In some ways, selling art is like a business. The proprietors are called ‘curators,’ but still must believe in the merchandise in order to convince customers to set aside some other, often more practical need and trade limited resources for an object of intangible value and sometimes fleeting desire. As with any business, a gallery director can’t consider only her own wishes and tastes. Selling art requires a sixth sense: a finger on the pulse of some community willing to metaphorically—and sometimes literally—skip a meal in exchange for nourishment of another kind. In other ways, though, gallery owners are more like their ideal customer than like ordinary merchants. Like their best patrons, truly canny art dealers sacrifice practical considerations, trusting in their personal enthusiasm and in unfashionable motives like idealism. Yet the rewards for standing by principles aren’t necessarily limited to good feelings. An isolated store or gallery may defy bad economic times and survive to become a mecca for the discerning. In rare cases, a handful of stubborn visionaries may transform a neighborhood. The strip of small stores along Broadway—the east side of Third Avenue South in downtown Salt Lake—that continue to survive in the face of urban renewal are a splendid example of what makes a neighborhood work.
Judging by the crowds, the heart of this community for some years now has been the corner of Broadway and Second East. On one side, Ken Sanders Rare Books keeps alive a style of bookstore that used to line 4th Avenue in New York and the neighborhood around City Hall in San Francisco, but which succumbed in most US cities to mindless urban renewal and even dumber tax laws. Around the corner, crowds of people too young to remember Ed Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and B. Traven mill around on the sidewalks in front of, or browse avidly within, Frosty Darling and Kayo Gallery. Here the literary feel runs closer to Dave Eggers, Viggo Mortensen, and McSweeney’s: in other words, the generation of culture distillers inspired by those Sanders specializes in, who like their Beat ancestors, are more likely to be found in literary quarterlies than mainstream weeklies.
There are currently three separate entities behind a single pair of entrance doors. At the east, closest to the intersection, is Kayo Gallery, which moved here in February of 2007. Kayo’s founder, Kenny Riches, was a painter in his own right and eventually sold the gallery in order to pursue his art full time. Since buying the business, Shilo Jackson has been responsible for finding the artists and mounting, publicizing, and shipping all the art for at least one, and often two contrasting-yet-related shows every month, all while handling the myriad business details. The current show not only typifies what makes the gallery a draw for young culturati (including the film crew that was shooting either a commercial or an imaginative video on the sidewalk the last time I called) but demonstrates how Jackson likes to use the long room by showing contrasting art on opposite walls. Grant Furst’s assemblages, ‘Robots and Gargoyles,’ are visions of tomorrow built of familiar, sometimes recognizable parts scavenged from yesterday’s technology, while David Laub, using a technique like Ed Bateman’s, builds photo-like pictures from drawing to fully painted images on a computer. Both artists invoke an imaginary future while infusing—or confusing—it with real elements from the past. Furst uses obsolete technology to assemble his visions, while Laub’s future bears an unsettling resemblance to the horror-drams of early sci-fi movies. Bemused laughter at these aestheticized versions of camp nightmares could lead in a couple of directions. On the one hand, they might gain power from subversive resonance with the nightmares such images generated in our more vulnerable young selves. On the other, if we ponder what parts of utopian visions have generally tended to come true, we realize it is rarely the ones we prefer: instead of connecting us, the computer gave us identity theft. While bringing the world to us for free, the Internet surreptitiously sells our attention to the highest bidder.
Jackson is also an artist in her own right, currently profiled in Utah’s on-line arts magazine, but for now seems to be managing both vocations. There’s probably a new chorus for the old anthem, ‘I’m a Woman,’ in there, but part of the secret of her success may be her close working relationship with fellow artist Gentry Blackburn, who owns and operates Frosty Darling, the art boutique in the space that mirrors Kayo’s. One way to understand what Blackburn does is to think about the homes of artists you’ve visited, or perhaps seen in the pages of Architectural Digest (If you’re reading The Post, this could be your home). Few artists restrict their creativity to formal artworks—thoughtful images that make serious philosophical claims. They also pick up odd bits of stuff that triggers the same sensibility, usually in a more light-hearted way, and modify or combine those into engaging ornaments or ornamented utilitarian objects that they then display around their studio or home: epiphanies of chance, or surprise revelations. Gentry Blackburn makes those sorts of small-but-eloquent objects deliberately. She also buys such incidental works of art from about 30 other artists and arranges them for sale alongside conventionally-distributed merchandise that appeals to the same quirky aesthetic. The total effect is like walking into a Woolworth’s on another planet: all the goods are arrayed in familiar ways or displayed on conventional fixtures, yet on closer inspection, instead of finding goods that were made in China without imagination, hoping to pass for the genuine articles that filled our stores before giant discount stores landed here and replaced our products with zombies that fall just short of passing for real, at Frosty Darling the shelves are full of original things made with imagination that you will want to take home even if you don’t fully know what they are meant to replace. They aren’t meant to replace anything: they are entirely themselves.
Frosty Darling was already there when Kayo moved in next door, and Blackburn had plans to turn the buildings basement, accessible via a stairway taking up a portion of her valuable floor space, into a rehearsal space or a massage parlor. Seems a tattoo parlor would have been thematically preferable, but it may be no one wanted the legal hassles likely to follow. What Blackburn really needed, given the architecturally-enforced commercial intimacy of the three spaces, was a business that fit with theirs, and one eventually turned up when a third artist with entrepreneurial chops, Amanda Hurtado, took over the space and opened Stolen and Escaped, a somewhat informal gallery now well into its second year. With a dozen associated artists on tap, Stolen and Escaped has carved out a niche built around the great demotic aesthetic of our time: what we might call ‘the art of the age of communication.’
If you’re thinking computers, cell phone photos, and video, you’re right, but that’s only the high-tech end. It starts with something as simple as collage: with a basic response to the plethora of illustration and our common inundation under a universal sea of images. When Leonardo da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, optically credible images were rare and precious; today, not only are they commonplace, but in much of daily life have taken the place of the real: we see more things in pictures than we ever see for real. As art, then, collage can take a range of approaches limited only by the artist’s intention and imagination. Liberty Blake showed what might be called classical collages at Stolen and Escaped—that is, if ‘classical’ didn’t seem a bit of a stretch in describing an art form invented just a century ago. Her torn and assembled pieces of colored paper, like all pure abstractions, could be felt intuitively, without cognition, like moods, evocative events, times of day: the sorts of things that come to us more bodily that mentally. On another end of the spectrum, Myranda Blair’s ‘. . . and this is goodbye’ collaged images of contents with real, association-laden containers. Her watercolor paintings of flora and fauna, inserted into canning jars, evoked recurring experiences of curiosity and exploration, but also dealt with the gamut of emotion from fear of the natural world to exaltation at its wonders.
Another dimension was staked out between ‘Timbre,’ last month’s show by Cara Despain, and ‘Autogenus Automatus,’ hanging as I write this. The former revised the concept of mixed media in the light of such recent, breakthrough concepts as Action and Artifact. The artist was present in the gallery, operating equipment and interacting with the audience. Her nervous intensity energized the presentation, which was built around a short video that hinted at dreams, fugue states, nightmares, and visions. Lining the walls on either side of the projection space were dioramas built from the film’s props or extending its images, leaving viewers to intuit not only their own cinematic meaning, but walking around the theatrical space after the film disappeared, credible narrative connections between the various parts of the time-space collage.
Other Stolen and Escaped exhibits showcased Reclaimed Sentiment, photographer Tj Nelson, and Travis Bone’s ‘mano y mono’ prints. Each of these very different artists has found ways of bringing source material into art alongside its representation. Shilo Jackson properly chose not to show her paintings in her own gallery upstairs, but accepted the opportunity to bring her work into this larger, sympathetic context. Her trompe-l’oeil paintings clearly belong here. After all, she could show the originals of her topological accidents—snippets of printed paper, postcards, paper ephemera, notes to herself, all found pinned to cork boards or fabric-covered panels—as collages directly in the tradition founded by Picasso and Braque. By choosing to paint them instead, she answers their teasing assault on painting.
On the occasion of her first exhibiting them, I referred to these ensembles as ‘archives.’ In a sense, building this collection is like putting together the file, or ‘morgue,’ that an artist sometimes assembles in boxes or on bookshelves, sometimes entirely in her mind. By displaying them, essentially making them visible in various iterations, she presents a kind of X-ray of what (and who) inspires her. Connections made on these small canvases parallel more subtle links in a world of ideas. Thus she builds a palace of art which is only visible in these few places, like the projections into our space of higher dimensional worlds that physicists talk about. Something similar happens in her extreme illusionism, which has been a legitimate goal of the painter’s craft at least since the Renaissance. Instead of their goals, however, she invokes the distinctly American take on trompe l’oeil: the twist that turns ‘trompe’ (to trick, to fool) into ‘trump’—to outrank. We are used to thinking that our eyes see through natural appearances to reality. Images like the ones shown here remind us that encoding visual information is more difficult and a rarer skill than decoding it. Our nervous systems learn to see in the world what we want, which is often also what the objects of our gaze want us to see. What’s really there is another matter.
(More about Stolen and Escaped can be found at http://stolenandescaped.wordpress.com/