Conversation Pieces 

Artists explore Utah environmental issues by “Opening a Dialogue.”

Gallery director Ruth Lubbers knew it would happen. Opening night, some little kid ran right through Brian Snapp’s installation piece—concentric rings of rock salt and red clay with a glass of water sitting dead center, meticulously spread on the floor. Gallerygoers let out a collective gasp and the child burst into tears. “We had to convince him that we really could fix it, that it really was OK,” Lubbers recalled.


The idea of “Waterbourne” is that the water in that glass is evaporating, as is Utah’s drinkable water. “Droughts cycle but bad habits continue,” Snapp writes in his commentary. “We live in an area that has been beautifully transformed and sculpted by water. We also live in an area where its scarcity is palpable on a daily basis. It’s a radiant balance whose ripples affect everything. It is the center of life.”


The Utah Environment: Opening a Dialogue, a colorful, engaging multimedia exhibition at Art Access Gallery, has been years in the making. Chris Peterson is president of the Great Basin Foundation, director of the Glen Canyon Institute and exhibition curator. He took the idea of using art and the humanities to increase public environmental awareness to the Utah Arts Council, requesting a list of prominent artists “who might be interested in doing a piece dealing with an environmental issue relevant to Utah,” he said.


The concept resulted in a fascinating exhibition that truly is a dialogue; the participating artists are not all tree-huggers. Dennis Smith, who grew up in Alpine, writes that his father supported the family by working at Geneva for more than 30 years. “The rancid fumes which people have complained about for years have a nostalgic scent to me,” he states. He understands people who complain about growth, but “a part of me is giddy at the thought of the new road ... currently being gashed over Traverse ridge ... And yet, I see myself as an avid environmentalist. It is so confusing. This painting, ‘Fire on the Other Side of Town’, is a perfect expression of my dilemma.”


While Smith lauds Geneva, Peterson’s salvaged-steel sculpture of a giant turquoise bug impaled on a wooden cross is titled “The Citizens’ Battle Against Magcorp.” He writes, “[T]he magnesium refinery on the southwest shore of Great Salt Lake was, arguably, the dirtiest industrial operation in America.” It’s a tale he makes worth reading.


The always-exceptional Earl Jones offers a tranquil landscape of Peoa, accompanied by an essay that begins: “A beautiful house in the wrong place can be an ugly thing.” His musings on the invasion of small communities by city folk and their dogs leads him to the conclusion: “Painting what is left doesn’t seem to help—it may even encourage the rush to buy a ‘piece of it.’ If I were to paint these cancers on the land as protest I would only lose my audience and ruin my career; hence I am caught up in it as well. I am literally looking the other way.”


Other artists cover subjects as wide ranging as clear-cutting (Ken Baxter’s striking painting “Forest Fire”), cattle grazing (Cyrus Mejia’s delightful “Sacred Cow” painting), and the disappearance of western symbols (David Baddley’s selenium silver gelatin print of a dead and dangling “Coyote”). There’s also an added level of resonance to the stunning iridescent colors in Raphael De Peyer’s microphotographic “worlds within worlds” work “The Kiss,” which seems to reveal “two people (or angels!) reaching out to embrace.” De Peyer, who fully succeeds in his stated intent to transport the viewer to another world, tragically left our world the day this show opened.


Larry Graham Clarkson obscured his landscape painting with an actual mini-blind, effectively parodying our estrangement from nature. Most people, he writes, experience the landscape looking through magazines, door frames, car windows and computer screens. “Perhaps you are different,” Clarkson notes in his commentary for the show—“you came to this art exhibit to experience nature. If you did, leave immediately and go take a hike. Don’t forget your sunglasses.”


THE UTAH ENVIRONMENT: OPENING A DIALOGUE, Art Access Gallery, 339 W. Pierpont Ave., 328-0703, Oct. 17-Nov. 14

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Ann Poore

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