Point of View is an exhibition of work by artist couple Tom Judd and Kiki Gaffney. It examines their unique perspectives on the Utah landscape. Judd originally from Utah, now residing in Philadelphia, returns to the places he once knew. Through his work he explores visual memories, creating nostalgic paintings that evoke the experience of a past reality. Collaged and layered, they call to mind a carefully made scrapbook, both tender and personal. Gaffney grew up in Pennsylvania and experiences Utah as a visitor. Her work shows a new and unfamiliar landscape in sharp focus, much like a visual journal that captures the adventure of a new place, approaching the work with inquiry and a careful attention to detail. The exhibition pairs their perspectives and presents a strong collection of work that highlights two distinct voices, both uniquely inspired by the Utah landscape.
The following is a MWFA interview with Tom Judd (TJ) and Kiki Gaffney (KG) about Point of View.
You are from Pennsylvania but you visit Utah regularly with Tom, your husband, as he grew up here. What was your first impression of the state?
KG - Before meeting Tom I had never experienced the mountainous western states, so the first thing I noticed when flying to Utah for the first time back in 2003 was the incredible view of the mountain range from the plane. I remember loving the view of Salt Lake around twilight, as the sun was setting behind those mountains and the city lights twinkled in that grid formation, sort of like LA. With each passing year we would venture further up the mountains and farther away from Salt Lake to experience different parts of the state. Tom's brother in law, Kurt Bishop built a home in Castle Valley, about 20 miles outside of Moab, and we would spend time down there. I never realized how much I enjoyed being in nature and the pure exhilaration of hiking, climbing and seeing until I discovered Utah. The landscape itself didn't figure into my work until much later, although nature and organic formations have always been integral to my imagery.
The works in ‘Point of View’ are inspired by your relationship to Utah, the place where you grew up. How does this place inform your work?
TJ - In 1980 as a young man of 28 years old, I took a journey and I called it “The Story of Egypt and Utah,” a title which truly creates more questions than answers but seems to capture something about the story I wanted to investigate. It entailed driving from Philadelphia to Southern Utah. I camped on the desert floor, walked miles in the sun, got stuck in quicksand, took a lot of pictures and kept a journal. It had something to do with chasing down the ghosts of my ancestral family history. I am the great grandson of the famous Mormon President Heber J. Grant, although I did not grow up in a Mormon home and have never been a believer, I have always been fascinated with the story. The myth of the saints arriving in their dark wool suits and covered wagons in this lake bed desert and declaring “This is the Place!” – encapsulates the notion of “Manifest Destiny.” Part of the attraction for me is the landscape itself which, while living many miles from it in Philadelphia, has always had a hold on me. Although I don’t consider myself a landscape painter, it resides in the back of my mind and has been the subject of many of my paintings. Now the landscape has taken on a whole new meaning for me — aside from the real or imagined history — and that is because of looking at it with my artist wife Kiki and daughter Astrid. We have visited it every year in late summer for almost 10 years. We visit it as a family. Each year we arrive in Salt Lake, flying over the top of the Wasatch Mountains, landing near the scared and surreal great Salt lake. It is always breathtaking and mysterious. We then pack up our rental car and head south to Castle Valley, near Moab. The drive itself is startling. The grey, blue and green landscape, the endless sky, the abandoned gas stations. As artists, Kiki and I are always talking about it. The landscape. We take photographs and hike and walk and drive. It is a vast and haunted place. We return to Philadelphia with our minds full of imagery and ideas that get interpreted through the filter of our artistic visions. We work in the same studio so we can see what we are both doing on a day to day basis. What's really so interesting is how our visions are so different. Kiki delves into it with an eye for the detail, the gestures defined in tiny lines. Methodical, even meditative in their process. I am almost the opposite in my approach; sweeping, quick, on the verge of falling apart at times. Together we present these different inquiries. What they have in common is a profound sense of scale, and the primitive nature of their existence, and perhaps our existence. Now we also have Astrid, who is 11 years old and keeps us in the moment with her observations and a sense of wonder that children bring to everything.
How did the Western landscape affect your work?
KG - I have always been interested in natural and organic forms, and how they inform constructed imagery (like wallpaper patterns for example) For many years I was influenced by Karl Blossfeldt's botanical photographs, and the beautiful circular and linear gestures these images exhibited. After some time I felt I had exhausted this line of inquiry. On a trip to southern Utah a couple years back I began to notice and appreciate that same circular and linear imagery in rock formations that had so drawn me to the Blossfeldt photographs, and I began to work from my own photographs to interpret these new images, and how they relate to constructed patterns we see and use in our daily lives.
You have talked about being inspired by the ‘beauty of things that tend to go unnoticed.’ How do you portray this in your work?
KG - Continuing my response from the previous question, one thing I was very clear about was the utter majesty of the southern Utah landscape, breathtaking in scope, depth and color, and the beauty obvious to anyone who viewed these incredible natural formations. My studio is located in north Philadelphia, a very poor, crumbling and forgotten section of the city. One day I walked to the corner store for a bottle of water, and I realized how fortunate I was to be able to straddle between these 2 disparate landscapes - the natural wonders of Utah and the grit of north Philadelphia. I began to notice things in my studio neighborhood - crumbling pink brick walls, dilapidated churches, chain link fences, a rusted, hulking El (elevated rail line) and began to see these images through a reverent lens - they represented a time long past, a history that has importance, but is fading. This new way of seeing led me to notice the same effects in nature, particularly trees that had fallen naturally and began to decay. These are all things that are generally not considered pretty or note-worthy, but for me they hold a certain serene beauty, and something to elevate to a higher level. I use these images in my work and often surround them with beautiful patterning, glitter and gold leaf to subtly reference religious iconography.
There is a nostalgic quality to your work, and you have talked about how the ‘notion of evidence of the past,’ as an inspiration, can you talk about that?
TJ - I think the past defines us. I think our childhood memories become stories that we make up about ourselves and the world. They live with us all the time. That is where it all starts, the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s all there. I think my work is sad, but in a beautiful way. I like sad things. Not sad like depressing, but sad like moved. To be moved by your life and who you are for yourself and others. That’s living. Making artwork gives me that opportunity of expressing what it is to be human, to connect and relate my experience to others. To take the unspoken, the heartbreak perhaps and create it as an opening of communication with others. That is what art is for. It is a noble cause.
Your work often includes very detailed graphite drawings and gold leaf, in addition to paint. Can you speak to the use of these varied and less conventional materials?
KG - I have always loved to draw and, until a friend of mine gifted me with a mechanical pencil some years back, never knew the level of detail one could accomplish - I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing, as I have gotten pretty obsessive! I do love the combination of realistic rendering with more abstract brushstrokes, and the "push-pull" energy that that creates. The gold leaf is a fairly new discovery and it is really a nod to the reverence of religious iconography. I grew up in a fairly devout Catholic household and have always loved the splendor and ornateness of the saints and souls surrounded in gold that adorned our local church. In my work I try to bring that same kind of 'reverence' (or at least attention) to imagery that may not seem worthy of notice, and I find that gold leaf helps in that endeavor.
How do memories play a role? Is there an association with the materials you use, the use of collage for example?
TJ - I think the collage elements began with this notion of found evidence of a life. It could be anyone’s. The drawer full of junk, pencils, old notes, batteries, checkbooks, old photographs, a saved letter, calendars, postcards. It tells a story. I’m not interested in telling a particular story. I want people to make up their own story from looking at my work. I want people to see themselves, if they do, in what I have done, bring their own longings and wonderings and life to the experience. In a way, maybe I am speaking to our collective memories. I think our memories are mostly fiction. Something happened, but what you are remembering is how you felt about it, and what you said about it. It lives in that world. The heart is full of those kind of memories, and they become who we are.
You have talked about creating a ‘space for contemplation and pause’ for your viewers, can you talk about this?
KG - I used to have a full time job as a fundraiser for cultural institutions, and I would make my art in the evenings when I got home. My strokes were pretty loose, exploratory and quick. Eventually I realized I needed more time for art making, so I gave up the full time job and created a living with several part-time jobs, one of which was teaching yoga (I had already been practicing for some time and got certified to teach, but never really expected to.....). Fast forward 16 years later and I am still teaching yoga:) Studying and teaching yoga has taught me a tremendous amount about patience, pausing, looking, listening, paying attention and seeing in a new way. I have a very restless mind but have found that making small repetitive marks brings about a sense of calm. I also have a love for beautiful imagery. I used to think that was bad, mostly due to a searing ‘crit’ I received in grad school, in which the artist/teacher took a quick look at my work and dismissed me for "liking pretty things." It took me a long while to realize that wasn't a bad thing at all, and now I embrace it - I recently started to incorporate glitter in my work!! The other thing I realized (with the help of yoga) is how, for the most part, people don't take the time to pause, look and listen. We are plugged in at all times, looking down at a device, moving quickly and impatiently to "the next thing," without being very aware of the thing we are currently in. The detail in my work is really meant not to overwhelm, but to draw people in to see, ponder, contemplate and pause, and to create the space for all of those things. That to me is what art is all about.
One of the pieces in the show, is an installation that includes the model of a building in front of a painting that’s pinned to the wall. Can you talk about this piece?
TJ - I have always been fascinated with the found abandoned structures which one discovers in isolated towns and corners of the west. I’m also interested in the notion of evidence of the past, both in the forms of architecture and objects, including automobiles, household supplies, and tools. Things that speak to man’s presence, the stuff that we leave behind that tells our story in contradictory ways. I am interested in extending the reach of my work beyond the picture frame. Starting with my Hermit Project in 2005, where I created a room that one could walk inside of and experience. I have been working with the idea of paintings interacting with objects that seem to jump out of the painting. This particular work, "Lake Bed” came about almost by accident. I built the cardboard house ten years ago and it had been sitting around in my studio collecting dust. I had moved it in front of the painting one day and it instantly took on a life of its own. The relationship between the house and landscape (of early Salt Lake Valley) was perfect. It captured something about the architecture of the early homes and structures in the painting and occurred as an historical artifact.