Friday, April 20, 2007

“Just the two of us, you and me.”

One of the first things that happens when someone quits at the office where I work is the pilfering of his or her chair. Everyone in the office seems intent on getting one of a limited number of fancy, ergonomic office chairs.

This is just one of the office-life realities Joshua Ferris exploits in his first novel, Then We Came to the End. The book opens with a brilliant line, closes with an even more brilliant line, and in between provides a superior reading experience.

Anyone who has worked in an office will relate to this book—from the quirky characters to the funny goings on. I laughed out loud several times while reading the book. But the story is far from simple comedy. You become attached to the characters; you see them as friends; you relate to their stories, even when those stories become more serious.

Ferris writes with such ease, the book practically reads itself. The novel, written in first person plural, creates a sense of camaraderie that eventually makes even the reader feel like part of the story. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this much humanity in a story about everyday life.

The only problem with a first novel this good is that you have to deliver a second novel that lives up to the first. Joshua, this is a tough act to follow. But I’ll be first in line to buy your next book.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Travelling Exhibitionists.

This is the first in a series of posts geared toward art encountered while travelling—the art you find in airports, bus stations, subways, or other travel-related locations. Readers are invited to send stories of favorite art works found in travel terminals.

Let’s start in the Central Terminal of the Seattle Airport where Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter’s suspended sculpture Landing is on view. The Boston-based duo completed the work in 2005.

Measuring 48’ high and 25’ deep, Landing is composed of thousands of individual snow geese, trout, raindrops and ambient elements that reference the culture and history of the Pacific Northwest. The carefully suspended items come together to form the image of a goose landing, complete with a reflection in water. The sculpture serves as an exploration of nature and civilization.

Known for their ambitious public art projects, Helmick and Schechter’s work can been seen in major metropolitan spaces around the country. In fact, you can see their work right here in Salt Lake City. The artists were commissioned to create a sculpture for the Salt Lake Main Library. Hanging in the Library’s Urban Room is Psyche, a work consisting of 1500 suspended mini sculptures of books and fluttering butterflies. Together, the sculptures form the shape of a human head. Some of the butterflies sport wings covered with words in twenty different languages taken from the humanitarian bill of rights.

You can see more works by Helmick and Schechter at

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A room with a bad view.

What’s “outside Blake's window?” A bit of a mess if you trust Tandy Beal and Repertory Dance Theater (RDT). Outside Blake's Window was the most recent offering from RDT. The work, choreographed by Ms. Beal, delves into the imaginative world of William Blake and calls “forth the amalgamation of many theatrical forms.” The result is disjointed, uneven, and sometimes downright boring.

There are several valuable lessons one can learn from the performance:

1. Modern dancers aren’t necessarily actors. I’m baffled by the current trend of asking contemporary dancers to deliver lines. I don’t know of many respected contemporary dance companies that hire dancers based on acting ability. Contemporary dancers are first and foremost dancers. Go to Broadway if you’re looking for a “triple threat.” Because when dancers recite lines, it usually just distracts from the performance.

2. In the age of the super circus, second rate circus performances just don’t cut it. Sure the trapeze artist had amazing flexibility, but hang a women from the ceiling in silver spandex and I expect thrills. Here, the result was more distraction than performance enhancement. And while the fire twirler provided an interesting visual, the act just fall flat. The best part was the smell of burnt chemicals that lingered in the theater after the flames were extinguished.

3. People who aren’t dancers might not be able to dance. Don’t get me wrong, the idea is alluring; eight or ten sets of identical twins entering the stage and performing with dancers sounds like a great idea. But in practice, finding identical twins that can move was obviously impossible. Many of the twins moved so stiffly, so unconvincingly that I’m still wondering if they were real or automatons.

I will admit that Ms. Beal offered several moments of beautiful choreography, particularly when she left theatrics behind and focused on dance. She is at her best when devising lyrical movements for the dancers. Sections where dancers gracefully spun and swirled were not only well choreographed but also beautifully performed by the company. These moments reminded me that I’ll definitely be back to see what RDT does next.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Allow me to illustrate.

If you’ve never been to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (and even if you have), now is the perfect time to grab the kids and make the trip. Currently on display is The Art of Robert Sabuda, a whimsical installation of illustrations and paper pop ups that will appeal to anyone who likes a good story.

The paper engineering involved in Mr. Sabuda’s books is astounding. The exhibit includes mock-ups created during the planning stages of each book, helping the viewer understand how such amazing mechanics are achieved. You can also sit down at a table where all of Mr. Sabuda’s books are available for browsing, allowing you to see the transformation from initial idea to completed form.

Even more dazzling than the paper engineering (if that’s possible) are the original illustrations. Mr. Sabuda writes, illustrates, and engineers most of his books. And the illustrations are striking. By choosing mediums that relate to the story, the artist offers a surprising variety of illustration techniques while still maintaining his own graphic style. Thus, an Asian story (The Paper Dragon) is told with carefully painted and cut tissue paper while a story about St. Valentine is envisioned as intricate paper mosaics.

A table in the center of the room offers paper, tools, and instructions so visitors can make their own simple pop ups.

The Art of Robert Sabuda is on display now through September 9. But, if you go before May 5 you can also see Bill Viola’s video installation, The Quintet of Remembrance. I’m guessing it will be a long time before we see another Bill Viola work in Salt Lake City.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Worth the trip to Park City

Moses Pendleton’s Momix dance company paid a visit to Park City this past weekend to present its original production, Lunar Sea. Before I get to the details, let me send a shout out to Alwin Nicolais. The abstract nature of this performance with its stylized costumes, impressive use of projections, and intriguing lighting effects is a tribute to Alwin's genius.

Nonetheless, plenty of kudos is due Momix. The opening sequences are stunning and leave the viewer asking, “how’d they do that?” The amazement continues even as one begins to figure out how the dancers are able to deliver such surprising results.

The performance relies heavily on symmetry, from the frequent use of “half” dancers that combine to create a whole, to the beautifully-executed video projections. The result is a strange sort of Rorschach test that intimately engages the audience.

Sure, the black light effects feel gimmicky at times and the costumes occasionally serve only as distractions. In fact, the best moment of the evening may be a duet that leaves black lights behind and utilizes little costuming, focusing attention on the dancers. Still, one can’t deny that even gimmicky moments (such as the spider sequence at the end) are entrancing.

This is dance theater at its most engaging (even to the point of scaring some of the younger audience members, as evidenced by occasional screams from kids during the most frightful moments). I left the performance wanting to quit my job and join a dance company. At the very least, I wanted to approach life with renewed creativity.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What's in a name?

Viva Variety. So what’s with the name?

Consider this an homage to “Europe’s favorite variety show.” A show that wasn’t afraid to ask, “Klingon or Galliano?” A show that launched the careers of so many stars. A show that never really had a chance.

So to you Mr. Laupin. And to you the former Mrs. Laupin. And yes, even to you Johnny Bluejeans. (May you all rest in peace.)

To you, I say, “Viva Variety.” And in your honor, I will see things. I will do things. And I will write about those things right here on the digital pages of Viva Variety.

“Nature has a rhythm,” William Betts.

Artist William Betts (whose line painting Myth of Insight was just purchased by the Salt Lake Art Center) spoke as part of the Salt Lake Art Center’s Art Talks series on April 4, 2007. The presentation offered insight into the process used to develop the line paintings currently on display as part of Fab Ab (see previous post).

Mr. Betts captured the essence of modern and contemporary art by suggesting that painting now requires more than just skill. “The ability to make a great painting is not the same as the ability to paint. Making Paintings has always been about making objects.” This philosophy supports the artist’s work, which is largely created by a machine.

But make no mistake—the use of machinery does not simplify the creation of the line paintings. In fact, it may only make the process more difficult, requiring hundreds of hand-mixed colors that are applied individually using a large, computer-controlled plotter. Mr. Betts writes his own code to control the plotter. The machine has to be cleaned and reloaded for each color.

Particularly interesting is how the artist arrives at the abstract images that are translated in acrylic. Final paintings are absolute abstractions of photographs taken by the artist. A one-pixel slice is extracted and then “stretched” to create a unique series of lines. Paints are mixed to match the colors in the image. Then each color is applied individually to the board. Seeing the original photos and the final products makes one realize how much the paintings reflect the subject matter.

Mr. Betts also discussed his current work which uses plotter-applied acrylic dots in works of random paterns as well as re-imaginings of surveillance and traffic photos. These paintings seem to follow in the traditions of artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Georges Seurat, and even Damien Hirst. To see more of Mr. Betts’ work, visit

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

See it free: Fab AB

Just when "abstract" seems so last century, you lean in for a closer look and find something interesting. That's what happens with the Salt Lake Art Center show, Fab Ab: New Acrylic Abstraction. The show brings together several abstract artists and the results make for a good time.

The stars of the show are the line paintings of William Betts, which bring such precision to the application of paint that one isn't surprised to discover machinery is involved. Mr. Betts is scheduled to discuss his techniques at an upcoming Art Center lecture. Expect a future report.

Mr. Betts's works aren't the only bon-bons to enjoy at this show. Colin C. Smith delivers several paintings that would be at home on a hot rod. Using techniques from vinyl blocking to air brushing, Mr. Smith applies pigmented resin to aluminum panels with whimsical results. And yet, for all their whimsy, the paintings seem somehow sinister.

A work by Joseph Drapell features three large panels with thickly applied paint. The gray and blue hues of the work engulf the viewer in dense swirls, an effect that is only heightened by the holographic inclusions. Mr. Drapell's other works in the show however aren't as enticing.

Other artists provide additional interest and intrigue, from the mind bending Op Art of Susie Rosmarin to the surfboard aesthetic of Jesse Simon. Also on view are works by Graham Peacock and Prudencio Irazabal .

With a truly international cast, this show (curated by Salt Lake Art Center's own Jay Heuman) is definitely worth the trip downtown.

Fab Ab: New Acrylic Abstraction
Salt Lake Art Center
March 31 through May 30, 2007
Admission is free.