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A&E Blog

Utah Arts Festival 2012: Too Comfortable?

by Brian Staker
- Posted // 2012-06-24 - After several years, the Utah Arts Festival has comfortably settled into its home that runs from Library Square to the City County Building, but the festival might be a little too comfortable. It’s found what works, but the repetition of a winning formula might be somewhat lacking in surprise.

It’s really a tricky feat, because a festival is, in a sense, about staying inside the "box" or booth or space in which the festival and the individual parts of it are contained, yet also encapsulating an act of imagination that wants to be let loose and fly free. Some elements of the Utah Arts Festival manage to accomplish that, like the roaming musicians of the Stooges Brass Band Parade, parading through the festival grounds and adding the celebratory flavor of New Orleans wherever they went. And hands-on workshops like the one with Pilar Pobil let the artist convey their techniques and experience with a personal touch.

Arts festivals have become increasingly commercialized and homogenized in recent years, with the trend moving to more and more commercially viable and salable work, with the result that more challenging and experimental works are sometimes marginalized or not even included. It’s not the fault of arts festivals, but simply a fact of the art marketplace that people who buy art to hang on their walls typically have relatively conservative tastes, and since the 1980s art market boom deflated, investors in art are making conservative choices. The UAF has plenty of street theater, Art Yard for the kids, live musical performances and things like the Urban Art area that caters to a wide variety of tastes, but the visual arts booths tend to gravitate towards more upscale items.

With the cost of booths at many major art festivals what they are, it’s only effective for artists who know they are going to be able to sell a certain amount of work, or are simply using the festival to gain exposure. That means that many of the artists at the Utah Arts Festival, as is the case with numerous other arts festivals, are repeat exhibitors; proven success stories. This is great for fans of certain artists, like Fred Conlon -- a personal favorite of mine -- whose metal sculptures including "gnomes be gones" mix of fright and whimsy gives them the potential to be playful yard monsters (Booth 123; pictured above). But it makes for a repetition and sameness that sometimes lacks something in terms of inspiration.

There are some real eye-openers this year, in the case of Invited Artist Blake Palmer, whose 2-D mixed media offers a street-smart yet aesthetically sophisticated edge that is quite refreshing. (Booth 92) Dave Borba’s sometimes minutely detailed hand-crafted assemblages include levers and knobs that make them come to life: Devils‘ mouths open and close, and mechanical wings flex, yearning to take flight. (Booth 38) And for the foodies, Epicuriousity adds creativity to culinary favorites, like their Mediterranean take on shrimp scampi.

An arts festival is both a communal and an intensely personal experience -- one in which spectators share the experience of looking at art with others, but also each attendee seems to be seeking the one moment, or image, that might really speak to their sensibilities, be transcendent, or take them away on flights of imagination. A large part of the festival-going experience is the sensory overload of the many genres of artwork exhibited all at the same place and time, and the sheer number of people all brought together by the event. The social experience is enjoyable in itself, but then there is the possibility for that moment of transport and transcendence, to be taken out of yourself and out of your surroundings, that the best art can provide.

The artist at the festival who really took me out of the immediacy of the environment was Alex Caldiero’s literary performance art Saturday afternoon at the Big Mouth stage, seemingly speaking in tongues, incantations and invocations of the spiritual, mixed together with quips like “I always go to my bank to be loved. They give such excellent service.” His attempts to vocalize what is difficult to put into words brings a sense of ritual back into the spoken word art form.

And perhaps the biggest delight of the Festival was a return act: Ted Siebert’s sand sculpture near the north end of 200 East. Although his Sand Sculpture Company debuted at the festival in 2002, the new location didn’t appear to offer the space needed for his work until the demonstration area was reorganized last year. His work, as painstakingly detailed as it is, is an example of art as play, the sheer joy of creation for its own sake, as the work is by nature temporary.

Spectators can vote for their favorite artists on display at the festival in the Utah Arts Festival‘s People‘s Choice Award. The winners get to exhibit their work next year for free, so don’t miss your chance to voice your pick for the artist whose work really moved you, and you hope to see back again: VerizonInsider.com/UAF12

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