Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of Brigham Young University ­ Museum of Art . The essay was published in connection with the exhibition titled Intersections: Recent Paintings by Six Utah Artists on display May 1 through September 13, 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Brigham Young University ­ Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Intersections

by Campbell Gray

 

On June 27, 2002, the temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located at Nauvoo, Illinois, was dedicated for service. In the days prior to that date, more than 330,000 people quietly filed through the new building in order to see its design and interior features, before it was dedicated for sacred use. Perhaps this short period of time will be the only open public viewing of a set of murals that surround the walls of three principal rooms in the Temple.

The Nauvoo Temple is not the first temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church) to be located on this site. An earlier temple was gutted by arsonists' fire 154 years earlier after the members of the Church were driven out of the city that they had claimed from swampland in 1839. What remained of the early building after the fire, was toppled by a tornado in 1850. While this was just another event in an already harrowing journey of persecution and hardship for Church members, no other building represented their depth of faith and devotion, and no other act of destruction symbolized the sense of profound loss and intense pain that they suffered. Thus, in the closing session of the Church's annual conference in April 1999, when Gordon B. Hinckley, President of the Church, announced to the members that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt, the members immediately felt that their heritage could be reclaimed, that a broken link in history could be restored, and that their devotion could be expressed as it was originally intended to be.

For some years before the announcement of the new temple, artist Frank Magelby had been engaged almost exclusively on making commissioned (or requested) paintings for the Church's growing number of temples. (The new Nauvoo Temple was the 113th constructed by the Church). With the advent of the Nauvoo Temple, he was approached to undertake a project that was much larger, more complex and more symbolic than ever he had been asked to complete. His commission was to paint murals that would occupy the walls surrounding three main rooms that were to symbolize three different spaces: the space of the creation of the world, the space of the biblical Garden of Eden, and the space of the natural world as we know it now.

With respect to the scale of the project, and upon approval from his commissioners, Frank selected five other artists representing three distinct generations of faculty/student relationships at Brigham Young University, to work together on the project. Frank, the patriarch of the group, worked with Gary Smith, an artist of the middle generation, in the World Room. James Christensen, also of the middle generation worked with one of the younger artists, Chris Young in the Garden Room. And a third artist of the middle generation, Robert Marshall, worked with another of the younger artists, Doug Fryer, in the Creation Room. While social and professional relationships between these artists had already been established, nothing compared to the intense period of engagement that occurred over the following year or more on this large and personally significant project. The nature of their interaction in this project has some unusual characteristics, for after all, how do painters truly collaborate? While they blended their ideas and challenged each other as to what should happen through extensive discussions before painting began and throughout the project, when it came to painting, each artist was allocated one long wall of a rectangular room as a surface for individual expression. The short end walls of the room then, became a surface where one artist met the other. It was on these walls that the most critical aspects of visual negotiation and collaboration took place. However, the profound effect of their discussions on each one is not to be overlooked. James Christensen recorded:

I respect all the other artists, their technical comments. There are times when people would just "Whoa!" at hearing what we would say to each other. Yet there was a comfort level that allowed,.. you know,. I guess like men in combat, you can yell at each other and it's OK, .... and so I learned a great deal.[1]

And, given that these artists are members of the Church, and their sense of the significance of the event for the Church as a whole and for the spiritual strengthening of every member, was keenly alive, the project carried a weight of value to each one.

The subject matter certainly had a spiritual impact and the place it was going, ... that whole experience had a spiritual level that was important.[2]

Projects like these -- their social and spiritual significance, their scale, and the impact of interpersonal relationships between the artists -- are bound to have residual effect. With the exception of Frank Magelby who had been working almost exclusively with the Church, each artist was successfully engaged in a secular career of art making and selling. So what of the residual effect? How have each one's practice, focus, ideas, methods and results been changed through the Nauvoo project? Can these changes be seen? Is there a visual relationship remaining within the works of art from the members of the group? The importance of the Nauvoo project and the intersection of these six artists in that project, have given rise to the questions listed above, and have been at the base of the thesis for the exhibition entitled: "Intersections: Recent Paintings by Six Utah Artists"

 

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The studio art program at Brigham Young University has the kernel of complex tensions residing near the surface of both discourse and practice. On that surface, students engage with career artists in undergraduate and graduate pursuit of their own place in the world of art-making. Like most university art schools in North America, the program encourages technical accomplishment with media, sensitivity to the potential of the work's formal dimensions, and an acknowledgement of the necessity of the work to have content. History, theory and those practices that are necessary for professional survival (law, marketing, gallery negotiations, etc.) give context to the pursuit and help the artist defend their work. But below the surface much larger issues regarding the identity and ideology of each artist are present.

Most students at BYU are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as are the faculty and staff. Theology and questions of personal religiosity seem never to be absent from one's daily progression towards graduation. And in an educational context of art making, in which many of the principal teaching examples of history and practice don't seem to align with the peace-giving and personal improvement-striving notions of a Christ-centered philosophy, art students are faced with the daunting task of projecting themselves into a professional context that might challenge their values. This occurs at a time when young adults, filled with an idealistic spirit of adventure, find that professional world into which they haven't quite entered, seductive, exciting and a world upon which they might have some influence. The problem is compounded by the fact that those who teach these emerging artists have resolved the tensions in a variety of ways and so provide what appears at times to be, a confusing profile of exemplars. In a context like this, radical methods of art-making are often equated with radical ideas, and radical ideas are equated with gratuitous aggression, subversion and perversion. It is difficult to tease these elements apart in order to identify their potential values. Perhaps the most significant outcomes of the educational experience at Brigham Young University are the unique choices that each student makes regarding these tensions in their lives and in the pathway that they establish following graduation.

Throughout the period of time that covered the education of the three generations of artists that are the subject of this essay and exhibition, the prevailing theories of contemporary art and their manifestations in practice underwent a sea-change. When Frank Magelby was at school at BYU and then in New York City following the Second World War, that city was at the point of overcoming Paris as the world center of Modern Art[3]. The Second World War had established the U.S.A. as a super-power with the personal freedom of its citizens as its principal emblem. Against the totalitarian backdrop of the other side of the cold war that soon followed, the U.S.A., and in particular New
York City had a role to demonstrate in its art practices, the most profound expressions of that freedom. That visual form officially was identified as abstraction
[4]. So New York City took to and purified abstraction with a vengeance, and its theories and outcomes were widely published throughout the nation and the world.

By the time James Christensen, Robert Marshall and Gary Smith came to BYU and were taught by Frank, abstraction was at its apogee. The most lauded kind of painting was very large, presented no apparently recognizable image, and had an astounding economy of activity in it. Its subject was flatness which was defined as "the irreducible essence of painting"[5]. But by virtue of its definition, Modern painting was in a cul-de-sac and was about to be placed under siege. In reaction, new forms of practices emerged. Minimal, industrially manufactured squares, cubes and tetrahedrons appeared in rejection of the power of the artist's gesture and the work's independence. These new forms highlighted the work's relationship with the viewer in space and gave value to the concept of the form above its production. And rapidly following, newer works emerged that denied the necessity of any form and made the work's idea or meaning the critical, essential element. Materials and methods now were selected and manipulated for their capacity to explore and express ideas. All known materials were now at risk of being included and exploited for the sake of art, and metaphor, not form, was the vehicle of expression. Thus within a space of about four years, the prevailing theories of contemporary art, together with their attendant practices and forms, had shifted in a most fundamental and substantial way.

By the time Doug Fryer and Chris Young attended BYU and were taught by Frank, Gary, Bob and Jim, the world of contemporary art was deep in cultural, sociological, political, economic and philosophical analysis. Each work seemed to interrogate important and often distressing issues with materials that were as varied in their manipulation and signification as could be conceived. Generally speaking it seemed that art had lost its fine aesthetic sense and its elegance of form to the dizzying domain of critical thought.

For people and institutions with quieter, more reflective sensibilities, the loud and dynamic world at the forefront of contemporary art practice while attractive, was a little daunting, even offensive. At some distance from the urban hothouses of contemporary art practice, Brigham Young University's Visual Arts Department carefully and tentatively kept in touch with these developments in contemporary art without investing in the philosophical framework in which they functioned. Excursions were often made to the "big cities" in order to see its effects and to keep wondering if there was relevance in its progression. So students were made aware but were not often engaged. Some important elements of its conditions were brought back to BYU -- sufficient to provide a range of genuine options for students. But the prevailing choices for students at BYU were not related to whether or not to become fully engaged in contemporary art practice. They revolved around the capacity that the visual arts could be given to explore occupations of integrity and worth, while retaining a purpose in promulgating virtuous principles and values to an audience.

So it was for these six artists. While each to one degree or another flirted with or even embraced contemporary art practice during their studies at BYU, each has turned towards those kinds of practices that enable them to explore their own deep-seated religiosity. Frank's landscapes represent evidence of God's effect and sensibilities and Robert's large paintings of intimate natural places pay tribute to the spectacular and inherently beautiful place that God has sent us to. Gary Smith's large field paintings celebrate the rural environment that provided the context of his growth and education, and at the same time, they celebrate "the law of the harvest" so often drawn upon in the New Testament. Doug Fryer's landscapes also explore the immediate places of life and make this immediacy iconic, but the use of animals (sheep in particular) provide direct reference to scriptural themes and his quiet ordered form is an effort to bring beauty and Spirit together. Chris Young's intense attention to detail and accuracy of record in his paintings stands as metaphor for a pursuit and adherence to truth. And James Christensen's quirky fantasy paintings permit contemporary religious parables to be told in subtle influential ways.

So what has been the effect of their intersection at Nauvoo? If one was to compare the paintings in this exhibition, with those the artists executed before Nauvoo, one would see only small differences: Robert's paintings now focus on desert landscapes and are not so intimate in their vantage point. But this has more to do with a new house in St. George that he has recently acquired, than it has to do with an effect from the Nauvoo experience. Instead of the single narrative work of the past, James' work is an extensive installation of small images themed around the fictitious story -- the ensemble is one work. But this comes more from the opportunity of exhibiting in a museum where the focus is on the reception of a work's meaning as opposed to the potential to possess the work. Chris's work in some cases is the same as that which he did before Nauvoo, and in others comes as a direct consequence of the Nauvoo experience. Perhaps it could be argued that the association with the others brought about the opportunity that Chris now has to paint for other temples which is represented in this other work. In this BYU exhibition, Gary has found an opportunity to test some of his assumptions about painting without worrying about the necessity to sell the products, but this too comes from the opportunity to exhibit in the Museum. And Frank and Chris are continuing along the path that they were committed to before Nauvoo. Perhaps it could be argued that there is an average increase in the scale of the work in the exhibition when considered as a whole in comparison to a similar group of works by the same artists before Nauvoo. This alone could be argued as a visual outcome of their association together in the Nauvoo project.

But Nauvoo did affect each one both in idiosyncratic as well as common ways. While the paintings produced for the Nauvoo temple were most unusual for each artist, the experience was not. From their time at BYU, each artist had set a professional course that reconciled the necessity of financial survival with an approach to art making that permitted no sacrifice of integrity in the content of the work and in its execution. Indeed, each artist had found methods of exploring their personalized religiosity in ways that satisfied their philosophical commitments as well as their financial demands. So Nauvoo deepened, strengthened and even emboldened that drive. The institutionalized character and significance of the Nauvoo commission, together with the strengthened association they have found with each other has given each one more confidence, more commitment and more resolution in paths that were determined years before the Nauvoo commission. Thus the principal intersection of note is one that cannot automatically be seen. It is within their common sense of virtue and faith.

 

Notes

1. James Christensen, interview with the author, January 24, 2003.

2. Ibid.

3. See Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983).

4. See Eva Cockroft, "Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War", in Francis Frascina (ed.) Pollock and After: The Critical Debate (Harper and Row, London, 1985), pp.125-133.

5. See Clement Greenberg, "Modernist Painting", in Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (eds.) Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, (Harper and Row, London, 1982), pp. 5-10.


About the author:

Campbell Gray is the Director of the Brigham Young University ­ Museum of Art.

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