Visual Art | Highway 89 Revisited: Utah artists travel the length of State Street for inspiration 

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With the rich visual tapestry that is the state of Utah, painters have depicted the width and breadth of the state’s scenery with a broad brush. A new group show at Art Access Gallery takes on the rather ambitious task of creating a comprehensive view of the Beehive State in not only its scenic aspect but also its history.

Namon Bills was barely a year out of the fine arts program at Utah State University when he got the idea to organize a group show on the theme of State Street. “I first got interested when I discovered that State Street is the same road running through Salt Lake and Provo,” he explains, “and turns into Highway 89, which, before Interstate 15, was the major thoroughfare in the state.” The metaphor of the street as representing the state as a whole intrigued him.

He gathered a group of fellow artists from USU to travel the route and turn their experiences into works of art. Bills, Steven Stradley and Justin Wheatley created collages that combine images into kaleidoscopic vistas. Steve Hardman’s photographs add religious counterpoint. Steph Johnsen painted minimalist watercolors, some still fresh as the show was being hung. Liz Wilson’s abstracted grotesque characters attempt to enclose an entire territory in their arms. Stradley’s cousin Shawn wrote poems as poignant accompaniment: “Life pours out here/and bleeds upon the wind.” The vision of this project can’t be contained on the written page any better than it can be on canvas.

The single most comprehensive attempt to encapsulate the state is Steven Stradley’s “Psychological Landscape,” composed of 434 panels forming an almost overwhelming panorama from pipes to images of cellular biology to musical staffs to mountain ranges to car lot logos. A school library index card, a Utah Transit Authority bus token, even arts council fliers inform this wall-size work. This version of Highway 89 definitely isn’t the “road not taken,” but it’s never been taken this deeply and intimately before.

They’d all traveled the road before, Bills notes, but weren’t completely familiar with its intricate details, from industrial centers in the north like in Ogden and Logan down to the tourist attractions and red rock canyons of Kanab. “I was used to taking a road trip to reach my destination,” he remarks, “but this time I was painting not to arrive but to experience the road and everything along it.”

Since then, he looks at everything differently. For example, having a strong interest in design and advertising, he started paying closer attention to signage, in which Utah history is writ large. In smaller towns, like forgotten county seats of south-central Utah, deserted storefronts told stories of an earlier time.

On their travels, Bills, Wheatley and Steven Stradley would continue until one noticed something visually arresting. While others were more into looking at and creating landscapes, the three focused on urban areas, walking most of State Street in Salt Lake City. The experience lent itself well to collage, Bill notes, as artists “tried to synthesize their entire experience.” Of Stradley’s work, Bills says, “It’s a mental map, including things like graffiti and storm drains, that aren’t usually looked at.”

The exhibit at Art Access—concurrently with the New Orleans Project documentation of Hurricane Katrina victims—includes only part of the works produced by Bills and his cohorts, but the entire show travels the state the remainder of the year, first moving to the Bountiful Arts Center in May. “I assume that viewers have traveled some of this road,” says Bills, but he hopes that after seeing the show, like the artists did on their sojourn, “hopefully they can learn a different way of seeing the same thing.”

Art Access Gallery
230 S. 500 West
Through March 14

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