The word “county” has certain emotional and metaphorical associations to it, including signifying where urban and rural environments meet and blend into each other. So, it seems fitting that the Salt Lake County complex at 2001 S. State houses the largest collection of art by Utah artists. A “state museum” might feel too institutional and monolithic, but the county’s collection is both informal and inviting, even if it’s not on every local art enthusiast’s usual path. Salt Lake County has somehow accomplished the remarkable task of documenting local history with works from late 19th-century settlers to the most progressive new artists—and everything in between—thus connecting them all as “Utah artists.”
Of the 17 new pieces added to the county’s collection, 14 were donated. The three new works purchased by the county—from young contemporary local artists John Bell, Joey Behrens and Jeffery Pugh—have a special significance. Salt Lake County hosted a reception on Dec. 7 to unveil the new acquisitions, with Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon introducing the artists and donors whose works were added.
Although Corroon doesn’t want the arts to rely too much on government for support, he has been a strong proponent of the art collection and told City Weekly during his gubernatorial campaign earlier this year, “We should be known as an artistic haven. It’s incredible what we have in Utah, and we need to support that. It enhances the state and impacts the quality of life.”
The three purchased works have different things to say about the physical environment of the state, about living in Utah and about the unique space that is the state. Jeffrey Pugh’s oil painting “The Herd” (pictured) depicts cows against a rural backdrop in a field, but his technique of painting with the palette knife renders them flattened against the landscape—part of it. “The painting consists of a number of cattle that are spread throughout the canvas,” he explains. “There is a strong horizontal strength in the work and the cattle become another horizontal line in the painting.” His painting creates an uncommon sense of unity between the cows and the landscape and accentuates the relationship between the two.
Joey Behrens’ “Walker Slide” (oil on panel, pictured)—a reflection of the Walker Building (Main Street and 200 South) from the Utah One Building, located just to the south—is an iconic image to the artist, she says, but also is to many other Salt Lakers. How often does an artist present an image of one building through the distorted mirror of another one? Yet it’s a familiar sight to downtown commuters, businesspeople and residents. “All of my work comes from me moving, generally on a bicycle, through downtown,” she says of her subject matter. “It’s really about developing a sense of place and a personal connection to that place. I really like that people who know Salt Lake see this painting and recognize the building; they recognize the place and feel their own connection to it.” The work also accentuates the somewhat surreal nature of urban life.
John Bell’s “Einstein’s Universe I” takes a more postmodern approach to ideas about space and time, inspired by the short-story collection “Einstein’s Dreams” by Alan Lightman, itself based on Einstein’s theories of relativity. “The idea that all our lives are elliptical—keep repeating, sometimes the same, sometimes differently, but every moment exists in parallel space—what might that look like as a painting?” Bell pondered with this expressionist work in oils. “If you looked out into space and saw random moments of time, random clusters of images, what narratives would those images create?” Nothing quite like his artistic perspective has been seen in the collection before.
From a collection of 207 works at its inception in 1982, the collection has grown to 580 pieces. A committee of volunteers was given a budget of 1 percent of the cost of the building, and still works with a modest budget. In addition to those at the County Complex, some works from the collection are housed in various county libraries, Abravanel Hall, the Capitol Theatre, the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts, Wheeler Farm, the Salt Palace Convention Center, South Towne Exposition Center and other county-owned facilities.
The collection keeps evolving, capturing essential moments in the life of Utah, here seen simultaneously almost as through Bell’s Einsteinian eye. “The collection gives you a really nice picture of the evolution of art here in Utah,” Bell notes. “You can take a look at works dating back to around 1876 and then look at myself and other new artists, and see what kind of dialogue artists are having, with themselves and with the public.”
SALT LAKE COUNTY ART COLLECTION
2001 S. State