liberation.                    

 

 

Aaron Ashcraft (Finch Lane)

Aaron ashcroftIt is an awesome experience to see art and life come together in a way that seems nothing short of naturally organic.  The ceramic sculptures of one of Utah’s very finest and most well and diversely educated sculptors, Aaron Ashcraft, brings his craft to full life-like fruition with ceramic work that speaks as if it were ideologically voiced in the vocabulary of the tradition of historic sculpture and formed in a manner that melds this tradition with the fibrous being of nature, not as we know it, but as history once found it, with its own temporality and its own geology.  It speaks its own language calling from another time and another place, haunting and distant, yet brought very present by the hands and spirit of Ashcraft.

 

“Whenever you talk about ceramic work, there is a historical element.  If you take a ceramic piece that is several hundred years old, it is no longer in the society that it is created of; it has a certain separate nature from everything else in and of itself.  So you can only view it as the object you are looking at now because you have no context, no way to really relate to that previous society.  Inevitably everything is taken out of the society it is created of, but is still has an inherent quality in and of itself,” says Ashcraft.

 

Ashcraft speaks of existence in the same breath as he speaks of ceramics.  The University of Utah BFA, BA, apprenticed, mentored, partnered, workshop trained and now master who will not claim so as his sculpture is an eager work in process, uses ceramics, above and beyond anything else, says the artist, to “create a surface to make marks on, but at the same time there’s something beyond that surface.” 

 

Ashcraft’s pieces might be circular hollowed disks on a wall, they might be squared off log-like shapes slightly bowed and set at angles stacked one atop the other, they might be tall ever-so slightly curved towers with sections of the form cut away adding definitive dimension, or they might be tower-like miniatures at irregular heights each leaning moderately one way or the next.  But more than the form itself is what is happening on the form, and more essentially, what is happening within.

 

There is a distinctive poetic visual lexicon used here by the artist and one begins to see methodologies of Zen Buddhism take form and ideology.  The motifs… marks… that you see, you see repeatedly, and assembled meticulously in sections on each piece.  There is no mass diffusion of anything like a collage of visual elements, but an orderly and organized visual compendium of pattern, line and texture.

 

Says Ashcraft; “I like the suggestiveness of the natural environment in the pieces.  I don’t necessarily need to define everything as a realist painter would.  I like a suggestion to hint to the viewer something that is an indication of the natural.  I like that sense that gives the pieces life.” 

 

And nothing that a “realist painter” could possibly do could give more life to these ceramic entities than they entail by these indications of nature.  These suggestions, or marks, include waves of line that mimic either the sands of a desert, sea, or a manicured Japanese Zen garden; thin lines of a different hue, texture, width, that imply more of a rhythm and exactitude; an irregular surface that has humps and is glazed and colored in a lichen green implying just that or more so, moss growing on an old formation with water gliding over it.  But most dramatically set and cutting to the core of the structures like veins giving life to the body of each are bold black painted on fissures that find their way breaking through the surface and cutting one way or the next. 

 

Says Ashcraft “The structures exist before they go into the kiln.  The last thing I do is the brush marks.  All of the brushwork you see happens right before I put it into the kiln.  I want spontaneity after all of the time structuring these pieces.  I want an immediate effect.”  These painted fissures, in reality, allow for the implication of the essence of being of these entities.  Says Ashcraft they look to him something like the dry caked mud of a desert floor.

 

“It takes on a purpose of its own,” says Ashcraft.  To be true to the reality of the work, they must be recognized as the bearers of marks of a life beyond ours and a space and time different from our own just as “a ceramic piece that is several hundred years old, it is no longer in the society that it is created of; it has a certain separate nature from everything else in and of itself.”

 

In this sense and only in this sense, can the full aesthetic measure of these pieces be fully realized in the context introduced by Ashcraft.  Given the marks of time past; the waves made, the lines carved, the moss grown, and the fissures as dead as the dry caked mud, we observe these objects as if figuratively decontextualized and literally recontextualized by the artist to today’s contemporary eyes.  But it is our eyes that must adjust and the viewer of this poetic form must learn to see it on its terms, on Ashcraft’s terms, if the fullness of beauty contained is to be recognized.    

Amy Tolk Richards (Covey Center for the Arts)

Amy Tolk

Amy Tolk Richards has a penchant for hay bails.  “Five Hay Bails” is a small scale painting that is a gestalt of composite parts containing richness of depth, abundance of tonalities, atmospheric use of hue, seductive simplicity, minimalistic relativity, and above all else, a crude, raw, rough, coarse earthiness.  This crudeness, rawness, roughness and coarseness is a direct result of the texture, visible to the viewer, that Richards creates, as her structure is not only reductive but the materials she applies are very limited with the appearance of having been scraped on the surface.  The texture is paramount in Richards’ compositions and creates an additional layer to what would be a lesser field of hay bails.  Along with the lush tonalities for the field and the heavy palette for the wood beyond, the texture creates an atmospheric layer of mood, a softness to the feel of the misty composition and for each of her canvases a very real microcosmic environment, which has all of the characteristics of real climate, be it an afternoon of sunshine by a barn or the dewiness of morning on a meadow.

 

Says Richards, “I control what I can control and then I try to manage what I can’t control.”  Of course, Richards is speaking on both an artistic level and as a mother, spouse and human being.  As simple and reductive as are the canvases of Richards, it is surprising to be able to recognize in them a distinctive signature style.  She may paint a lot of barrels of hay, but they are hers.  As much as Richards controls what she can, she says, “Other people are relying on me.  Art is freeing.  It helps me let loose more.”  Yet her work pervasively keeps to the concise and the meticulous.  Just how did Richards become a controlled painter resigned to let loose?

 

In high school in Nashville, Tennessee, a very Baptist area, the young LDS Richards with extremely high standards for herself says “I often felt out of place socially, not only because of religion, but because of values; I was scared to make the wrong decision, so I came close to erring on the side of recluse rather than going overboard.”

 

This was the first control mechanism for Richards.  As a young student she “felt my way out was through studying and I was voted most studious senior girl.  That was my reputation; it kept me safe.”  But it is not fair to ascribe the reticent and resigned student as Richards’ real personality, it was merely utilitarian and helped her feel safe in an atmosphere she did not completely trust as she used this persona as a control mechanism.

 

A different kind of control entirely would occur when Richards entered BYU.  “I think I was rebelling,” said Richards, “I was working so hard in high school.  I applied to Ivy League schools and they rejected me and I took an, ‘I’m rejecting you’ attitude.  ‘Why did I work so hard?’  I was sort of angry at the system.  ‘Why am I sacrificing when it doesn’t get me what I want’.”  However, as it turns out, attending BYU would be the very best thing for Richards personally and as an artist in a very singular way.

 

She says, “It was refreshing.  No one knew what I was like in high school, so I could reinvent myself, I could be my own person.  Before, I had been mindful of always pleasing my parents.  Now I could explore, it was OK if I wasn’t becoming the person I thought they wanted me to be.  Who is that person?  Someone who is more excited about having fun, experimenting, daring, I became a lot more interested in other people and became fascinated by being able to relate with people instead of just being this quiet person when there is so much to learn from others.”

 

Entering BYU was seminal for Richards, now on a secure level of control, where she could let her guard down in an atmosphere she could trust absolutely.  No matter how far she explored this reinvented self, still being the young woman of insurmountably high standards, she could trust that she would never be brought or go too far.  “I let my GPA slip, I lost my scholarship; in high school I would have been traumatized over this but it really didn’t matter anymore.”  Ultimately, says Richards, “I took classes for fun instead of ‘I need to stay on track’.”  This involved art classes.  This was an art renaissance reliving the creative and talented young artist she had been in youth, but now rediscovering it in maturity, and thus the art career of Amy Tolk Richards began.

 

To most, Richards’ “rebellion” would seem completely innocent, but to her it was a very real rite of passage to many things.  Her art did not go through a rebellion.  It remained and always would and might always remain in this vein because of these truths.  Richards thus became the “controlled painter resigned to let loose.”

 

Richards’ subjects are and have always been and will most likely remain reduced in structure; simplified paintings yet rich in nuance and gloriously textured creating a very real mood the viewer can appreciate. 

A particularly definitive painting by Richards is the small “Cow and Fence.”  It is quite simply a shadowed wooden fence in the foreground, a broad chartreuse green meadow, a girthy trunk of a tree to the right, a horizon line with most obscured other than the semblance of a farm rendered in miniature, and beneath the farm and next to the tree is the shadowed profile of a cow. 

 

What a simple painting and what an abundance of substantive personality this painting has.  Again, all is reduced in structure as well as being reduced in material.  Because of the precision but earthy rawness, because of the exactitude yet pastoral haze, the mood is palpably felt and this is due, again, in large measure to the texture that is created by Richards’ sparse methods, this texture visible to the eye evoking a smoky ambiance to the image that lends it the one-of-a-kind Amy Tolk Richards look and feel.

 

A categorical work for Richards is the delightful “Seven Hay Bales,” that seems to follow no rules and does so unapologetically.  This is a small painting that features seven hay bales composed in a skewed order, with much visual appeal.  What is the lifeblood of this painting is the vicissitudes of color found in the field: pea greens, corn yellow, rose pink, some white, and on a more refined level the texture that is created by the color that is incorporated onto the canvas, unlike the impressionist style, but with the most minute amount of paint, often the edges are bare and raw and the paint looks like it has been created with a palette knife. 

 

With this precision and exactitude comes incredible texture, earthy and gritty but sensual.  The bales themselves have a large amount of white, more rose pink, and pea green with corn yellow.  The flat end of the bale faces the viewer who can actually see the coarse texture that is so appropriate to the image ironically created by great finitude and not callousness.  Because the bales and the fields do not follow classical principles, such as did the impressionists or academic regulations, there is a marvelous charm and freedom with these precisely rendered small canvases that come to life with a distinct ambiance with a very real emotion. 

 

A mother of three children and with the demands of an internationally acclaimed artist husband keeping them perpetually swamped for time, Richards describes her current reality beautifully, again, on an artistic level as well as a mother, spouse, and a human being.  “Control could be a metaphor for me because a lot of the awesome things that come out could be just accidental; ‘OK, don’t touch that,’ so I manage the lack of control.  There are certain steps that I follow and others where I have to say, ‘If a surprise comes up, OK, let it go, or don’t touch it or change a thing.’”  Amy Tolk Richards keeps it real.

Tom Bettin (Phillips Gallery)

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It might be easiest to call Tom Bettin a painter, but his studio practice is just as dependant on printmaking, sophisticated forms of collage and other multi-media approaches, making it difficult to define just “what kind of art” Bettin makes.  Whatever the mechanics, it is art that transcends rules and defies boundaries, while managing to create pure and evocative manifestations of the beautiful.

 

His new works, which go on exhibit at Salt Lake’s Phillips Gallery later this month, might be called vehicles of ontology, the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being. Through color, value, shade, proportion, hue, balance and contrast, Bettin gives his paintings a pronouncedly metaphysical mood and imbue his abstract subjects with a true sense of being and personality. They are infused with honest emotion, and, as Bettin says, “You cannot have emotion without spirituality.” That spirituality, whether it is the artist’s interest in Native American spirituality and the situation of native peoples today, or his affinity for Zen Buddhism, is infused in his multi-layered works.

 

Bettin uses a monoprint process, in which the artist creates a series of unique images on a printing plate, and transfers them, through the press, to paper. He describes his time in the studio as “almost like a Zen process. I will be working on my print and I have to be able to not react, but act.  If you are reacting, it’s too late.  I can control the image to the point to where I am laying down the ink on the plate, but when it goes through the press, the game changes.  You have to be ready to go with the process… which leaves me pretty fatigued.”

 

The result is something that is figural, something that though abstracted finds itself being taken as literal.  Color is used ontologically, for its most fundamental qualities; the same is true of tonality, hue, contrast, and iconography.  These elements fuse in a composition that is allowed to manifest itself in the purest sense.

 

Bettin uses color to makes his abstract prints very definite, allowing his subjects to be read as literal. One might look at “Snow on the Burm,” and consider the subject — yes, this abstracted image “pulled” through the printer copious times, has a subject — transcending a generic landscape towards a universal one where color and temperament are sublime.  The red is a deep vermillion that blends stunningly into a purple for an unbridled depth.  The field of sea blue may be just that, an ethereal sea and the orb some kind of moon with a burst of firelight behind lost to the eternal expanse of sky beyond.

 

This empyrean scene gives way to the darker, moodier “Natural Thunder.”  This piece’s dissonance of color has a rousing beauty.  Bettin’s mix of artistic control and willingness to be at the will of the elements creates astonishing beauty, as one can see the stormy clouds and the surge of rain in a scene that captures the emotive verisimilitude within a stormy sea. The effects the artist creates are startling in their representation, even though the subject and title are never premeditated.

 

More hauntingly sublime is “Midnight Sun” whose subject might recall the figural work of William Blake, as well as his sublime poetry. Somewhere between image and verse we find Bettin’s “Midnight Sun,” which shines with a visual spiritual dynamism and energy.  The image has a visual potency that speaks of dualism in a real universe, where nothing can hide from the reality of good and evil.  This is poetically narrated using the image; they are one and the same in an iconography of color that has its say through an intense expression.

 

Another printmaking technique Bettin employs is Chine-collé, a Chinese process that uses multiple layers of paper, allowing the work to soak up more ink and create a bolder image. An example is “Winter Breaks,” where the results of this process ring true with the austerity and stark landscapes that exist as winter is breaking.  The viewer feels their way through the sketchy black at the bottom, with its suggestion of foreboding that might have come staight out of a Poe story, to find themselves in the middle region that is a watery blue, one that might be seen in late autumn and early winter, as the covered skies create a creamy murkiness that shifts to blue. And above, like the crescendo to a symphony, is the color of late autumn, and the light of winter, low and subdued with a definite golden hue. Yes, the image may be abstract, and yes, it is created without precise control; however, it reads like visual poetry telling of a moment in time that is hard to render in precise terms, rendered here magnificently.

 

In contrast to this scene is the very philosophical “First Light.” The image is encapsulated by a starchy green, a hue resonant of an earthy hearth in which the image is nestled. The base is a band of blood red, its depth pronounced by the charcoal black strokes that both cross it horizontally and frame it vertically, giving the print such definition. This red is one of awakening, of vitality, vividness and vibrancy.  It is a sanguine color, suggesting optimism and certainty.  At the top in a like horizontal band that bows inward is a stripe of gold yellow.  Here too is a color that encloses the central sphere with a portent of good cheer.  A strong line of charcoal black runs through it giving it strength and fecundity to balance it with the sturdy crimson at the bottom. Then, in an act resonant of yin and yang, a stripe of black makes a diagonal sweep through the center from upper right to bottom left arching upward.  The upper plane created is dank and colorless.  It is muted and seems dusted with the residue of black but lacks definite hue.  As if bursting and poring downward from within the arch is pure white which disseminates towards the red is a similar dank colorlessness.  This manifest “First Light” has the semblance of newness and is born into the zone of nothingness that is broken by the crimson of opportunity and the gold of life.  It is a philosophical painting and it is hard to get around this fact, so strong is the color and iconography.

 

In the balance that Bettin creates ubiquitously in his work, the viewer is allowed to witness the incorporation of emotive spiritual expression that possesses the qualities of metaphysics understood through ontology.  More like a disciplined philosopher than an expressive painter, Bettin uses his media precisely, rendering his images meticulously. They put the viewer on true paths to finite ends, which are rewarding in the visual journey of discovery.

Mike Bernard: (Bernard’s Guthrie Studio)

mikebernard

“I’m gonna’ try a two tone dabbing process, I’m gonna’ go with… red…” says Mike Bernard in his Guthrie top floor studio beginning the decision making that precedes the application of paint to stage a process only basic color theory and expert understanding of paint can give him some clue as to how it might turn out.  Bernard is surrounded by an assortment of debris.  A crate holds old dishcloths, some with a grid of spongy texture and depth.  In a stack of paint rollers each have textural variations.  Piles of amorphous rubble in his studio, like all else, have nothing to do with any kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder but have a certain purpose. “Once I poured out the grey… no… It’s going to pour it too far… I’m going to grab… I’m thinking by this I’m going to pull what’s happening on top further down and soften the noise as I pull further down” Bernard talks his way through what might happen in the forthcoming steps with prescient painterly presence of mind.  “I wanna’ see what I am getting before… I want control…. I don’t want drips or streak lines,” Bernard says as he works.

 

Bernard did not go to art school, but he says he received an early education.  His father is the well-known and highly appreciated engraver and painter Paul Vincent Bernard and the younger Bernard says he was “exposed to art all the time and would go out on these sketch field trips.” He could draw from a young age, and when he took up paints he says, “I learned to let the paint just start to do its own thing and I follow through with it.” His works have a look that resonate with an industrial “high art” minimalist complexity yet have their own quality of being as Bernard has developed his unique way of setting his particular aesthetic beauty within his work, free. 

 

Despite his early education at home, Bernard says he was not interested in art in Jr High or High school. At the age of eighteen, though, he “just kind of started doing angst collage work.  It was my eye for texture and now I am doing this and I just know what looks right.”  Even Bernard’s early “collage angst work,” examples of which are still in his studio, showed a sophistication that belied his young age. Focused on textured, they are abstractions with a minimalist focus on collage, very much like the minimalist work of Morris Louis.

 

With their focus on texture, Bernard’s work can feel crude and raw, but his pieces do not arrive by accident. His array of roller brushes, each for its own specific texture and painterly result, attest to Bernard’s expertise in the field of painterly tactility, the material, the substance and physicality of art — he has learned for example, the precise moment paint is to be “pulled” or “drawn.”  Bernard is cognizant of an aspect of painting most artists never consider, and it is this one, most immediate, that fuels his work.

 

As he works, he says, “I’m looking for a roller that can lift enough of the color and spread it out… but not, not lift the whole thing… and I’m looking at how dry it is, how dry my edges are,” he says as he examines his canvas. “I kind of need to let it sit for a bit cause I’m looking at this edge right here so I want to keep this form so I’ll just wait for the critical moment so I’ll just see the sheen and tell its ready to be drawn.”  The artist is initially been provoked by some element in his purview, be it “a mood or the way light was hitting the mountainside,” he says.  Once this painterly process begins from such arbitrary sources, it is not quite a freedom of consciousness, but nearly that, with Bernard as a guide on a path with infinite routs to infinite destinations. 

 

Chosen accordingly is the pattern of the base, applied by a rag, or stencil of some type.  He then uses a tool of any kind, from a wad of dried synthetic, to a piece of hard canvas, making marks of various hues to let dry till the precise moment until the roller can be applied to create a healthy field of microdots.  It is impossible for Bernard to see the forthcoming results of this step and even harder to engage with any real notion of the final process and its results.  But it is no guesswork.  He must have a sure and steady head and hand at this process, both physically and impulsively, and from all appearances, Bernard is in tune with his paint.

 

“I’ve been up here so long experimenting, and have been devoted to the act of painting, I’ve learned a lot doing that,” Bernard says.  He says he has also benefited by being at the Guthrie Studios—“being an artist and amongst friends up here and critiquing and asking ‘Oh, have you seen this artist’s work’ or ‘check them out you’ll be inspired by them,’ kind of deal.” In the end, though, it may be his own self-critiques that are the most important. He describes one of his own “happy accidents”:  ‘It’ just came about, ‘Oh, this painting sucks, I ruined it… swipe… wait a minute, hold on, that looks good!”

 

With the shapes on his canvas still slightly wet, Bernard takes a sponge satiated with water, wiping just enough of the wet away, at just the right speed, to leave enough color underneath and retain a healthy “halo” of still wet paint, and mix the colors just enough, not too muddy, to create an exciting new color.  “Another thing I like is that I have a remnant of my original big shapes,” he says of working from one idea to find another. “I am going to wait till I have everything that I need close to have pulled off and wait for those to dry… and I am going to wait and then kind of give it a rinse and the thickest paint will remove… I’ll pull this off”

 

These are the final stages in the painterly process and there is a real tension filling the studio.  Many variables that are quite subtle, from timing to motor control, have everything to do with the success of the painting.  Seconds can be the difference between stunning line and color and muddy slurry.

 

“Let’s see how well this pulls up.  It might take a little longer… see this has a thick edge… That’s working.  See with that sprayer I can get it done quick… if not it will get all gray…. If I work fast enough…  There, that is what I am after… That is where I want it!” Bernard exclaims enthusiastically.

 

At one point growing nervous Bernard declares, “I’m getting a little too much pull… I’m loosing the halo.  Wait… (Aside) The process is so involved and everything is so close you have to go and go and go.  Did it work? I haven’t even had a chance to step back and…? See I love that… isn’t it kind of a landscape but its an abstract something to weave energy through… I’m glad… I pulled it off!” proudly declares a triumphant Bernard.  “It’s kind of a green and a yellow…” he continues referring to his successful “Untitled.”

 

Being a part of Bernard and his success on “Untitled” was thrilling for its own sake and also an enlightening experience to see one who is truly expert in a field of work, labor with that work first hand and to see that expertise in full fruition.  Like a puppet master Bernard danced and spun his way through the process with expert control of his theater of media with a tremendous range of options, choosing the right variables, where just one alteration might mean the very difference between beauty and ruin.