Visual Art | First (Amendment) Things First: Visual artists and writers collaborate to explore civil-liberties controversies. | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Visual Art | First (Amendment) Things First: Visual artists and writers collaborate to explore civil-liberties controversies. 

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What are your First Amendment rights? Are they exercised regularly, or are they lazy, flabby and neglected? The current Salt Lake Art Center exhibition Liberties Under Fire—in accordance with its mission to educate about “civil, social, and aesthetic issues affecting society”—pairs acclaimed artists with local writers in collaboration with the ACLU of Utah to examine our first amendment civil liberties. n

“Art is a visual dialogue,” says SLAC director Heather Ferrell. “[It] gives us the ability to reflect on ourselves and on society.” But it’s also the embodiment of freedom of speech. It’s free from government censorship, and is in many ways the propaganda of the people. In this case, they are five prominent artists (Sue Coe, Enrique Chagoya, John Trobaugh, Kara Walker and Jenny Holzer) and six renowned Utah writers (Katharine Coles, Forrest S. Cuch, Terry Tempest Williams, Julie Jensen, Forrest Crawford and Mary Dickson) jointly addressing five civil-liberties issues determined by the ACLU of Utah: Abuse of Power; Church and State; LGBT Equality; Racial Justice; and Torture, Imprisonment and War.


Although it was not purposely calculated, the exhibition—in a political climate of election-obsessed America, and the end of a Washington dynasty—couldn’t be more timely, SLAC Curator of Exhibitions Jay Heuman says. Viewers are allowed, and encouraged, to agree or disagree with any implications the works have; Heuman reminds, “The ACLU is non-partisan.”


This represents the thematic side of the exhibition. The works present personal perspectives on these issues to the public, so that they may identify their own. Katharine Coles introduces the show, writing about freedom of speech and expression and its context within art and censorship. “Consider Edvard Munch’s iconic [The Scream],” she incites, “an image so modern in its angst I think of it as contemporary.” This reference, Heuman feels, is particularly powerful, underlining the collaborative nature of the project—where writing speaks and visual art sort of screams in silence.


Sue Coe’s work recalls her beginnings as an illustrator; she went on to make drawings and prints that are politically charged and powerful, ones that she felt she had to take outside of mass media. Paired with Forrest S. Cuch, Coe reveals torrid illustrative scenes dealing with abuse of power. Uncle Sam, like an oversized circus trainer, whips beasts bearing the burden of corporate America. Animals are slaughtered in large machines run amok. Ant-like humans flee the Superdome under an apathetic military. “We live in dangerous times.” writes Cuch, and together their work reads a bit like a horrifying children’s book on current affairs.


In the matter of church and state—a subject endlessly tiresome and increasingly absurd—humor is a welcome tactic. With pointed jabs and jokes, Enrique Chagoya creates a hodge-podge history that satirizes American and Latino pop-politics and religion, and the hybrids thereof. They are chock-full of icons, idols and witty remarks; “habla in tongues?” is particularly amusing. Due to its full content, Chagoya’s work seems to speak louder than Terry Tempest Williams’ accompanying text.


Both Kara Walker and Jenny Holzer—two major political contemporaries Salt Lake City has been waiting to host—present existing historical and political material in a new context. Holzer, utilizing the Freedom of Information Act, enlarges and presents documents relating to military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, including autopsy reports. They function as “a very symbolic portrait,” Heuman says, and speak for themselves—right down to the scratched and blacked editing marks of the government.


Kara Walker, commended for her dynamic silhouettes dealing with the African-American experience, draws from a very specific source: the 1869 text Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (annotated). Walker overlays screen-printed silhouettes of African-Americans from pre-war sources on top of litho images from the book to supplement what the accepted text overlooked or left out. Shadows overshadowing, the silhouettes replace and restate the importance of the African-American experience, with this perhaps one-sided version of the Civil War as a backdrop.


Barbie art is hard to nail. You open yourself up to a certain kitsch that can be hit or miss. John Trobaugh seems to be walking this familiar path effectively—Barbies, with their superhuman figures and social implications seem to be an appropriate tool to talk about stereotypes and gender taboos surrounding LGBT issues. Julie Jensen puts it into perspective quite well in her personal essay: “It all starts very early.” she says, “The patterning, the training of the imagination, the practicing for adulthood. The subtle and overt coercion exerted on young children to assume roles pleasing to the dominant straight world.” The dolls stand blatantly in front of American landmarks—the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Salt Lake, the Grand Canyon—confirming their right to be there, with whomever they choose.


So take the liberty to exercise your right—to read, view, to agree or disagree. Liberties Under Fire is an excellent place to start.




nSalt Lake Art Center, 20 S. West Temple, 328-4201,
nThrough Jan. 31, 2009

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About The Author

Cara Despain

Cara Despain is an artist, freelance art writer and curator. She is co-curator of GARFO Art Center and faculty at the Visual Art Institute.

More by Cara Despain

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