Many galleries present art in a relatively blank, abstract space that strives not to impose any undue influence on the works displayed. The model for such idealized settings is the museum gallery, where artworks are usually placed far enough from building details or each other that they can be visually isolated by the viewer. There are exceptions, usually ones that survive from an era of private ownership: Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston and Henry Clay Frick in New York left their collections in their homes, which rival palaces in Europe as places to see art almost as it was enjoyed by the collectors themselves. There’s another way to display art, also very popular, which is to show it in a space that conjures the scale and furnishings of a potential owner’s home. This takes some of the guesswork out of buying art. Several galleries whose artists regularly come to the Post’s attention follow this plan. The Meyer Gallery, in the old downtown section of Park City, has characteristics that survive from the silver mining boom: sturdy construction, a light-filled atrium behind the front windows, a mezzanine behind to provide office space. Susan Meyer and Thomas Cushman consciously strive to fill these spaces with an appropriate environment for home ownership of art. In Salt Lake City, meanwhile, Charley Hafen Jewelers occupies a free-standing corner location, typical of grocery stores and similar businesses from a bygone age. While the hip Hafen presides over cases of ornament that fill an alcove in the back, Arrahwanna Thomsen runs a gallery in the mixed-use front that is consistently worth checking in on. An example of how the building serves the art can be seen in ‘Calligraffiti,’ through Oct 18.
Toni Youngblood’s ‘Calligraffiti’ draws the intersection of two recent art impulses that continue to stimulate both the eye and the mind. One is Encaustic, the ancient Greco-Egyptian medium that began a revival late in the last century. Encaustic artists replace (this is reversing the historical fact, of course: wax was in use long before most other mediums) the polymerizing oil or plastic molecules that support and bind most paint colors together with a combination of natural or artificial wax and resin. Some artists lay down a layer of wax, paint on it, then melt the color into the wax. Others mix the color into the wax and paint with it in a molten state. Either way, working this mix requires virtuoso control to build up layers of wax in which light penetrates layers of translucent color and fills the work with a luminous depth no other paint medium can match. Fused glass sometimes comes near, but rarely achieves the control available to an Encaustic virtuoso.
The other element in ‘Calligraffiti,’ as the name suggests, is written language. In works like ‘Life in Acronymica’ and ‘Cursive is as Cursive Does,’ Youngblood uses actual alphabets in a variety of styles and colors that combine with the patinated quality of the wax body and surface to produce effects reminiscent of antique enamel signs or painted windows. In other works ‘Beach Tide’ or ‘Where Music Lives,’ the loopy gestures of handwriting suggest natural analogues and similarities between human media. The ‘Sweat Equity‘ series evokes the grid pattern and recurring shapes of letters on a page, using bits of found material to connect different kinds of labor and various ways to get the feeling of ownership—like concentrated effort and skill. The most charming works are a large number of small squares, each set on its own easel, each making its own choice from an infinite number of variations on the written or printed word. Sometimes a medium is so sensuously pleasurable that a fragment can feel as satisfying as a larger work. Broken fragments of Greek sculpture, like glimpses of ideals, have this quality, as do Arabic tiles, with their creamy glazes. Small Encaustics like these have it, too: to see them is to envision one as a icon, an object of meditation, a magnet for soft light and deep color in a too-often harsh and shallow place.