When I’ve been at a conference and gorged myself on presentations, I like to refresh my mind by getting outside, perhaps noticing the local architecture, and visiting a gallery. While attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I was most grateful to discover immediately north of the enormous and excellent Salt Palace Convention Center a smaller structure, UMOCA, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, which is equally excellent. I walked in expecting to appreciate only a few of the current exhibitions, and spent hours. Going twice, I had the delight of meeting Alexandria Lang, whose job title is Museum Experience Manager, and Kathy Zhou, Communications Coordinator, when the visitors were few enough to permit enough conversation to get to know them a bit.
As you enter the gallery, an installation captures your attention. You are drawn to examine it closely on the floor, to be attracted by the swirling gradient of shards from as big as a couple fingers thick to fine glass dust. Here’s the first paragraph of the text that accompanies that exhibit.
Lizze Määttälä’s Uphill/Both Ways is about fragments that have been left behind; memories that once sat heavily on her shoulders and were shaken off somewhere between here and the Mojave Desert. It is about rejection; the affinity she feels towards a broken piece of marble, scratched and thrown to the side—the attachment she feels towards the gravity of materials, left to rest or waver.
The text may seem like a hundred others you have read in museums, offering to help you to understand the ideas of the artist embodied in works that did not carry you anywhere. What was so different about my experience at UMOCA was that for the first time I got modern art in a new breakthrough way. I had appreciated this and that here and there, even passionately, but I was ready for my mind to be expanded about the work of a whole generation of artists, and UMOCA delivered, by the quality of the artists they had chosen. I now understand why I have long thought of philosophy and art as partners. Artists work with concepts as well as with visual materials. And when the artist is mature enough, when the communication is both intelligent enough and not too revelatory, the interaction between artist, viewer, work, and tradition leads to insight, meditation, personal realization, and a new bond with humanity and cosmic reality.
The next exhibition was by Firelei Báez. It was one of her paintings that jolted me into the realization that she had communicated outstandingly well what some speakers in the Salt Palace were talking about sometimes less effectively. It was a painting of a woman with blotches of reddish as her head-above-the-face, a burst of rays from her right temple that I could not help associating with insight, a lovely blend of pink-red, yellowish, and green on her shoulder, and a face greenish brown giving off an aura of calm sadness. Above all it was the eyes. I could hardly leave them. They were moist, unforgettably sincere, meeting the viewer’s gaze, with a thin line of liquid immediately below the eyes, and no tear running down her cheeks. How not to assume that this woman had known abuse?
Here is the text associated with this exhibit.
Inspired by social movements in the United States and the Caribbean, Patterns of Resistance presents a series of new works by Brooklyn-based artist, Firelei Báez. Best known for her large-scale works on paper, Báez makes connections that further our understanding of diasporic experiences, specifically the historic migration of people and culture from Africa to communities around the globe.
Focusing on female figures and their subjectivities, Báez weaves the lives of 18th-century black women in Louisiana and the Cuban roots of the Latin American azabache, with symbols used in the U.S. during the tumultuous 1960s. The azabache, a black coral charm in the form of a fist, emerged from the blending of African, indigenous, and Spanish heritages in Cuba, which later influenced forms of political activism, such as the Black Power slogan.
In Patterns of Resistance, Báez awakens legacies of black empowerment through her female subjects who embody both the life force and mysticism of the azabache. Merging past and potential histories, Báez’s rich and intricate compositions illuminate obscured narratives of identity and reveal disparate patterns of resistance within the African diaspora.
The symbol of the fist of resistance is found in most of the works of the exhibition. But what struck me was that the artist was able to draw me in to feeling at home in a movement of art by presenting values in a humanly appealing and sometimes gripping way. The values in the art, which were unmistakably in alliance with a social and political movement, enabled me to identify in a new way with the values of that movement—I would hope to be able to do with any mature artist allied to a social political movement with which I may not totally identify. Art and other forms of culture expand our humanity.
My own political views are the result of growing up in a somewhat libertarian and conservative home, followed by interest in liberal and socialist thought, then an integration of diverse threads of wisdom that does not fit into any one simple category. Every political conviction rests on some experience of genuine value. And many political judgments can gain in wisdom by learning something of the values enshrined in other political positions.
I did not expect to pause so long as I moved from one exhibit to the next, along the wall of a corridor, and finally downstairs, where a featured exhibit was at once historical, homey, and stunning in the emerging meanings and reflections on the history of the United States in particular locations.
Stefan Lesueur’s exhibit, Obscura, present collages of photographs of people taking photographs at truly remarkable places. The exhibit is introduced with these paragraphs.
We find evidence of a psychological disconnect in our culture’s relationship to history and place by simply looking up from our own camera displays to take note of the behavior of other visitors at national parks and monuments. Cultural forces push us to document and curate our everyday experiences in order to validate our memories and form digital identities. Saying, “I was here,” has become more important than experiencing our surroundings first hand.
Landmarks share a particular story with the public by subjectively designating people, events and ideas as culturally significant. As we occupy the physical spaces of these monuments yet consider them by means of our digital screens, we participate in the perpetuation of these ideas and further distance ourselves from understanding their meaning.
Presented in conversation with UMOCA’s Main Gallery exhibition, Grandma’s Cupboard, Stefan Lesueur’s photographs question the ways in which we view, understand and value the monumental.
Having already spent a lot of energy on a number of exhibitions, I initially only peeked at Amalia Ullman’s work and moved on. Later, reading the card available at the museum entrance, I became intrigued and went back to look again.
I could readily make out sculptures representing childhood toys not quite totally destroyed by war. Then I noticed a tank represented as having equal fragility, as if the message were that this, too, will one day be a shell of its former self, scrap to be discarded [or recycled].
Here’s the text from the UMOCA website.
Exploring themes of confinement, fragility, and pain, Amalia Ulman’s Stock Images of War blends divergent senses of pleasure and discomfort. Delicate wire sculptures augmented into familiar shapes—such as bicycles, wheelchairs, and tanks— eerily rest against a sensory backdrop of rock music and the scent of apple pie.
Produced during a period of trauma and recovery, Ulman’s metal figures struggle with an imperfect balance as they oscillate between stability and complete collapse. Such representations of frailty mimic the conflicted state of war culture wherein notions of pride and retribution are counteracted by the nausea of violence and torment. The overwhelming scent of cinnamon and sugar further evokes unease, as the aroma is reminiscent of air fresheners in clinical settings as a way to cloak the stringent odor of sanitizing chemicals.
Resonating throughout the space, teen songs by bands such as Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Rage Against the Machine, suggest a demographic of soldiers who comprise a significant portion of the U.S. military. Through this layering of image, scent, and sound, Ulman’s Stock Images of War generates an aesthetic language that blurs the distinction between the artist’s personal experience and the objects of study. By pointing to the absurd, yet complex facets of youth culture, neoteny, and positions of class, Ulman’s provocative installation cleverly deconstructs connotations of war in western pop culture.
The last exhibit, which I desire always to retain in my mind and soul and philosophical imagination is an installation by Shawn Porter. The view shown in the photo at the beginning of this blog post is what you first see as you enter the room that houses his installation. What you see in the photo is the largely graciously curving and more appealing half of the ingenious work, while the other half has the extended reeds forced into a wall with less graceful results. The contrast of more natural and more forced encounters between nature and the humanly built environment are presented in a way that allows the viewer to feel at home with the tension and learn a life lesson along the way.
Finally, I return to the two remarkable young women on the staff whom I was privileged to meet. Kathy Zhou generously helped me understand UMOCA and facilitated my further inquiry with this remarkable center. Alexandria Lang is doing graduate work on a lithograph of Delacroix, whose connections with the early 19th-century evolutionary biology of Cuvier she is tracing. Her conversation ranged easily over a wide terrain of cultural history.
All in all, I’m grateful for spending a couple of enriching hours at Salt Lake City’s Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Go to the website, search out the exhibitions, click on the photographs, and enter breathtaking worlds.