Peaks and Valleys

The Rise of Utah's Alternative Art Platforms

New alternative platforms for presenting art were cropping up in Utah utilizing apartments, garages, the internet, and the desert landscape as their homes. This article is a snapshot of these spaces in 2020 as COVID-19 shut down physical spaces—highlighting the value of a virtual presence and documenting how others pivoted online.

Publication: New Art Examiner

Geologically, the state of Utah is a panoply of strata, formations, and colors. From the sterile expanses of the Bonneville Salt Flats, to the soaring peaks of the Wasatch Mountain Range, to the otherworldly red rock deserts of the south, Utah is constantly and slowly changing. Wind and water contour stone; floods and droughts reveal, and submerge the land; while underground volcanic, and tectonic activity pushes and pulls the surface into craggy wrinkles. A magnitude 5.7 earthquake shook northern Utah as recently as March this year.

In Utah’s evolving cultural landscape, there are only a few steadfast art museums that have weathered corroding social and economic factors over the decades, and of those, there is only one that is not directly tied to a university. Over the years, smaller, artist-initiated projects have emerged then eroded away. Such endeavors are generally founded to provide opportunities that would otherwise be absent given the paucity of galleries and museums. What has changed is the sheer number of initiatives that are continuing to crop up. They each have a stance on sustainability, engagement, and scope—variations that make their coexistence interesting, and relevant.

Pal Gallery started in Provo, Utah in the spring of 2018, with an apartment show of seven artists. Eric Edvalson, the curator, and organizer who recently graduated from Brigham Young University’s (BYU) MFA program, initially thought of it as a one-time thing, but also considered lending the project some legitimacy by naming the space. “There is something interesting about calling it a gallery, and stating that this is our first show.” Assuming that wearing the mantle of a gallery conveys authenticity, a platform is then established for artists to surpass the pall of amateur endeavors, and invite people into their homes, welcome other artists, and avoid the awkwardness in offering casual approaches—“Hey, would you like to display your art in my house?”

Edvalson named his gallery Pal, because he saw it as a chance to build relationships—strengthen friendships he already had with his exhibiting artists, and form new connections by asking people into his sanctum. Given the spatial challenges of his apartment, the shows could only last for one night. He produced pocket-size print catalogs for each exhibition to document their fleeting nature, and used Instagram to advertise, and serve as his sole digital archive. The future of Pal is in question with the onset of COVID-19, when bringing strangers into one’s apartment is not currently an option, but it does provide Edvalson with time to reevaluate where, and how, he invests his energy and resources. He always hoped that Pal would be a catalyst, saying, (with tongue partially in-cheek) “Part of me doesn’t want to do these things. I’m just doing them because no one else will. And if other people start doing it, then I won’t have to.” This do-it-yourself drive is very common in the arts in Utah. There is not a multi-tiered ecosystem in which artists can thrive. As such, artists must create their own opportunities, or languish waiting for others to lead the way.

Gregory Eddi Jones, Brokkenfreute and Other Similar Pictures, 2020, installed at Washer / Dryer Projects, 1/17/2020 - 2/14/2020, image courtesy of the artist and Washer / Dryer Projects | Actual Source, Beefy T, 2019, installed at Washer / Dryer Projects, 9/7/2019–9/30/2019, image courtesy of the artist and Washer / Dryer Projects
Left: Gregory Eddi Jones
Brokkenfreute and Other Similar Pictures, 2020
Installed at Washer / Dryer Projects, 1/17/2020 – 2/14/2020
Image courtesy of the artist and Washer / Dryer Projects
Right: Actual Source, Beefy T, 2019
Installed at Washer / Dryer Projects, 9/7/2019–9/30/2019
Image courtesy of the artist and Washer / Dryer Projects

Another BYU alumnus, Mitchell Barton, sought to fill those same opportunity gaps, in the fall of 2018. He didn’t have the funds to start a space, given Utah’s rising real estate prices. What he had, thought, was an unfinished laundry room that he thought would make a suitable antithesis to a sterile white-cube space. His wife was pregnant, and extremely sick at the time, so to reduce their stress, they decided no one would actually come to their apartment. They embraced their situation, and Washer / Dryer Projects became an exhibition space that was only publicly accessible through online documentation. Work was physically installed, and photographed for Instagram, and the Washer / Dryer Projects site. Barton treated the shows as he would any public exhibition, keeping work up through the entire stated duration, and moving it only as needed to keep the laundry room functional. When their living situation changed, they no longer had a dedicated laundry room, so Barton invited others to franchise the idea, resulting in upcoming projects in other artists’ laundry rooms.

For many Utah artists—as elsewhere—the digital realm is a more manageable and efficient location for artistic dissemination. Most art that is consumed is via photos on the internet, rather than in-person experiences. Their own artistic output is also more likely to end up on Instagram or web-based portfolios than in a bricks and mortar gallery. Such physical sites are no longer the ultimate destination. Documentation has expanded the chances of professionally beneficial outcomes, while still adhering to traditional presentation standards.

Radical Hope, 2020, installation screenshots courtesy of artists and Madeline Rupard
Radical Hope, 2020
Installation screenshots courtesy of artists and Madeline Rupard

Radical Hope is a good example of this approach. Initiated by Madeline Rupard—who studied at BYU, and is now based in New York—its curatorial team includes Utah-based artist Aloe Corry, Pittsburgh-based Isabelle Brourman, and Ohio-based Connie Fu. The affirmative project opened May 28th, 2020, and was built using ArtSteps, an online platform that employs a 3D gaming engine to create virtual environments, with a retro feel. Launching in the middle of the Coronavirus shutdown, the exhibition leveraged its decentralized nature to inexpensively assemble works from artists around the world into the bespoke space. The curators utilized this fantasy world to play with scale and display, free of physical limitations.

Installation view of MGNT exhibition, 2019, by PARC Collective, image courtesy of the artists and PARC Collective | Kelsey Harrison, Luxury My Way, 2019, installed in MGNT exhibition by PARC Collective, image courtesy of the artist and PARC Collective
Left: Installation view of MGNT exhibition, 2019
By PARC Collective
Image courtesy of the artists and PARC Collective
Right: Kelsey Harrison
Luxury My Way, 2019
Installed in MGNT exhibition by PARC Collective
Image courtesy of the artist and PARC Collective

The PARC Collective began when artist Ron Linn was looking to collaborate with, and support other cultural producers around Provo, where he was based. Initially, he approached the artists, Tiana Birrell, and Art Morrill. Since Birrell was living in Salt Lake City (forty-five minutes north) and Morrill lived near Ogden (a further half-hour north), they aimed to widen their net geographically. Their inaugural curatorial effort was an exhibition of emerging, and established artists from across the northern part of the state. After that, they brought on artist and designer Sarah Waldron Brinton to the collective. Before they could develop more of their plans, COVID-19 interrupted production, causing a necessary shift. Birrell spearheaded a partnership with the Granary Art Center, a more established, artist-run non-profit in Sanpete County, and the collective began curating from art submitted via Instagram. The result was Incubation Period, an online exhibition, and proposed publication. Linn has stated that, as an artist, he worked harder when he felt that his community was watching. He said that by assuming the role of an organized group, the PARC Collective could encourage other artists to work more fruitfully, and think more about what it means to be producing work in Utah.

Jacob Thompson, My Amazon Journey Boxes / From Heaven, 2020, installed at the_openroom
Jacob Thompson
My Amazon Journey Boxes / From Heaven, 2020
Installed at the_openroom

Henry Becker, Nolan Flynn, Josh Graham, and Andrew Rice, inspired in part by Pal Gallery, rehabbed Becker’s garage into a small gallery space and named it the_openroom. They built-out programming that included exhibitions, and accompanying online artist presentations. The art is generally only accessible for one night, but their focus is on post-internet practices, which lends itself to digital documentation, and archiving. Since the pandemic isolation restrictions, they have shifted focus to online discussions with artists and curators, and teamed with the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art on an internet-based project that invites public collaboration on artists’ digital images. Of the individuals, and groups featured in this text, the_openroom is the only one to state that it is dedicated to a sustainable practice in Utah, rather than being provisional and ephemeral. Currently, their collective is entirely self-funded, but they see it as “investing in [their] culture.”

Final Hot Desert is the creation of artist Ben Sang. He attended Snow College, in remote Ephraim. Feeling distant from the art world he was studying, he spent a year researching and writing about contemporary artists. After accepting a corporate job, he dedicated his newfound disposable income to inviting artists to Utah to install their work in unique locations. His first exhibition consisted of work by two locals who responded to, and presented their work at, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Later, Sang leveraged relationships he had cultivated over Instagram to invite national artists. He works with his guests to identify ideal locations for their work, which have included the Salt Flats, Little Cottonwood Canyon, and The Tree of Life sculpture near Wendover. There are no opening receptions or public viewings, only crisp photo-documentation that has earned his project an international reputation. For Sang, Final Hot Desert is about establishing and nurturing networks and relationships, and reaching out from Utah—which is often perceived as a cultural desert—to introduce himself, and his state to the outside world.

Ian Bruner, three dollar narrative (plus eternal shipping), 2019, Amazon box, clay, thread, melted plastic, fake mosses, fake eyelashes adhesives, photograph, light, incense, installed at the Tree of Life, image courtesy of the artist and Final Hot Desert | Natalia Janula, Laminar Body^ies~, May 7, 2020, installed at the Great Salt Lake, Utah, images courtesy of the artist and Final Hot Desert
Left: Ian Bruner
three dollar narrative (plus eternal shipping), 2019
Amazon box, clay, thread, melted plastic, fake mosses, fake eyelashes adhesives, photograph, light, incense, installed at the Tree of Life
Image courtesy of the artist and Final Hot Desert
Right: Natalia Janula
Laminar Body^ies~, May 7, 2020
Installed at the Great Salt Lake, Utah
Images courtesy of the artist and Final Hot Desert

The youthful optimism that permeates these examples has shaken the cultural ground of Utah. Artists are learning from these individual, and collective efforts, and are communicating, and networking across geographic divides as never before. They are experimenting within their artistic practices and with modes of installation and display. By encouraging and supporting each other, and in questioning the necessity of standard exhibition models, they are creating excitement, and establishing innovative working methodologies. Whether we are beginning an ascent to a lofty summit, or heading back down into a valley of cultural apathy is yet to be determined.

Image at top:
Riccardo D’Avola-Corte
You will never understand what your caresses leave on me…, July 14–August 20, 2019
Installed at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
Image courtesy of the artist and Final Hot Desert

PARC Collective Opens Their MGNT Series with “dis/place”

December 13, 2019
Publication: 15 Bytes

Attempts to gentrify south Provo have been quietly underway for decades. The area around 500 South just west of University Avenue is one of the few industrial areas from the early 20th century in Provo, and developers have recently started to capitalize on the industrial aesthetic fetish, turning former factories into reception halls and co-work spaces. Homes in the surrounding neighborhoods have slowly been purchased, quickly renovated, and flipped while new generic condos have been erected to alleviate the housing crunch. The Frontrunner now chugs through and sighs to a stop in south Provo a block away from Provo Studio, the site of the first exhibition by the curatorial collective working under the name PARC. Comprised of Tiana Birrell, Ron Linn, Art Morrill, and Cole Walker, PARC assembled a cohort of seventeen artists (including themselves) and six writers around the exhibition’s theme and title of dis/place.

Leaden galvanized-steel sheets clad the walls of the main gallery space that is the entry of Provo Studio. Unframed works on paper are gingerly adhered to the metal using neodymium magnets. The magnets are both a practical solution to temporarily affixing the work and a metaphor for the exhibition series of which this is the first. Titled MGNT (“magnet,” minus the vowels), this quarterly series brings together artists to highlight the unseen forces that attract them to one another, and in this case, issues of place. The title of this inaugural MGNT exhibition is obviously meant to be read as a fracturing and self-reflexive displacement of the word “displace” but also can be read as slang: “dis place,” as in “this place,” or “dis” meaning “insult.” All of these readings can be found in the varying work in the exhibition spaces.

Eric Edvalson, Meiji Jingu, 2019
Eric Edvalson
Meiji Jingu, 2019
Color photograph
Courtesy of the artist.

Standouts from this well-populated show include Eric Edvalson’s unassuming photograph “Meiji Jingu” (2019), from his Meanderings series. The largely monochromatic photograph depicts a pair of stanchions huddled as closely together as their bases will allow, blocking a narrow path between an empty garden bed and a wall wrapped in a grommeted vinyl photo mural. The mural depicts a set of seven stone stair steps climbing up to a platform behind a wooden railing. The mural’s perspective is warped by the oblique angle at which it is photographed, creating a disorienting space that is made inaccessible by ad hoc fencing and the impossibility of entering the illusionistic space of the mural. Edvalson quietly celebrates these unintentional collaborations as different parties add elements to their built environment, resulting in quirky juxtapositions.

Ron Linn’s understated graphite drawings on tracing paper of photo negatives read as a series of found imagery — children in thick wool sweaters loitering around a fishing dock, vintage alpine skiers, the start of a swimming race in a narrow swimming pool, a small rural structure belching thick smoke into the sky as the building burns. As negatives, the images can be hard to read. Linn has taken the drawn negatives and used them to create positive cyanotypes that are displayed below the graphite drawings, but not paired. The results are rich, Prussian blue photographic scenes that look akin to mezzotints or early 20th-century Pictorialist compositions. The photographic sensibility is moderated by the meticulous scribbles of the parent drawings. This translation from photo to drawing, and back to a photographic process reflects the fleeting relationships to places visited and the evolving and devolving nature of memory of those places.

Ron Linn, a far blue country i-iv, 2019
Ron Linn
a far blue country i-iv, 2019
Graphite on tracing paper and cyanotypes on paper
Courtesy of the artist

Jaime Trinidad’s 3D-printed sculptures graft together classical Western art icons with sculptural forms of Trinidad’s native Mexico. In “Small Colossal Head of a WESTERN Youth” (2019), the artist has taken the marble “Fragmentary Colossal Head of a Youth” from the second century BCE and completed the missing upper portion of the head with an Olmec stone sculpture known as “San Lorenzo Colossal Head 4,” dating to before 900 BCE. Both of these “colossal” works are about the scale of tchotchkes picked up in roadside tourist markets around Italy and Greece. It is common to view a fractured Greek sculpture and wonder what is missing. Trinidad’s clever response is to fill that negative space with what is missing in most canonized art history.

Most of the work in the exhibition is small and physically unassuming, which is to be expected given the modest rooms. However, Kelsey Harrison received the lion’s share of the exhibition space, occupying one-third of an adjacent studio/gallery. This work includes a modular interactive sculpture called “Luxury My Way” and two lighted signs resting on an adjacent wall spelling out the titles of the works, “Repeatable Experience” and “Limited Options.” “Luxury My Way” is composed of a set of minimalist forms bearing postmodern ornamentation. The styles and color schemes of these building blocks are taken from new construction going up around Salt Lake City and other areas around the West. Each piece quotes the earth-tone architecture of a storage space, new metal-wrapped condominiums (like the complex neighboring the exhibition), or other similarly generic buildings that utilize a late Modernist aesthetic solely because it allows the owners to be cheap. Visitors are welcome to stack the pieces to create their own bland, khaki, mid-sized Hell.

Kelsey Harrison, Luxury My Way, 2019
Kelsey Harrison
Luxury My Way, 2019
MDF, LifeProof vinyl flooring, steel, enamel
Image courtesy of the artist

The adjacent glowing signage borrows the typography habitually found on a real estate office or nail salon and declares exactly what the artist sees within these generic spaces and businesses: “Repeatable Experience” and “Limited Options.” The signs themselves were cut from the walls of Nox Contemporary where the work was first exhibited last year. Since they were built directly into the wall, the walls themselves were displaced to their new temporary home in Provo Studio.

dis/place is a smart first effort that shows these artist-curators working through ideas and democratic collectivism. At times, the impulse to include more artists for more vantages of the curatorial theme results in a less focused experience with some timid, small objects. Since PARC declares that their future endeavors will be nomadic, I hope to see them address the sites of the projects more directly — and I would have especially expected that to be more prevalent in an exhibition about displacement staged in a quickly gentrifying area. The group’s bravado is to be commended given the paucity of established contemporary art venues in the state, let alone Utah County, but I am heartened by newcomers PARC, PAL gallery, the open_room, and other fledgling artist-driven projects. I look forward to them growing, maturing, and developing their voices.

Jaime Trinidad
Santo Partido Revolucionario Institucional (left) and
Small Colossal Head of a WESTERN Youth (right), 2019
3D prints with PLA
Image courtesy of the artist