Each of the seven artists participating in Modern West Fine Arts’ current exhibition, on the theme of Identity, has a personal conception of just what the show’s title means. Each also has a history of involvement with the gallery, so each has left a ‘digital trail’ or archive of their art’s history, which is accessible on Modern West’s superb website. That should be sufficient reason to consult the web version of Identity, though of course no one should miss the chance to see these three dozen (or so) compelling visual manifestations in person.
Six artists depict figurative subjects in ways that foreground their individual characteristics: how they deliberately present or accidentally reveal themselves. The seventh, Matthew Sketch, opts instead for a more fundamental approach: stylized or possibly symbolic depictions of those traits. Think how a circle might represent you: a distinct entity with personal boundaries. Now contemplate how Sketch elaborates on those symbolic characteristics. The circle comes to suggest a sphere through subtle shading. The unique, subjective experience of one’s own identity is suggested by making that sphere of gold: a structured fabric built of warp and weft, patinated by experience. Set it on a dark background that suggests all that is other, part of the background. Projecting down from the sphere are three neutral chevrons, their shading designating decreasing intimacy with the outside world as distance necessarily estranges one. Above the sphere a similar, triangle composed of luminous yellow rays could be cerebral and spiritual consciousness. Embedding the entire composition in a thick layer of transparent medium idealizes and ennobles the image, while surface irregularities give it the most important quality of identify: individuality. To top it off, the highly reflective surface makes it hard to distinguish the identity from its surroundings. Here, in an eloquent, schematic form, Sketch gives us an idealized identity he calls “Adonis Rising.” Another gold ball, this one on a light gray background, is draped but left mostly uncovered by four darker gray chevrons. The title of this one, “Nude,” is a classic, anonymous identification.
The one artist here who makes a literal reference to identity, in a screen print titled “Identity Formation: Roots,” has explored numerous options for self-expression of her subject’s identity. Aïsha Lehmann began by surveying the compound signposts that may be mixed together in, on, or about a single individual. In these environmental portraits, her subjects revealed and accepted themselves along with their various visible attributes, ranging all the way from domestic decor to assumed posture and tattoos. More recently, having reached a deeper, arguably more skeptical understanding of attributes commonly believed, without proof, to be existential in nature — like ethnicity and even genotype — Lehmann has placed her figures in a separate and distinct dimension from their attributes: somewhat of a protective envelope of anonymity. Instead of identifying them with their visible characteristics, she distinguishes them from even these immediate features. An initial reading of the several narratives collectively titled “ausziehen anziehen” — German for “Take Off Put On” — (Lehmann’s family emigrated from Austria and most of her relations still live there) implies that identity, including language, is something her subject could, if she wanted to, put on and take off just as she does her clothes. On further reflection, though, she acknowledges that her origins and her appearance are part of her history, like the clothes she wore yesterday. But like those clothes, they are her property, and their meaning and value are hers to decide.
Another artist who seems skeptical of the ability of appearances alone to reveal the truth of things, including identity, Fidalis Buehler evidently trusts recollection and memory over direct copying and counts on his subconscious mind to find more direct routes to understanding. For Buehler, dreams are largely interchangeable with memory, an idea for which there is support in recent brain science. Both dreams and memory draw on the same mental storehouse of fragmentary images; in our memories, we attempt to put them together in accordance with how we originally acquired them, though we’re not nearly as good at that as we like to think. In dreams, though, no such control is exercised: or putting it another way, no such restriction. Growing up, Buehler spent hours in conversation with his mother about his dreams, an activity that has been shown to facilitate the child’s bringing into later life the ability to go on dreaming even while awake. This, in turn, describes one way that creative people describe how they work: drawing, writing, and so forth, from where they dream. Where most artists count on activities like research, study, and sketching to inform their images, Buehler’s reliance on removing himself from direct contact with his subjects enables them to have at once childlike and powerfully imagined qualities. He also shares his reliance on dreams with the original Surrealists, which accounts for some of the familiar, if eerie connections his imagery makes.
Buehler’s images also resemble each other. For instance, “Healing Tent,” in which a figure bends double from the waist, resonates with a whole series of images called “Picking Palm Trees,” one of which hangs nearby. The latter recall a time when the artist’s mother supported herself and her children by gathering coconuts for pay. When he began to draw it, he took out the coconuts, showing her looming over the trees, her compromising posture cancelled by her power. It’s a stunning, loving portrait of a mother as seen by a child, and some of that magic is transferred to the healing tent. Not all of his visions are so felicitous: he also acknowledges the violence that lies dormant in every identity. The powerful hybrid of the “Ghetto Bird,” a figure whose multiple arms end in knives, while his back sprouts rotors clearly borrowed from his subconscious memory of weaponized helicopters, or the horrific menace of “Danger Close,” are also part of his awareness. Powerless, prostate victims are also recent memories. In “Words and Fire,” it’s clear which possesses the real power. Still, scenes of swimmers and pools and ambiguous safety are here, too. Feelings of safety and security are hard for the subconscious mind to trust, but conscious desires are part of identity, too.
By his own admission, Andrew Alba is a decidedly “autobiographical” artist, which means that how he feels while making his art affects how it turns out. This is far from universal; in fact, professional training, which came late to Alba and only after some time as a practicing musician, usually aims to liberate artists from momentary influences. Nor is Alba unique in having abandoned a career in music in favor of visual art. Music generally involves relatively narrow pathways in and out of the rest of life: as someone with a similar experience put it, “musicians don’t have much for you unless you have something (musical) to offer them.” Alba’s exit from his avocation as a music maker left him angry, and it shows in the power-depicting portraits that followed his switch to drawing. Some of these can be seen on Modern West’s website. Later, he painted floral arrangements, sometimes funeral, with black backgrounds and titles like “Death Ritual.” With the passing of time, however, during which he married and began a family, Alba’s figures underwent a sea change. The recent works, like “Nicholas on the Porch,” show why it’s important to see them in person; “Nicholas” looks small on the screen, but measures almost 15 square feet. The same goes for Trish and Willow, while Ari and Diego are about the same size as the Mona Lisa. The brushwork is quite large, which paradoxically makes the portraits feel intimate, while the large heads and disproportionately smaller bodies have the effect, like the large, childlike features of animals in an animated cartoon, of making everyone charming. They may feel rough, but they are intuitively captivating, and the affection they display for the painter’s family have become a vital part of his identity.
Mitch Mantle is another artist whose dreams invigorate his art works, though that is only part of their strange power. Western artists spent centuries distancing themselves from what they drew, using perspective, anatomical studies, and so forth to enable greater objectivity in showing what they see. Modernism partly reversed this process, e.g. reversing the trapezoid of a table and making it wider in the back than the front, so that it seems to offer up its contents. Mantle draws it as if seen from a drone. Everywhere he draws spontaneously, making mistakes and corrections that he keeps, not so much documenting what he sees as his experience of seeing and deciphering it. The oval head gets a nose that he doesn’t blend in, but leaves perched like an afterthought — or after-sight. In “Setting the Table 5,” the table is a regular rectangle, as seen from directly overhead, yet the legs can be glimpsed as though seen from an angle. Through including the confrontation between artist and subject, the challenge and difficulty of drawing, he creates drama. He foregrounds his identity as the maker through such pre-renaissance modes of perception, which open the door for his strong use of colors. “Pillow Talk,” one of the larger works in You May Find Yourself, starts out defying logic; there is clearly only one figure on the bed. But through the magical absence of formal perspective, we see what the figure on the bed must hear: the voice of the demon beneath. Whether their talk is real or a dream only matters to the painter. We’ve all had that dream in childhood, and something like it since.
Wren Ross takes her identity as artist a step further, not only painting from dreams or recollections, but creating scenes willy-nilly, from whatever she finds in her mind. She has spoken of “a respite in the human tradition of mark making,” and if by that she means the long campaign to favor form over content, even to the exclusion of narrative motives, this critic is on her side. Her argument undergirds activities such as doodling, scrawling, graffiti, street art, and any other mode of spontaneous projection or accidental juxtaposition. Clearly no level of scribbling is out of bounds, from clouds of color to meaningful patterns to shopping lists. A series titled “Be Still Be Quiet Do Nothing” may offer a Western alternative to the Zen meditation of painting with ink and brush a spontaneous poem. There may also be a wish to fight back against inevitable loss by fixing some of the endless parade of mental images in a form where they cannot be forgotten, or conversely, a hope that by making permanent versions, they can then be forgotten — like singing an ear worm out loud, preferably in another’s company, in order to rid ones mind of it. Either way, they express the artist’s inner reality. To look at them is to see her with unconventional candor.
Perhaps the most sophisticated proposition of identity in You May Find Yourself is the by now-familiar Waterman imagery of Jiyoun Lee-Lodge. These aqueous eruptions, identifiable only by their protruding arms and legs and the occasional appearance of an illuminated cell phone, can be read as the artist suggests, as a response to the flood of ideas and sensations that explode through the digital screens that we all confront today, as a literal metaphor for the sensation of being “at sea” in the modern world, as a counter to assertions of permanent values or right ways of thinking, or even as successful efforts to capture the elusive quality of living water. In fact, the sheer number of explanations that have been proffered might threaten the viewer’s ability to see these figures through her own eyes. Two things stand out in this presentation. For the technically minded, these are actual paintings, not the prints seen recently in other venues. To see them up close is revealing and satisfying. More important is the depiction of a couple in “Waterman—You and I,” in which one cloud of water reaches out to touch the absent face of the other, a logical extension of the artist’s exploration of the utility of her symbolism. For these reasons, once again, a visit in person to the Gallery is imperative.
The Modern West website briefly tells the story of how these seven people came to know each other as artists. This is about as close as Utah has come recently to having an art movement, such as the Land Art of the ’60s and ’70s that produced Spiral Jetty and the Sun Tunnels. Those, too, were made possible by support from a gallery with a vision.
You May Find Yourself, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through July 9.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.