For some time now I’ve been thinking about something that, in the privacy of my mind, I call ‘the Utah School.’ This assortment of local artists—their precise number varies—display common concerns and make similar choices in their works: sufficiently so that a curious critic might look for some shared influence beyond the obvious. Unlike the Cubists, but like the Impressionists and Fauves, these artists have in no way unilaterally identified themselves as sharing particular tastes or strategies. They remain so far a phenomenon that primarily exists only in a critic’s eyes. So when rumors of collaboration between two of the primary candidates for Utah School membership—Cassandra Barney and Brian Kershisnik—reached my ears, they pricked up. On the one hand, this could be the first signs of something emerging. On the other hand, it could be just two artists who know each other’s work and are looking for a new outlet; art, after all, is also a business. I felt I needed to get over to the Kayo Gallery’s new space (next door to their old digs near the corner of East Second and Broadway), where Drawing Together, twenty-five of their collaborative, mixed-media drawings, is on display through August 11. The title alone is provocative: it could be a literal description of what took place, or it could be a gentle pun. Either way, it opens possibilities for the future.
Dates for the onset of Modernism run all the way from 1200 to 1940. Modern visual arts arguably begin to take shape around 1850, contemporary with the invention of photography. The bath water of elaborately hand-made, extreme realism that was thrown out then has been followed since by many babies, including beauty, skill, discernment, and good taste. Another of the victims was collaboration between artists. It’s ironic to hear critics talk about how ‘huge’ today’s artworks are, as if St. Peter’s in Rome hadn’t been the world’s largest building, or Angkor Wat didn’t occupy over 200 acres. If anything, the slow growth in size of today’s art is testimony to the gradual disappearance of the shibboleth against collaboration. But of all the art media, the last ones to permit artists to work together are the most intimate, including of course drawing.
There were some negative comments about what finally showed up on the walls at Kayo: comments focusing on the fact that what’s here are ‘just drawings.’ While it’s true that as finished works of art, drawings are perceived as lesser works than the paintings they may turn into, there are several qualities that make these more compelling. First of all, because of their ‘skeletal’ condition, the contribution of each artist shows up more clearly, and viewers who know them individually can gain insight into how each proceeds from a given stage to a necessary next step. For another, even a professional who views their works regularly can be fooled into seeing more similarity than actually exists. Seeing Barney and Kershisnik in the same frame makes it impossible to overlook their differences. And studying just how they found to work together says something about how their works normally take shape.
Apparently, there was little conversation and no overt planning between the two artists. Rather than hammer out an idea that they then executed, each began by drawing on a blank sheet of paper. At some point, those sheets were exchanged. Sometimes one left a space in the composition for the other to fill. At others, a sketch centered on the page was handed off, possibly for the addition of a background or other details. In any case, differences remain that would almost certainly have been smoothed over during the many hours it takes to take a painting to a finished state.
Among the most popular prints of M.C. Escher is one of two elaborately-rendered, illusionistic hands poised side by side, each holding a stylus with which it is adding the line-drawn, preliminary version of the other’s wrist. Escher’s version takes its cue from the yin-yang figure: both hands are identical but reversed with respect to each other. Barney and Kershisnik, perhaps inevitably, made several drawings on the same theme, but with each drawing the other’s figure. While the idea may seem obvious, a philosopher could have a field day with the possibilities: one artist could draw both, combining a self-portrait and a portrait; each artist could draw a self-portrait; each artist could draw a portrait of the other. Since the subject could be the way I would draw it, or it could be the way I think my collaborator would, the number of possibilities is at least doubled. To me, it appears that the large drawing contains two self portraits; in the smaller one, I think we have Barney by Kershisnik and vice-versa. Anyone else care to venture a guess?
This is one case where familiarity with the artists’ biographies can help see their differences. Cassandra Barney comes from an arts background. During childhood she was regularly exposed to art museums. Her trajectory was from child of artist to an artist in her own right. Her work reveals a trained hand in the way the varying weight of her sinuous line renders three-dimensional information, or the Leonardo-like angles she likes for posing a head. Brian Kershisnik’s background, comparatively speaking, was that of a layman. Although he did turn to the formal study of art in college, his trajectory since has been opposite to the academic tradition that Barney may not actively pursue, but cannot entirely expunge. In other words, while one of the characteristics of the Utah School might be an affinity for Byzantine-style, weightless figures, Barney’s figures rest lightly on the ground, while Kershisnik’s tend to float, as though indifferent to gravity. His line is also far more architectonic than hers.
Once these cues are sorted out, it’s almost irresistible to imaginary narratives of how the final images came about. In point of fact, both these artists seem to enjoy hinting in their artworks that there are stories the images escaped from. In one large drawing, titled ‘Mom Is In a Hole,‘ Dad—a Kershisnik male—and Mom—a Barney woman—both eye an infant, him cautiously and her with rapture. The really interesting thing is that while he sits on a vague ground, she appears to be naked and buried up to her armpits. The remarkable thing is that the parts work so well together, as if a single mind had been in charge from the outset. Furthermore, if the precise visual reasoning is open ended, it’s no more so than might be expected from either artist working alone.
The difference between illustration and art is that, in the latter, the final goal isn’t known until it’s reached. This show might have proved the futility of artist’s collaborating, but in works like this, where the first mark has been followed by another, and another, until the unified, irresistible image appeared to first one, then the other artist, and now to anyone who cares enough to look, there is proof that collaboration, like collage, prepared ground, Exquisite Corpse, or any of a host of other techniques, is a valid way of making art.