An influential art gallery doesn’t just record the history of art; they help make it. An excellent example is the current, primarily painting exhibition at Modern West, shared between gallery director and painter Shalee Cooper and Navajo sculptor and painter Sheldon Harvey. When the gallery’s founder and guiding spirit Diane Stewart introduced these two multi-disciplinary artists, each was influenced by the other in ways that brought about unpredictable transformation on both their parts. The result, which they call Convergence, includes new, unexpected works by both, specifically a pair of paintings, each titled “Convergence,” that reveal a resonance between their distinctive styles and contents. Their confluence was further advanced by Stewart’s commentary and gallerist Christopher Woodwood’s sensitive hanging of their respective paintings, so that on the 18th of March an enthusiastic audience of Modern West’s supporters witnessed the unveiling of two distinctive bodies of work that transcended their individual identities without diminishing them. The chords the two artists struck in each other helped make them more themselves, even as they revealed thematic threads lying deep within them. A sense of inevitability, of having arrived together at where they belonged, gave this work an emblematic quality that hovered palpably in the gallery.
Shalee Cooper is that artist on whom nothing, apparently, is lost. Her early exploration of photography resurfaces in the distinctive monochromatic character of this body of painting, each canvas consisting of a figure on a contrasting ground, one of them gesso and the other unprimed canvas, that balance precisely and trade identities adroitly so that neither assumes dominance. Normally, the artist decides whether a painting is a single panel, a diptych, a triptych, or more, but Cooper has left this question open and devised a way that viewers can try out their own arrangements.
Another quality that photographic experience rewards is the ability to rotate an image in space, as when composing on a ground glass or moving between negative and positive forms. As Cooper’s stark geometric forms are rotated, whether on the screen or on the wall, and juxtaposed in original ways, unanticipated surprises appear. From a technical perspective, her choice to use such large areas of untreated canvas, on which even the smallest pentimento would be a disaster, combined with her determination to rely on her hand, so that the discerning eye encounters no evidence of mechanical aids, but sees rather to the limits of manual dexterity, shows these to be courageous not only in conception, but in execution. By the time the public is allowed in, most creative artists have seen their work so closely for so long they may well feel there is nothing new to see in it, but Cooper’s choice to allow gallerist Chris Woodward freedom to hang her paintings in accordance with his own vision culminated in an exhibition that was as much a thrill to her as it was to her audience.
Perhaps the most important quality Cooper brought with her from her time as a sought-after photographer was frustration with something the camera fails to do, which is to produce a genuinely universal, abstract image. Rather, a photograph is almost always a specific instance: an image made in a particular place and time, which may struggle towards universality, but rarely achieves it. In turning from her camera to a blank canvas on which to create concrete abstractions, Cooper found a visual reality like what Cézanne found when he sought such fundamental forms as triangles and cones in his landscapes and still lives. She also found a solution to another of photography’s challenges, this one shared with Assemblage art: the tendency of viewers to look past the hard-sought formal quality of the image in the mistaken belief they are directly encountering the subject. In the art of Shalee Cooper, viewers discover her cerebral and ideal subjects directly.
Sheldon Harvey paints in order to more fully encounter the world: visually, spiritually, but also socially. He stands at the center of the world he knows, and to approach him in the gallery is to feel the gravity by which he is joined to Earth. There is a novel pleasure in standing among the vistas his brush brings to life, which pleasure grows out of his freedom from the worst traits of much modern art: brutal masculinity, academic paternalism, and the failure to acknowledge the natural order of creation. Harvey’s aesthetic roots are found in Navajo Creation stories, which incorporate sensory realms such as darkness and light, and also in the meticulous handicrafts that feature wood, paint, feathers, fabric, and stains in order to ennoble sacred and mundane objects alike.
There is more to Harvey’s artistic evolution to be seen at Modern West, if not all of it present on the walls. The gallery’s archive includes ten Red World Beings from around 2018, which Spirit figures may recall Hopi Kachina representations for some viewers. The 2021 “Flint Tail Comet,” hanging near the office, marks a transition from painted wood to painted canvas, after which most of the large works that share the main space with Cooper’s abstractions feel more Cubist, more like painted, illusionistic versions of “Jagged Edge,” a bas-relief expansion of the artist’s geometric assemblages made of sawn wood. These channeled or furrowed visual fields, which tend to cover all the canvas or else all but the edges, might be mistaken for landscapes if it weren’t for their biomorphic details: eyes, ears, and mouths that once found by the eye cannot be unseen.
It’s eventually necessary to closely compare the two artists’ individual takes on ‘Convergence,’ which have been hung back to back as though asking for a greater investment of memory in making the comparison. Cooper’s version profits from her decision to let Chris Woodward hang it sideways, when compared to the image on the website. At first sight, it may be the simplest of her forms, consisting of two similar, but differently proportioned panels, each a rectangular field on which a smaller, similarly-proportioned, rectangular subject appears. The larger field is black, the larger object white. If ever proof is required that a picture is truly worth a thousand words, this deceptively simple work of art will do; there isn’t enough space in this entire review to adequately explain the compound effects on the conscious mind produced by the collision of these two structures. Suffice it to say that it transcends the geometric demonstrations Cooper was making prior to meeting Harvey, instead making a philosophical statement of existential complexity. It also makes fine use of her slight, but deliberate ocular discrepancies, which prevent a mechanical feel from undermining the conviction that these are products of the human hand.
Harvey’s “Convergence” also represents a step beyond his past, the evolution briefly sketched above. Languages, visual as well as verbal, consist of a finite collection of elements (such as words) and a finite set of rules that together produce an infinite range of possibilities. Here it seems useful to argue that Harvey has taken a familiar page from Joan Miró, tossed out the Spaniard’s elements — the mustache, pipe, and rabbit — and replaced them with his own subjects, drawn from his deep knowledge of Navajo story-telling, then exposed his subjects to the transformational rules of Miró. Consider how well Harvey’s sprits inhabit the dream world of Surrealism before their eventual return to the Southwest.
What the audience at Modern West should not overlook, and surely won’t, is the abundant pleasure waiting to be discovered there right now. Sheldon Harvey’s stories, while not yet familiar to many viewers, offer a sense of adventure as the mind and eye investigate his figures and their illusory world. Visitors will find their own way into his spiritual and sensory space, whether through the rugged sculptures, the fantasy journeys proffered in paint, or both. Shalee Cooper’s cerebral approach paradoxically encourages indulgence in the voluptuous feel of raw canvas and smooth gesso as the eye passes over them, until the realization dawns of how deeply the eye can travel into what, at first glance, seems flat, but which permits the mind to journey through space lying beyond the three dimensions that border the physical world. Like all good art, Convergence offers a chance to return to the time when vision was both a new tool and a new toy, to use and enjoy.
Convergence: Shalee Cooper + Sheldon Harvey, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through May 6.