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.

“Reminiscing” @ Phillips

Lee Deffebach

 

Since 1965 Phillips Gallery has featured hundreds of artists and seven of their best, all who are now deceased, are the subject of the current show “Reminiscing.”  This seminal show takes a nostalgic look back to the opening of the gallery by Bonnie and Dennis Phillips, through these artists who are not only part of the fabric of the history of Phillips Gallery, but have each played a singular role in the foundation of Utah’s own art history.

 

The show represents the work of Lee Deffebach, Irwin Greenberg, Waldo Midgley, Moishe Smith, Doug Snow, Harry Taylor and Francis Zimbeaux.  These names will be familiar to those well acquainted with the art of Utah’s past whose legacy is also essential to the vibrant and dynamic artistic momentum experienced currently.

 

Each artist is distinctive and each has left his or her own particular mark, a particular style or aesthetic adding to the dimensionality of the scope of this artistic progression.  These artists may be viewed in a spectrum or range that begins with the more traditional and representative style with Moishe Smith to a style that is more contemporary and conceptual seen with Doug Snow.  Collectively this can be taken into account while considering the breadth of the artistic contributions of these artists and this show stylistically and historically.

 

A fine example of Moishe Smith’s work is “Venizia,” a traditional etching that is a loosely rendered scene of the Grand Canal in Venice.  The etching is black and white but far from dreary and where it lacks color it is full of depth and feeling for the richness of the city.  The contrasts are strong and the scene has a romantic tone that Smith, who says that “place and time is the object of my landscape etchings” is able to capture the mood of sensitively.

 

One of Utah’s great painters, Waldo Midgley, is represented by the gallery and a selection of his works are on display from the first half of the 20th century.  An excellent and endearing example of this is “Untitled C-424,” a lushly rendered fishing boat docked in a harbor.  Midgley was a painter who was heavily influenced by George Bellows and the Ash Can School and the painting is accordingly thickly rendered in a coarse but expressive style that gives it a characteristic look as it captures the subtle tones of color in the light of day.

 

Irwin Greenberg painted many urban scenes, but like the great Modernist Edgar Degas, he was also fascinated by scenes involving subjects of the ballet.  In “Before the Dance” Greenberg paints two dancers preparing for a performance aided by an assistant.  The scene is light and airy with loose and quick painterly strokes that allow qualities of the intimacy of feeling and immediacy of the moment to be felt.

 

An more expressive and gestural approach that is even more personal was taken by the great Francis Zimbeaux who paints in a fluid and freehanded way that is more loose than definite.  His figures border on the abstract and some of his paintings are totally abstract yet all have an emotive quality.  “Blue Nude” is distinctly emotional and Zimbeaux layers his strokes in a transparent manner in the figure that has a light touch yet with a heavy mood.

 

More jovial is the fantastical Harry Taylor who created woodcut prints that are semi-abstract and decorative.  Some have a primitive mask-like quality or a woodcut like “The Carousel” has a surreal-like atmosphere.  Figures in bright colors and patters dance across the scene with riders that are only a shadow with a pale blue sky that is an animated van Gogh-like atmosphere of swirls and swoops. 

 

The great Lee Deffebach’s contribution to the gallery was always important and her work is about color and is totally abstract.  “Colors melt, bleed, merge, assert themselves, yield to other, are foils for one another,” says Julie Connell.  “Invitations Series # 15” is a bold composition of pure color.  Vertical bands of every hue streak the canvas amounting to a composition that is exciting and emotionally charged.

 

Finally, Douglas Snow’s works are landscapes yet are abstract and conceptual and can be described as “The sweeping power and delicate infinity,” he says.  These landscapes work on an emotional level as well as an imaginative one.  “Desert Sky Wall” is a large painted canvas of steel blue and one can feel from the impression of warm tones he uses at the bottom, the hotness and dry burning intensity of the desert.

 

These are all important works by important artists at an important show that not only reflects the significance of the last 40 years of Phillips Gallery’s role in the art community of Salt Lake City, but is a crucial representation of a collective range of Utah art history’s cultural heritage.

 

Bill Viola: Ascension (Utah Museum of Fine Art)

bill-viola-ascension-1344434121_b

 

Bill Viola is not only one of the great video artists of our day but one of the truly great artists of our day.  His installation at the Salt Lake City Art Center: “Ascension”, is an exhibition, while combining all of its elements, is not merely comprehensive or analytic but a true holistic experience.  In Viola’s case, it is an experience into consciousness, both the conscious and the subconscious.  In Viola’s words, these image “wash over you”, and the subject is “revealed on an unconscious level.” Bill Viola’s installation is a timeless narrative.

As one sits in the dark room, the first activity on the large video screen, out of the blackness is a cool blue followed by an underwater scene, not easily identifiable until the sudden plunge of a body from above shatters the darkness- immediately the screen is filled with a figure and a multitude of crystalline bubbles as the surface is broken.

Along with this anonymous figure, the viewer is drawn into this subterranean world, of sights and sounds.  There is a serene quiet yet there are subtleties in sound produced in this underwater world, which lends an existential sensibility.  We share the space along with this motionless figure, static and transcendent of his surroundings with no distraction than his suddenly felt self-conscious self.  The figure seems almost comatose yet one feels the life, which he emanates in this environment.

There is no breath, no movement, and the viewer finds themselves at harmony with this body as he sinks slowly, watching this being sinking deeper into the darkness.  The figure, in a cocoon of the crystalline bubbles of crisp light and incandescent blue, ascends once more, not breaking the surface, and then once again descends slowly to the unknown.

He is motionless yet he and we are in a state of flux.  Temporality is suspended, yet not temporality of mind.  The figure once again ascends to the top of the plane, never encroaching beyond the limits dividing the outside world, and then begins the final descent, ostensibly towards the subconscious.  Slowly, with some anxiety from the viewer, the figure transgresses the depths and sinks from sight, below the frame of the imagery.

The viewer is left with an uncanny absence and recognition of their own consciousness- either conscious or subconscious.  The frame is phased out and the viewer finds themselves, with neither surface nor depth, with the vague blue that initiated the sequence…and then blackness.  The journey is complete and the viewer is left to pure contemplation. 

Viola’s exposition is complete, but the viewer must ask, “What is the title ‘Ascension’ to mean?  Certainly the figure descended into the abyss.”  It may be that Viola’s inquiry is not to explore that, which we descend to on a conscious level, but that to which we ascend to on a subconscious one.

 

Honoring Claudia Sisemore (Rio Gallery)

Celebrating the roots of the tradition and legacy of the fine arts community of Utah through its art and its artists is also a way to secure its progression towards an exciting future.  Thanks to the insight and curatorial talents of artist Trent Alvey, now is the time to celebrate a remarkable artistic heritage manifest in the work and life of an exceptional artist and personality, Claudia Sisemore.  The current exhibition at the Rio Gallery, “Claudia Sisemore and Friends: Teacher, Painter, Filmmaker,” is a broad collection of art representing a wide range of important Utah artists within Sisemore’s sphere of personal influence.  There is also a showing of several examples of Sisemore’s own color field painting as well as a representation of her large body of documentary film work that is sampled through a video montage of segments from these important documentaries.  This is a reminder of the importance of Sisemore’s ongoing contribution to the art community through art and her influential documentary filmmaking as well as a unique ability to build community.

 

Sisemore possesses a rare gift to inspire.  As a schoolteacher she inspired Alvey, as a filmmaker documenting artists from LeConte Stewart to the contemporary Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company she inspires the fine arts tradition and as an exceptional painter she inspires all.  A sensitive observation to the nature of this exhibition reveals that this is no eulogy to Sisemore’s past but an ode to a legacy ripe with energy and motivation still in the making.  She is currently working on an important film to document the history of the multi-disciplinary artist Angelo Caravaglia and has no plans to stop filmmaking.  The documentary film is Sisemore’s most distinguishable and concerted contribution to the Utah arts tradition and the future of the Utah arts culture.

 

Sisemore speaks fondly of her experiences filming LeConte Stewart whose shy nature resonated well with hers and because of this was able to capture rare and intimate moments of him on film.  Although this is a reflection on the past, this history can be brought to life today in the documentary as it is made accessible to the public.  This directly benefits Utah’s student of painting, is of interest to many who wish to learn more of Stewart and is of value to those interested in Utah’s art history through candid moments with this artist.  There is nothing else of its kind.

 

Lee Deffebach, one of Utah’s great authentically Modern artists, is forever captured on camera at her best; without this there would be no record like it.  The film is warm and meaningful made so by the close friendship between the two artists.  Deffebach is seen as a painter revealed in honest intimate genuineness.  Sisemore creates a sense of importance to the film urging Deffebach’s imperative position in the Utah fine arts tradition.  The film should be made readily available to any who honor Utah’s artistic heritage.

 

Francis Zimbeaux was an artist whose voice is not long since past yet is hauntingly present in the character of much local art seen today.  Although not a giant in stature this artist had tremendous strength of vision with imagery that is captivating and resonates still.  Sisemore’s documentary takes a close view of the life and work of Francis Zimbeaux perceptively and sensitively but how it might be accessible to the general audience wishing to know and understand Zimbeaux is unfortunately, like her work in general, not readily availably to the public.

 

Dennis Phillips, a figure still very alive and present in the community through Phillips gallery and a steady stream of artwork, has his story felt in a documentary that is personal… as is true to Phillip’s own manner.  This artist revolutionized the Utah art establishment in the 1970’s. Without his conviction and that of those like him, young art students would be limited in what they are free to do today.  It is essential that this film be seen, his story be told and the presence of his legend be established to the benefit of the integrity of the local art community.

 

The brilliance that is the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company is made magnificently manifest in Sisemore’s documentary dedicated to the excellence of the Company.  One might appreciate the valuable asset that is this dance group and the gift of the talent, energies and artistic vision of Joan Woodbury.  This is by no means history but the pulse of the present.  The film actively promotes the exceptional distinction, enduring stamina and perpetual innovation of this company that is essential to the thriving arts culture of Salt Lake City.

 

Like the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one might be startled to find the world, as it would be without Claudia Sisemore.  But this exhibition does not lazily rest upon nostalgia but aggressively grabs at the present to promote what Sisemore is still accomplishing to the benefit of the ongoing tradition.  Her ability to create exceptional film and her power to build community may be focused on the maturing development and expansive reputation of the immediate conditions of the arts community.  If harnessed properly Sisemore’s unique contribution has the power to strengthen the present while adding security to the future.

Claudia Sisemore

Sedona Callahan @ Mestizo

Mestizo

 

When photographer Sedona Callahan, growing up in Echo Park adjacent to East Los Angeles in the 1970’s, photographed many of the murals that colored her community, she may or may not have known she was documenting a significant historical moment, for the Mexican-Americans of Los Angeles and an important historical period for Mexican Art.  With her single lens reflex Leica camera Callahan photographed a phenomenon that she has subsequently transferred into digital images and restored to “like-new condition” and has thus restored the “spirit of the Chicano” in Salt Lake City.

 

Not unlike the golden age of mural art in Mexico City in the 1920’s centered around Mexican artist Diego Rivera with its own purposes and idealism, the Chicano mural movement in Los Angeles represents specific aims and had its own proposes and ideals.   Like the “golden age” in Mexico City these monumental works of the 1970’s united for a time the spirit of a culture and an identity of its people.  Many of these works from the 1970’s have long since disappeared, victim to a changing urban community also subject to physical elements, yet evidence of these ephemeral documents that represent transcendent realities remain, seen in the collection of photographs currently showing at the Mestizo Coffeehouse and Gallery.  Callahan has further brought these images together in a book that adds a sense of historical significance to this relevant episode in the history of Mexican Art and culture.

 

Just what is “Chicanoism?”  The 1960’s and 1970’s witnessed a “Chicano movement” that was largely centralized around art and the United Farm Workers under César Chávez.  Today, Chicano idealism is less about borders but is apparently a “spirit” of Mexicana and is often recalled to inspire voters of older generations as well as new immigrants and used also in defense of Mexican and Mexican American Rights.  According to Callahan “These murals were created as an artistic representation of the values of the emerging Chicano Revolution.”  Further, she states “An emergent expression of identity is seen in the spread of Chicano murals…these murals relate the experience, hopes and aspirations of the Mexican American people.  They call out specific and universal themes of equality, brotherhood and progress which are rooted in humanistic and spiritual understandings.  The murals are a message for all people, a message and an art form that will last and become a part of our own culture here.”

 

To discover a more lucid idea of what is “the spirit of the Chicano,” one might look at these historic murals, which with vibrancy and vitality materialize the “sprit” of Chicanoism just as the murals in Mexico City in the early 1900’s were so unequivocal in what it meant to be Mexican in the era of Diego Rivera and Mexican socialism.  Like the works of Rivera and his followers, to understand the Chicano mural movement, its iconography and symbolic language, the layers of meaning and revealed truths, is to understand the history of the spirit of the Chicanoism, its past and the present.   These photographs are a documentation of a spectrum of principles that motivated a nation and led to many of the reforms that are still seen manifested today.

 

Of the many murals found photographed in this exhibit, some are more decorative than others but all have specific utilitarian purposes.  One that is very overt in its aim is the nostalgic Ghosts of the Barrio done by Wayne Healy in 1974.  This mural is done on the side of a home or small business and recalls the essence of the Chicano male, past and present.  The mural, which features trump l’oeil steps with representations of seven Mexican men, or types, sitting or standing on or around these steps, presents the model of the Mexican man in many forms.  Depicted from the distant past is a Mayan warrior, a Spanish conquistador, a Mexican cowboy (the vaquero or the charro), the worker, a “macho” Mexican type in t-shirt, slacks and sporting a moustache and muscles, the intellectual, and centrally placed is the standard Mexican 1970’s male with tank top, jeans and cowboy hat.  This mural is Chicano 101 as it is definitive of all things male in Mexico, from the historical background to the intellectual, to the “macho” man and to the prototypical contemporary Mexican male.   For a culture struggling to maintain an identity in a country they or their ancestors have immigrated to and fighting to retain traditional cultural values this mural of all shades of the Mexican male is nothing less than iconic.

 

In a mural similar to ones done by Rivera and his followers in the 1920’s that dealt with subjects of equality and hopes of possibilities within socialism, Tribute to the Farmworkers by Alejandro C. Maya in 1974, has those elements that define the “spirit of the Chicano” in a tribute to the unity of the Mexican worker and the socialism that is the essence of populist Mexican thinking.  In this mural, again are types, that represent a totality of socialist Mexico and the unity this represents, never more relevant than in the worker, true to the art and times of Rivera, true in Los Angeles in 1974 and true today.  In this image are four prototypical Mexican workers: a Mayan god, a conquistador, a worker with sombrero and a contemporary Mexican man, again, seen with blue jeans and tee-shirt.  The four are elevating a flag and stand in a field with mountains in the rear, a Mayan pyramid, and a vision above of the Virgin Mary in an aureole of light.  It is a composition full of meaning and intent and surely was meant to inspire and unify the Mexican in Los Angeles in the 1970’s with the “spirit of the Chicano” as are the other murals in the exhibition, significant as much today in Salt Lake City as they were in Los Angeles four decades ago.

Brigham Young University: “Minerva Teichert: Pageants in Paint”

 

 Minerva Teichert

In the canon of Utah art, few artists are more recognized and beloved than Minerva Teichert.  Her works seem to cast a spell over those within and without the local art community as something like a sacred enigma.  Not very much is known about her- her enigmatic status remains intact.  She was born in 1888, died in 1976 and studied in New York and Chicago.  Her life is her art.  Somewhere behind the layers of paint an artist’s soul lies hidden, immortalized in a body of work that reflects her and her passions.  The Brigham Young Museum of Art now hosts Minerva Teichert: Pageants in Paint, a thorough retrospective of her work, curated by her granddaughter Marian Wardel, which will show through March 8, 2008. Wardel does an estimable job in curating this exhibit.  It represents this artist, whose oeuvre was so prodigious, and gives justice, merit and insight to this enigmatic Utah artist…no simple task. Theatrics are the core of the theme of the exhibition and the vehicle to present Teichert’s art.

 

The exhibition reveals Teichert’s art in a meaningful, provocative and educational manner and focuses on Teichert’s oeuvre incorporating an essential aspect of her art: its theatricality. She loved film and her favorites were Buffalo Bill, both of the Ten Commandments, and the early film Brigham Young.  This keen interest in film and the theatrical- and this cannot be over stated- is reflected in her art, not only in composition but in subject.  The majority of the works are large in scale, allowing for a monumentality which incites a theatrical experience. Entering the museum exhibition space, one feels as if one is walking through the proscenium of a stage set, or, pageant.  This “enigma”, was herself, as the pictures seen upon entering, herself highly theatrical in her very bohemian, eccentric and ornate style, which in the images of her seem not  costume she dawned for a camera, but she was, as the exhibition would suggest, theatrical herself and an artist in the truest sense.

 

How are Teichert’s pageant-like paintings meaningful and why are they the core of the exhibition?  As we know, narrative elements play a significant role in the arts: painting, film, literature, theater, music, opera, dance, etc.  Narratives are fundamental in Teichert’s work.  Each painting tells a story. Wild Horse Race 1928 and Handcart Pioneers 1935 are two strong examples. This is her theatrics.  Early academic painting placed narrative as the highest achievement for the artist. Each painting of Teichert’s fits this qualification and paints a story, a little film in the imagination.  The meaning and presentation is just as informative.  Through characters who seem alive in their placement within the picture, the action that is represented tell stories, her approach, her way of expressing subjects that were interesting and powerful to her.  These are stories of high human drama; Mormon pioneers crossing an endless plane, early civilizations offering sacrifices to their Gods, cowboys galloping through the uncharted west, the struggle of a poor family to survive, the plight of the American Indians.  They are painted with compassion and affinity.  These are the types of stories she liked to tell, these episodes, these little films tell stories of the past that she has preserved and are great archives of the history of the United States and the Americas.

 

Teichert is masterful in her use of composition towards her aims.  Structurally there is an acute sense of balance in her figures and the space they occupy. She uses many vertical planes for her subjects but always balances them with a horizontal, such as Handcart Pioneers 1935, a train of Mormon Pioneers balanced with mountain ranges. Often figures on the edge of the canvas set off the interior, as in Broncho Dance 1957 allowing the viewer to focus upon what is unfolding within, here like mighty warriors inviting the gaze of the viewer but guard the entrance.  The potency of these outside figures are echoed by a strong central focus contrasted with a horizontal, here a goddess- like figure.  These are inventive elements for the story to unfold in paint and add to the quality of theatrics in Teichert’s work.  Like one watching a film, the colors have a holistic aspect.  Innovatively, Teichert has herself developed a color palette which is wide in range, yet definitively her own.  The diversity of the color palate can be seen throughout the exhibition, but it is noticeable that each individual narrative incorporates a portion of that broad palette and gives each canvas a unique quality. Her range extends from nocturnal blues, as in Night Raid 1941 to a vivid fuscia sunset in Mounted Hunt 1949.  However broad, there is a continuity in the coloration of figures, the landscapes etc., which gives one a feeling of unification in what is being looked at.  But like a great filmmaker, a great composer or a great playwright, Teichert tends to have areas of focus, climaxes of sorts, often created by strong areas of more pure vivid hues, and add greatly to the meaning and flow of the narrative.

 

Teichert’s works are rendered by other more obvious narrative devices she has chosen to use such as the borders which surround most of her pictures, with design and motif.  These borders allow the viewer to glimpse into this world as one would in a pageant or play.  It creates a detachment, a separation between the viewer and the narrative.  We are meant to be observers, not participants, participants in these candid moments.  The borders are the most palpable reference to seeing her work in terms of theatrics.  More than this her sense of style created the boundary between our reality and her illusion.

 

Teichert painted when her contemporaries, Modernists of the “canon”, painting abstractions, sought to engage the viewer in their objectivity rather than to create a sense of detachment.  Due to equivocal factors, Teichert’s work was left out of this canon- she was a woman, she painted the West and its heritage, and was a Mormon.  Yet she cultivates her brand of Modernism no less than others and might have been placed  amongst the best.  Her “brand of Modernism” emphasized the subjective and placed the viewer, as theatrics does, outside of the picture plane creating the detachment as mentioned.  As Cezanne did, and what traditional narrative does not do, is place the figures frontally.  She created narrative planes, implying depth with lack of chiaroscuro.  As well as a Picasso she used blocks of color, structural motifs of line, shape, color and shade to create depth.  These devices are not used to create an objective dialogue but to tell a story, not about art for arts sake but art for our sake.  The result is effective, bringing the viewer close to the story yet at a safe distance.  These are stories of the brave and courageous- they are not about us and she treats them with due respect.

 

These figures have a high degree of pathos.  Painted so loosely, the profound expressions revelatory of so much emotion can be seen again, and again, and again.  To many painters, these faces may be “happy accidents”, but apparently not to Teichert who has mastered the emotional quality of the figures which are found in an abundance of interesting poses, gestures, glances, movement, candid moments. Her figural grace tells the story as in Bear Lake 1936 where each face reflects a different personality.  Minerva Teichert has a style of painting, to those who know her work, which is easily identifiable.  Her figural grace; being able to create a face as sensitive as a Gainsborough, denoting figures with a few well placed strokes, trees with a gesture, a horse which has no chiaroscuro but is marvelously foreshortened is remarkable.  Facility of painting such as this lends itself to a canvas which is rich and full but not heavily painted. Qualities as these designate her as a true master.

 

Using the theatrics of Teichert as a basis for the exhibition was an insightful and innovative way of bringing her art together, an oeuvre great in scope.  It certainly provides an excellent vehicle which the public may enjoy and have a foundation, a state of mind by which they can approach the art.  Thus, viewers will be able to understand the works- presented in this manner we see what Teichert saw, or at least see vantage point from which she saw: her vision.  The viewer might leave the exhibit with a more comprehensive understanding of this incredible art and possibly unravel some of the “enigma” which is Minerva Teichert.

Spirit of the Land: Landscapes by LeConte Stewart, “The Soul of Rural Utah: The Church History Museum”

 

 Leconte stewart spirit of the land

“Painting is more than expressing the appearance of things, it is expressing the spirit of things,” said LeConte Stewart (1891-1990) regarding his relationship to painting, particularly landscapes, which are the subject of the current exhibition at the LDS Church History Museum, The Soul of Rural Utah.  This show is partnered with LeConte Stewart: Depression Era Art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and it seems as if it is in these landscapes that Stewart was at home, where he “found himself,” or found “his voice” as an artist.  The exhibition at the UMFA certainly targets a general “mood” albeit a sensitive and provocative one, however the Church History exhibition show is a tour de force of Stewarts own moods, it is a personal exhibition, revealing his prolific abilities as an artist and his depth of feeling.

 

Curator Robert Davis stated that “His achievement as an artist arises from his ability to visualize accurate relationships of form and colors while also grasping the sense and meaning of the subject.”  The entire show could be analyzed in critical terms of relating the formal and the structural, the artist’s approach and the emotive response that it evokes.  It could be looked at coldly, dryly and academically as a case study of Stewart’s ability to marry formal and emotive substance but to experience the art breaks the viewer free of that temptation as the work is more than that… it is purely authentic.

 

It is true that Stewart did have a prodigious range of artistic approaches to his landscape as one cannot help but see in this showing and in general his method is to elicit a symbiotic relationship with his formal approach of the subject and the mood that is effectuated.  Stewart was taught by New York artist and Swede John F. Carlson who was well versed in European schools and techniques and passed this training along to Stewart.  It is unequivocal that Stewart used a cornucopia of methodologies in his personal exploration of the land.  One very strong example is Stewart’s use of a nocturnal subject in The Midnight Express, 1971.  The panel in oil is two planes of blue, the land and the night sky with flickering light on the horizon and a smudge that might be the illuminated puff of train steam.  Anyone of the Kaysville area might feel the mood of this scene very deeply, the vastness of the land, the chill of the air, the pummeling sound of a steam engine all enveloped in night… this was painting to be experienced.

 

In The Midnight Express in 1971 he was already a living Utah legend and assuredly knew people would experience his work, however, according to Davis he began with an “inner direction of what he wanted to do.  He was attracted to the land, to the loneliness of the deserts, the isolated homes and the relationships he found in the contrasts and disconnects.”  As a young artist he was not motivated by anything other than his own desire to discover the land through his painting.  “Each one is new and original and fulfilling,” said Davis.  Further, the curator stated that the artist was completely invested in “the act of doing rather than the outcome or the act of selling.”

 

This is a poetic vision of LeConte Stewart in the open landscapes of rural Utah with only his artistic tools and his love of the land.  One might think of a youthful Vincent van Gogh in Arles engrossed by the light he had discovered that allowed him to create his expressive wonders.  In the mesmerizing painting Kaysville, Winter, 1930 we can see something of the expressive color of van Gogh.  The white of the snow on the road and atop the houses has cool tones of violets, blues and greens, the hue of the house a hypnotic shade of turquoise with sinewy trees, which lend this painting a distinctive expressive quality.  It is possible that the artist was thinking of the legend from Holland and it is a painting that is very psychological in an expressive quality that is interpretive.

 

According to Davis, this expression was natural to Stewart and not contrived.  He worked from the inside out.  The mood came and the method followed making the realization authentic and the mood palpable.  “He did not like pretense or presumptuousness… he was ‘take it or leave it’.”  From Carlson he “learned to use his teachings as a vehicle to summarize how the mind balances the structural and the beautiful and each landscape was a new experience,” said Davis.  “He expressed his feelings through moods which was a balanced self-expression.” 

 

Afternoon Sunlight, October, 1929, location unknown, painted when Stewart was 30 is a brilliant example of his balanced self-expression.  The painting is an interesting composition with a hedge of trees on the left bordering a country road with a field of grass on the right middle and foreground, a hillside to the right upper middle and a mass of sky.  Why is it brilliant?  The painting is a very successful plein air landscape after the tradition of the Impressionists.  The sky would not be so bright without flakes of yellows, golds and pinks or the field feel as rich without hints of amber and gradient tones of greens and the trees come alive without the variety of color reflecting the afternoon sunlight.  The mood is relaxation, calm, joviality, rest, freedom… an abundance of good feeling.  Further, the subject and method Stewart chose to express this cheerful mood could not be more perfect as sunlight is the integral element to plein air painting as he creates an ideal afternoon of care-free repose.

 

Yet this artist, cloistered in his artistic reality, so true to himself and his own experience, how can he be relevant to an audience today?  Is he a Utah “old master” or does he still matter?  Absolutely.  For the exhibition at the LDS Church History Museum, much of the relevance of LeConte Stewart’s work comes from the legacy of the land itself and the title The Soul of Rural Utah can allude to a pioneer heritage, which Stewart did have, and it can also, said Davis, attest to “the soul being projected by him through landscapes, sharing the spiritual through the visual.”  This can be suggested by observing Twilight on the Ranch, 1950, a vista from Indianola, Sanpete County.  The scene is composed of a foreground of prairie with a ranch and hills and then sky.  No piece in the show takes a stronger academic approach than this one, looking something like a pointillist piece and no landscape in the show evokes a feeling quite like it… one of peace, harmony and utter tranquility.  The painting is oil but the colors light pastel hues with cooler tones in the back, warmer in the front and the ranch just a shape.  In this assemblage of dots and dashes of color with the subdued twilight one feels a serene sense of balance and calm… one might call this feeling spiritual.

 

The landscapes of LeConte Stewart are compellingly relevant today.  They have a prolific range of formal approach as each evokes a particular mood, an emotion, a spirit, a feeling… feelings that can be experienced on a personal level by today’s audience.  These are not dry academic experiments but are LeConte Stewart’s experience and his personal artistic expression and are still as powerful and alive because he was truly authentic.  Said Davis, “There were those who mastered the art of landscape and there were those who understood it” and LeConte Stewart did understand it and feel it because he loved it.

 

Utah Museum of Fine Arts: The Spirit of an Era: Depression Era Art by LeConte Stewart

Spirit of an era 

 

The exhibition now on display at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts “LeConte Stewart: Depression Era Art” is a wide assemblage of painting by the Utah master focusing on the years of the Great Depression, and unlike the partner exhibition at the Church History Museum that shows only landscape, this exhibit shows a wide variety of subjects related to Stewart’s personal experiences of these years, in Utah.  It is stated by the museum that “Stewart painted the “raw side of life” in expressions of the West’s vernacular architecture: storefronts, gas stations, and old homes. Stripped to the essential, paintings from this period evoke not only Stewart’s personal history of loss, but that of the entire nation.”  I would argue that if one is to take a more penetrative look at the meanings of these works specifically and in their totality and consider the visual signifiers and the spirit that LeConte Stewart is propagating, one might find a fighting spirit of unity in the common man, of industry and will, and ultimately of God and humanity in the face of oppression.

 

The great masterpiece in the show is arguably Private Car, 1937 and is representative of the spirit of the common man.  Stewart seems to be looking beyond the vulgate ideas of the “hobo” and this seems a more romanticized vision.  Here are the migrant-workers at the height of the Great Depression and in this depiction thy seem neither depressed, oppressed or repressed in their “private car.”  LeConte Stewart paints the scene in a cheery sea of yellow and these faceless men look like adventurers; one of them stands with his legs crossed seemingly proudly.  They seem to be occupied with each other or in thought and one might not feel so sorry for them.  They are free and moving forward under an open sky.  The Thresher was painted in 1922, prior to the 1929 crash and is an indicator of how, not unlike French Realist Jean-François Millet and the Gleaners, 1857, Stewart venerated the common worker and saw a dignity and purpose in what they did.  The Thresher is a cheerful and busy canvas, colorful and alive with man, nature and work, all happily in unison and everything apparently harmonious from the glorious sky, the billowing smoke and the blur of human activity.  These small faceless figures in their “private car” and the blurred workers in The Thresher are the heroes of the show.

 

Many of the pieces in the exhibition have a sense of isolation and of disconnect yet as is commonly known, LeConte Stewart characteristically enjoyed such themes.  This is seen time and again in open spaces such as a mountainside with a sole entity such as a deserted farmhouse, thus inviting a feeling of disconnect from everyday reality.  Apparently there was a romance to him in this which is palpable.  But in this isolation we can discover more meaningful clues to Stewarts sensibilities such as can be found in Odgen, Becker Brewing, 1933.  It is the heart of the Depression yet we might notice the multiple active smoke stacks, the trucks parked in front of the factory, the brightly painted dusk or dawn.  Nothing Stewart painted was gratuitous and everything can be read for content and here what we are seeing is industry at all odds.

 

Even more lavishly painted with overtly suggested scenes of commerce and industry is Along the Concrete 1935.  In Along the Concrete, we see the artist focusing on the best of times and not the worst.  Of course, times are hard, of course this is the worst economic disaster in United States history, but LeConte Stewart chooses to paint and promote commerce and industry with a bright red Coca-Cola sign, a car being pumped full of gasoline by a uniformed worker who is working!  The painting is littered with signage all under a bright sky and another car moves on ahead.  There are a number of other paintings like this in the show that focus on commerce and industry and here Stewart abandons his signature isolation to a near claustrophobic state.  There is a painting in the show of empty storefronts but this is boldly and brightly rendered in a vivid green which does not feel empty or hollow.  Stewart was making artistic choices here about what to paint and he was a humanist in the traditional sense of the word as he shows the best of mankind in the face of adversity.

 

Some of the pieces in the show are at times not unlike Stewart’s Depression-era contemporary Edward Hopper which can be noticed in the painting Death Curve 1936.  The bold colors are there, the strong contrasts of light and dark, yet unlike the very famous and iconic Nighthawks 1942, one may not feel the strong tension and anxiety of elements of Hopper in Stewart’s painting.  Yes, there is the very real presence of isolation, of a looming darkness over everything, but Stewart has a very expressionist way of painting that Hopper lacks which brings life into the piece.  Hopper’s Nighthawks features the central figures in the café and then utter emptiness into the night, the barren street and cold dark windows.  Yet beyond Stewart’s roadside brightly lit service station is a street lamp whose glow breaks the darkness, the automobile breaks the loneliness, and the blackness of the sky is broken up by fragments of pink in a nocturnal plein air effect that creates a sense of warmth out of the would be panic-filled darkness of the night in Depression-heavy 1936.

 

LeConte Stewart was actively a Latter Day Saint Mormon and assuredly the inclusion of the piece Church Under Street Lamp 1935 can have no equivocation.  The church is shrouded in darkness and surely the dark night of the Great Depression was very dark yet the face of the church, although isolated, as there are very few human figures in the entirety of Stewart’s oeuvre, is completely illuminated and for those of the Latter Day Saint faith there is much meaning in that.  Light essentially symbolizes the light of Christ and to have a Church illuminated out of an expanse of darkness, the blackness of the Great Depression, is no casual gesture but an allusion to many to find peace through spiritual means.

 

There are many other significant images in the show that are poignantly rendered by Stewart, but as I viewed the exhibition and asked myself, from this humanist vantage point, what is the greatest relevance I could take from this show, I found I was inspired from the Becker Brewing Company that kept on brewing, the migrant workers on their own “private car” looking for better, the gas station in the middle of the night on Death Curve that keeps its lights on and the church under the street lamp that will always have its light on.  The relevance that I take is the fighting spirit of survival in humanity and that LaConte Stewart, in my eyes, did not complain or quarrel but represents the best of the spirit of this era in those who fought to survive those years… something very valid for today’s audience.  The paintings I witnessed of the Great Depression I did not find depressing but speak of a great artist and the strength of his vision.

Utah Museum of Fine Arts: “Her Spirit is Stronger than angels: Frida Kahlo Though the lens of Nicolas Muray”

 

 Frida

The work of Frida Kahlo, artist from Mexico who is known as a surrealist, through her life-long relationship with Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and her tendency to express her inner turmoil through self portraits which are highly symbolic, has only been popularized in the last ten years.  Since then, her image is seen frequently- commercially and through a mass of contemporary literature which attempts to make sense of an artist whose art is as complex as her personality- and in large measure- due to it.

 

Kahlo, although having lived in Paris and worked with Duchamp and Breton, did not consider herself surrealist .  She inherited surrealist associations from the dream like symbolism she used although she states “I never painted my dreams, I painted my reality”.   She has publically given little importance to her own art although Rivera consistently supported it and asserted its value and importance as modern art.

 

Kahlo’s work has a general resemblance to Mexican folk art- in particular, a resemblance to small votive pictures known as retables which devout Catholics consider sacred in their churches.  More than that, much of her imagery mirrors traditional Madonnas revered since the middle ages.  Like the Madonna images which are frequently eluded to, Kahlo’s images are highly iconic- frontal, formal, serene, reverent, confrontational. More so she is an icon herself -timeless and monumental.  She is stoic in expressing the inexpressible- her inner battles due in part to a bus accident which impaired her for life, her intense relationship with Rivera, her status as a Mexican artist, and as a woman.  Kahlo is as much a work of art, herself, as her paintings.

 

However, beyond the symbolism exposing her struggles, beyond the iconic images that have become so familiar contemporaneously- especially to women- we know remarkably little about the “real” Frida Kahlo.  Not the tragic Mexican icon in the shadow of Rivera, but thoughts she had, the emotions she experienced, her passions, her desires, her weaknesses.  We know about her suffering well from her work, but who was this human being who suffered so greatly and worked so profoundly?

 

The exhibit “Her Spirit is Stronger than angels: Frida Kahlo Though the lens of Nicolas Muray”, unlocks mystery, reveals another side of Kahlo, through a candid relationship and intimacy which Kahlo and Muray shared, which we, as her audience, hitherto have seen none of in her works.  Nicolas Muray, Hungarian, came to America in 1913 to train as a photographer, opened a studio in Greemwich Village, New York City, and through his relationship with artist Miguel Covarrubias, met Kahlo in 1931 and began a relationship that would last a decade.

 

Twenty-four photographs (some displayed in the United Sates for the first time), intimate letters, as well as pre-Columbian artifacts displayed in glass cases, which appear in some of the photos ( a passion of Kahlos) compose the exhibit.  We see photographs which range from several black and whites, some snap shot style, and some more formal.  These formal ones, which allow the viewer to see Muray’s virtuosity as a photographer, have a technical execution which is astounding. They are pure, bold and bright- deep colors and contrasts which reflect the vibrancy of Mexico in Frida’s clothing, and there is a clarity which makes her eyes and skin radiate.

 

They look fresh and new, but the remarkable aspect of this exhibit, these photos, is that these images are seen through the eyes of Muray, someone she knew, trusted, confided in- loved: not some faceless nameless audience.  Three of the most technically remarkable images: “Frida with Hand Earrings”, “Frida with Pink and Green Blouse”, “Frida with Blue Satin Blouse”, offer a glimpse of the woman, real and human who has humor, inquisitiveness, vulnerability, coyness, sensitivity, and who is as vibrant as her own country.

 

Through these images of Frida seen through Muray’s eyes we see someone very human, laughing, emotional, bold, sensitive, sincere, loving, and more honest than we have ever seen her. For one moment, we see her as she lets down her shroud of the tragic figure and she is exposed  in all her wonderful vicissitudes, her liveliness and her humanity.

“Nick

I love you like I would an angel

You are a lillie of the valley in my life

I will never forget you, never, never

You are my whole life

I hope you will never forget this

Frida”

May 31, 1931

Wayne Thiebaud: An American Icon (Springville Museum)

 

 Thiebaud___Two_Kneeling_Figures0

Wayne Thiebaud is an American Icon who paints icons of America.  He is famous for his lush and colorful ice creams, pies, cupcakes, a famous and charming Mickey Mouse amongst many other timeless American iconographic imagery.  Thiebaud has always managed to capture the American establishment and its spirit, through minimal representations and touchstones of who we are, relevant to the past, present and future.  The Thiebaud retrospective at the Springville Museum of Art presents a glimpse of the artist’s work spanning many years, many aspects of his oeuvre and also presents new works.  The show, which is extensive, allows the viewer to see for themselves the greatness of this artist, a one time Utah resident, which is evident not only in revealing his prodigious body of work but the quality of art that all may appreciate.  Thiebaud’s works decipher the fleeting mystery of just what America is, the salad bowl which is reduced to its basic essentials, a reminder of the essence of America.

 

However, many attending the event hosted by the Museum; a rare occasion for an audience to listen to Wayne Thiebaud, hear his words, ask questions and participate in a dialogue, might find out that there is a universe in this artist that no history book alludes to.  His work is fun, exciting, vibrant, catchy, but Thiebaud is much more than frosting on a cake.  Through his professed love for America and the subjects he chooses to epitomize in his work, he is a profound philosopher in the truest sense of the word and his icons are portholes into these realms.  The layers of impasto of his painting might be metaphorically likened to his many layered love of paint, painting and art.  When asked who some of his favorite American painters are, he made a reference to a phrase, “I never met a painting I didn’t like.”

 

Although Thiebaud is late in his years, his mind is sharp, especially as he speaks about what he loves most.  Although his body is aged, his sensibility is youthful, not jaded and filled with refreshing, original and life-long learned personal insights into the art of painting.  His memory easily recalls names that younger men would forget, anecdotes, and complex yet firmly rooted ideas which have accumulated through his many years in the main stream of the art world.

 

Originally, Thiebaud was an illustrator until a conscious decision was made that he would do his best to adapt his skills into fine art.  He was shown at the Allen Stone Fine Art Gallery in New York and soon after, in 1962, had his first one-man show there.  Subsequent to this show he was quickly propelled into the heights of the New York art world.  Thiebaud mentions DeKooning and Newman amongst many others as friends and acquaintances.  His memories or filled with encounters of the greats, relationships with the giants of the late New York High Modernist movements.  He is a legend, one of the last of the greats who have made what is generally taken for granted in today’s art world possible.

 

His passion and sincere love for the medium of paint and the essence of painting was and is what makes him the legend that he will always be.  He identifies with “The idea of painting and art as separate entities.  A painting above all else,” said Thiebaud, “is a concrete entity, an abstract search for something still coming into our consciousness.  Our ignorance is still bottomless.  Great painting becomes art, but not much of it.  I feel privileged to be a part of that search for something more, something special.”

 

Like most truly great artists, Thiebaud is an avid historian, not only erudite in the histories but part of history itself.  He speaks of Rembrandt or Hals in a lucid, almost reverent manner, describing profound aspects of their work.  Said Thiebaud “All I am is a collection of all of the input that I had.  Being influenced is the way to become an individual.”  Also, “Painting is a great invention.  Over a period of three thousand years we have made worlds of what our sensibility is about.  Painting is a summation of human consciousness, what we are in all of our differences.  Almost any kind of emotion you can name painters have made a whole world where you can express much of that.”

 

Not having gone to art school, Thiebaud nevertheless is a master in his field.  He paints and draws with the utmost facility, far greater than most trained artists, and has developed a philosophy which surpasses artists who use art as a tool but spend less time contemplating it.  “Looking at a painting; this is a one to one thing.  I get out of it a wonder, a little world- what is this person trying to do.”  Thiebaud indicated a reality and a joy of looking at a painting.  When the average viewer will spend five seconds looking at a piece in a museum, Wayne Thiebaud will spend an hour and a half.  Painting is a “great invention of the human spirit.  It has been a great privilege to be a part of that,” said Thiebaud.

 

It is an interesting and humorous anecdote that as a young painter and illustrator, choosing fine art as an objective, he began with basic shapes: circles, squares, triangles etc..  Thiebaud had worked in the restaurant industry and began applying subject matter to these shapes such as pies, cakes, gumball machines. But metaphorically speaking, the essence of his art goes one step further in his consciousness.  They represent far more than optical vision but are metaphysical visions.  Said the artist, “This or that icon is an entity, a body,” it is the substance of that which he is compelled to; the essence of paint.

 

Being reluctant to call himself a Pop artist, one might question his works’ alignment in this particular place in the Modernist Discourse.  Said Thiebaud “I am fortunate that I grew up in America, that thing that I am, responsible for what I have done.  When you are painting, you do not ignoble this tradition, but make paintings as good and as critical.”  Thiebaud is “annoyed by specific labels.  Generally,” said the artist, “a lot more work needs to be done on what Pop Art is and as a part of the commercial venture.”

 

Thiebaud’s philosophy and metaphysical approach to painting is obscured by his simplified iconography of America.  Yet these uncanny representations may be seen as doors into the mind of the artist to unlock hidden mysteries of his metaphysical and philosophic approach to paint.  Being reluctant to pigeon-hole himself in the cannon, he stays true to his own personal perspectives and approaches to art.  He is not propelled by his status in history but by his lifelong investigation of painting.  The images, his beautifully and poignant icons which lend an identity to who we are as Americans go much deeper into Thiebaud’s philosophy.  It is apparent that more work needs to be addressed on Wayne Thiebaud himself beyond the images that have made him so famous and that are so familiar to so many.  The new retrospective at the Springville Museum of Art helps not only to not unravel the meanings behind his iconography but to unravel the enigma which is Wayne Thiebaud.