SALT LAKE CITY, UT—It’s been a long and slow couple of years, because of, well, you know. When I received an invitation from the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art to serve as a visiting art critic and do studio visits with the artists in residence at the museum, it was a thrilling prospect, to say the least.
The UMOCA residency in Salt Lake City is the only long-term residency for artists in Utah, and it’s housed in a suite of studios configured around a triangular-shaped open space on the bottom floor of the downtown museum. In 2012, then-director Adam Price conceived of the idea, and now-curator of exhibitions Jared Steffensen brought the program to life in 2013.
While configuring the program, Steffensen told me, “I looked at myself as an artist, and when I left Utah, I was like, I’m never coming back, partly because I didn’t think there were opportunities here.” The residency, it was hoped, would forestall some of that artistic brain drain. “If we could keep people in town for at least one more year,” he wondered, “is there a way to then help grow the community at large because of that?”
My first studio visit was with Mitsu Salmon, who showed me a series of raw canvases stained and splattered with blues, violets, ochres, and browns. Her studio floor was covered in pools of color, evidence of her gestural technique, evoking the explosive gestures of Gutai along with the ritual cleansing powers of water, performed on canvases directly placed on the floor. Explosions, she explained, also connected to the use of explosives in the building of the transcontinental railroad, and the labor of thousands of Chinese workers. Salmon told me she had just made contact with Asian American dancers in the area, with whom she will work on a performance for her upcoming exhibition at UMOCA. For Salmon, these were among the first connections she’s made in the community of Salt Lake after moving here from Chicago during the pandemic.
Jesse Meredith also relocated from Chicago to Salt Lake City. He showed me a series of works—ready for an exhibition now on view at Finch Lane through April 22, 2022—created from his time spent embedded in a group of self-styled suburban militia-enthusiasts. Photographs of camo-clad men crouching in bushes are printed on perforated fabrics and draped to emphasize their fragility and insubstantiality. Words and phrases—dog whistles like “tyranny” and “fear”—indicative of the ideological grounds of these groups float behind or over the images. In a video work Meredith showed me, he dons full militia gear, finally curling up in the fetal position and disappearing under a camouflage blanket.
The next day, I met with Matthew Sketch in his studio, at the apex of which he had his motorcycle parked. Sketch added paint to a self-portrait while we talked, a periwinkle blue that happened to exactly match my nail color. The residency has allowed Sketch to take the time and space to evolve the subject matter of his paintings, pushing himself out of his comfort zone, and tackling themes of social justice and the experience of living in Salt Lake City while Black. In the paintings he’s been making recently, the artist himself figures prominently, sometimes with targets on his back. In the painting he was working on during our studio visit, the artist appears in silhouette, monk-like, haloed in gold geometry. On the floor of the studio lay scattered little flecks of gold leaf.
I next visited photographic abstractionist Bernard C. Meyers, whose studio wall was covered in small prints of urban landscapes, altered and abstracted in countless variations. During his residency, Meyers, who has spent many years as an educator in Utah, is focusing his camera on the urban landscape of Salt Lake City, fragmenting and fracturing the images in Photoshop into abstract explorations of color and line. Meyers has conducted several series of Urban Abstracts like this, in cities such as Tokyo, Hong Kong, Miami, New York, Chicago, and more.
In my final studio visit, I became acquainted with Alise Anderson and her late grandmother Trudy. Anderson has been mining her grandmother’s extensive archives for material—aesthetic and experiential—and there is a wealth of it. Trudy—owing to the Mormon compulsion to keep records, which is considered a sacred duty—organized every birthday invitation and baby shower card in three-ring binders. She had written down every movie she’d seen, since the 1930s, in alphabetical order. Trudy’s archives are rich with nostalgia, humor, and quirk. Anderson returned to Utah—and lived in Trudy’s old house—after a stint in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2020. She initially thought she would move on after the residency, but Trudy’s archives will likely give her ten years of work, and this is just the beginning.
The residency provides artists with free studio space for one year, with studio visits with curators and other professionals, and a solo exhibition at the museum in an environment open to experimentation and risk taking. When I asked Steffensen how well he thought the residency performed as far as keeping talent in state and growing the local art scene, he said it was “surprisingly successful.”
“If I go through the list of people who have been through the residency and then left [the state], there’s maybe just a handful,” says Steffensen. “We’ve worked with thirty-plus artists, and most have stayed in town.”
Steffensen also hopes to grow the program, as well as the local art community, by appealing to artists outside of Utah.
“Part of growing a community isn’t necessarily to only grow it internally, so if we can bring people in to kind of push things a little more, that would be great,” he says.