Corporate Punishment | Visual Art | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Corporate Punishment 

Stephanie Wilde tears into the American economic establishment in Harmed.

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“The way to wealth and privilege involving corporate America,” said artist, activist and expressionist Stephanie Wilde, “can often lead to the greed and unconsciousness of people in power.” This subject matter, sparked by a personal experience, resulted in seven years of painting. Wilde asks, in a time of dire economic climate, “At what point did the moral compass go off track in corporate America with those who are in positions of power?”

The new exhibition at the Salt Lake Art Center, Harmed, is a manifestation of Wilde’s seven-year journey, focusing on issues of economic abuse, “documenting a trial that we are going through,” she says. Her art addresses universal phenomena, drawn from her own experience. The exhibition displays 48 paintings grouped in small installations—narratives that convey different aspects of what Wilde views as “corporate injustice.” These narratives originate from a vantage point that is very much her own and a passion of palpable authenticity.

The work began in 2002 shortly after Wilde was witness to signs of economic devastation in her own community of Boise. Through idle gossip, she had been made aware of a situation that involved a local CEO and his wife “obsessed with power,” she said. This made her “wonder what it was that made them feel that it was perfectly all right to have these behaviors,” but also, said Wilde, “I wondered that people never questioned it.” From this incident, the empowered artist/activist/expressionist began a seven-year project addressing the core of this corruption, choosing to act beyond idle gossip.

The result of this empowerment can be seen in Wilde’s manner of painting and in the motifs in each installation she created for this body of work. Wilde said, “The visual language is obvious and the narratives are very intentional and very blatant.” There is nothing equivocal in the content of Wilde’s work or her conviction to the topic she is confronting.

Two primary installations dominate the show and relate aspects of Wilde’s perspective of the corporate “moral compass,” yet all 48 paintings are united by a common aim. The first major grouping is comprised of five panels collectively titled “Falling.” These are canvases with crudely rendered, contorted anonymous figures with little detail, set against a background of black—the depths they are plunged into. They appear to be victims to their fate.

“These are the people who are harmed, falling into the abyss,” said Wilde. “When you look at people, there is no way to see that they have lost their retirement, lost their jobs, been laid off; they don’t have any physical harm. Theirs is financial and psychological harm, so I stripped them naked. They do not have anything left.”

These images have an archaic, nightmarish, medieval quality. This resonates notions of a barbaric and unsympathetic, compassionless corporate entity to which Wilde attributes responsibility for the “fall.”

The second of the primary installations is titled “Harmed,” a grouping composed of 13 canvases. The central panel is an utterly chaotic mass of bodies wearing white collars, black vests and white gloves, naked from the waist down. They are, says the artist, “eating small little people being served up as hors d’oeuvres, and then defecating money.” Nothing is subtle here.

These archaic and abject images are a frenzy of carnivorous gluttony. They seem to be in a perpetual state of lust and insatiable desire to consume, and all logic or reason is absent. In its place is greed and selfishness. Maintaining the medieval sensibility, the figures are contorted and reminiscent of a Dante-like scene of purgatory. The allegory is a bold statement, exemplifying Wilde’s uninhibited directness towards her artistic, activist expression.

Wilde has a history of artistic activism, and her art has always had “a social and political direction,” she says. After having a son with a rare blood disorder, Wilde’s art began to reflect the AIDS epidemic, in America and especially Africa, where she traveled. Her subject matter for a time also dealt with the significance of 9/11. But events in her own town of Boise became the catalyst for her art that would sustain her energies subsequently and can now be seen at the art center.

Ultimately, Wilde hopes that if anything is to be gleaned from her seven years of passionate and aggressive labor, it will be, she says, “to engage the viewer with a greater sense of responsibility.” In the age of Enron and Ponzi schemes, handouts and foreclosures, the substance of Wilde’s work and her inventive compositions are timely and they stress, says Wilde, an “awareness of human frailties and self-awareness of our culture, especially our financial culture.”

Salt Lake Art Center
20 S. West Temple
Through October 10

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