Many of the famous artists that made their way into history books first broke into the the public consciousness when they were featured the Paris Salon, an annual exhibition of the French government’s AcadÃ©mie des Beaux-Arts. The Salon functioned as the official sanction of the art world and could make or break a painter’s career.
The strength of the Salon’s influence is perhaps most evident in the drama that ultimately tore down its authority ““ the Salon de RefusÃ©s of 1863 in which many “refused” artists, among them the radical impressionists like Manet and Whistler, exhibited work that the Academy had sneered at. The Salon eventually splintered and waned in importance, but the concept of the juried show lives on. Each year, the Springville Museum of Art holds a Spring Salon, which is not exclusively Mormon art, but is definitely Utah art, and it is my personal belief that the Spring Salon is where Mormonism’s burgeoning Manets and Davids may well first show up.
I’m going to end the analogy there, though, because I don’t want to speculate about what on earth a Utah Salon de RefusÃ©s would look like.
The 85th annual Utah Spring Salon is on display in Springville until July 5th and I hereby exhort you with all the feeling of a tender stranger from the internet to get yourself there and take it in. It’s a wonderful exhibition every year, but this year it’s particularly grand.
There are themes emerging in Mormon art that are diverging widely from anything I think we’ve had before. One of them has a cousin over in Mormon lit and I think, though it’s a bit genre (they used to use that word pejoratively ““ the Paris art snobs that we’re pretending to be), it’s interesting. Two weeks ago I found myself at the Provo Library listening to a panel of LDS fantasy authors who were speaking as part of the Provo Children’s Book Festival. My friends had gone to hear Brandon Sanderson, but he was accompanied by Jessica Day George, J. Scott Savage, James Dashner, Brandon Mull, Dean Hale, and Shannon Hale. I quickly texted my 12-year-old sister to tell her that I was in the same room as the Fablehaven guy, and it was then that it struck me that, even though Fantasy hasn’t been my genre of choice in my adult years, I was in the middle of a Mormon cultural phenomenon that has leaked out into the national literary market. And at Springville, I realized that it’s leaking into the visual arts as well. There’s not a market in fine art for dragons and sword-bearing maidens, but the fantasy consciousness is very much there. And its king (why didn’t I realize this before?) is James C. Christensen. Now, I don’t want to get too far into this because I have a whole separate essay that wants to be written about James C. Christensen and the marriage of the fantastic and the sacred, but I did notice that he’s developing a school and I met some of his disciples on Saturday.
One way in which Christensen has opened the door for something totally new is by allowing decorative art to be framed in gilt and sold as ridiculously overpriced limited-edition giclÃ©es. Until very recently, decorative art was something that you did at homemaking meetings and it usually involved your husband first cutting out a teddy-bear shaped piece of wood on his jigsaw. It’s also evolved through the scrapbooking phenomenon and quite probably BYU’s prestigious graphic design, illustration and animation programs, to create a very hip illustrative aesthetic in casual Mormon culture. Did you notice the title designs in the LDS Pride & Prejudice and the cover art of the Pink Bible? We’ve got this entire, usually female, design culture that likes to eat at trendy frozen yogurt places along the Wasatch front. And now it’s finding its way into our art galleries. Christensen was the first one (and maybe he could do it because he is a man? I didn’t say that. I promise I didn’t vote for the ERA.) to market a frilly, decorative, illustrative style as fine art, and now it’s acceptable. Emily McPhie has a piece in the Salon titled Two Sisters and Melissa K. Peck has one titled Vivian. The two paintings are very different in style ““ McPhie’s is soft and resembles a Caldecott children’s book while Peck’s consist of bright color fields that would be at home on funky greeting cards or a Threadless.com t-shirt. But they are both reminiscent of Christensen’s women ““ sleek, high-cheekboned ivory-skinned women wearing fashionable frou frou. And they’re fun.
Another tell-tale sign of Christensen’s influence is this very marketable appeal to fantasy, and it his own special brew of magic and medieval Europe and Catholic kitsch. (Saints & Angels was particularly influential. “We can do that!?”) Christensen himself has a piece in the salon ““ a fantastical aristocratic family adorned in sumptuous golden robes eating glowing white fruit from the Tree of Life. And others have borrowed his characters ““ no one in Utah put wings on angels for a good hundred and fifty years until Christensen did. And so now Chris Miles can ““ his Muse sails blissfully over a landscape foliated by Henri Rousseau, playing a lute. I like her; she’s cute and her face is Dutch and I like the reminder that not all angelic women have high cheekbones and straight hair. (There’s another winged angel in the show ““ a plaster piece that’s just lovely ““ but it didn’t make it into the catalog and I’m ashamed to say I left my notebook on the bus coming back from Springville. If anyone knows the artist name on that piece please let me know.)
Oh. Where to go? There are so many pieces at the exhibition here I want to show you, but the bus leaves at 1:34 and there’s just never enough time or space. A couple pieces that deserve their own brief mention before I attack another theme:
Philip Fisher Barlow’s Exchange Students; a title turns a still life into a delightful social commentary.
Vance L. Mellen’s Omphalos; edgy installation art breaks into a Mormon venue beyond the BYU MOA. I’m not sure whether it’s the LCD screen eyeball that creeps me out or the haunting feeling that postmodernism is stalking me.
Bruce H. Smith: The Bride and a Stack of Glittery, Sightless Bachelors Feigning Insight. You thought it was just an interesting still life of a Roman bust. But it’s not. It’s Orson Scott Card’s short story Inventing Lovers on the Phone, some serious oil paint skills and my social life, all rolled into a 25″ by 25″ frame.
When you first enter the museum, you’ll be greeted by Franz M. Johansen’s A Restoration of Spirit, and you’ll feel automatically rewarded for driving all the way down here. Lovely, lovely.
My homeboy Ben Steele is back in the Salon, with just the sort of postmodern pleasantness I hoped he would paint. It’s fun, like his Rembrandt coloring book images are fun, but it’s a little deeper. It’s whimsical, but it also makes you think.
OK, one more theme I want to address and then I want to show you the best painting in the Salon this year and then I promise I’ll let you get back to the rest of your RSS feed. Mormons are again looking at the female nude. With surprisingly heartening results.
We still don’t know what to do with the nude figure in our art. We’re a little prudish, but we’re not really, not doctrinally. We’re not in the Gnostic Gospels camp where the physical body is dirty. But precisely because of that, and because of our profound respect for women as human beings (Wyoming and Utah were letting the sisters vote before anyone else even broached the topic), we are naturally opposed to the lecherous gaze that was part of the good old boys’ club of academic European art. So we’re extra-vigilant. When Trevor Southey invoked DÃ¼rer in his portrayal of Adam & Eve, it necessitated a footnote on the SMA website that in the medieval period, nudity was a symbol of innocence and chastity. And we still tug at our neckties and turn away when the subject is broached today, perhaps because of the deep wound that pornography has inflicted on our culture.
But two artists in particular this year open the door again in a very powerful way, and they both do it by highlighting our mother, the first naked woman ““ Eve.
In the room with the abstract pieces, you’ll find a surprisingly representational painting that was so powerful it took a while for me to take it in. Nuditas, by Patrick Marco Devonas, is subtitled “the Burning of the Daughter of Eve.” The focal point is a nude woman, hands raised in a pose reminiscent of a crucifixion. There are crucifixes and superimposed pictures of Christ flanking her and obscured as watermarks behind her, and from the edges of the frame two Roman soldiers taunt her with puppets and smoking guns. It’s a little bit DalÃ, it’s a little bit Hieronymous Bosch, but very original. It hit me solidly and if it’s not a scathing condemnation of pornography I don’t know what is.
The last painting I will mention is the best painting in the Salon, I say with absolutely no authority to say so. Sean Diediker, in The Condition #1, paints Eve, the apple, and the fall, and this, my friends, is what Mormon art has to offer the world. This is Lewis’s Perelandra, except this time informed by the restored gospel.
Our most unique doctrine is our understanding of the fall and what it means. We turned the Christian world upside-down when we asserted that it wasn’t a tragic mistake. (OK, we didn’t say that. Moses and Nephi said that. But we made sure it got translated into Italian.) And this is what we can offer the world with our art ““ it’s profoundly educational without being didactic, it’s aesthetically astounding without being trendy, and it’s genuinely and uniquely Mormon. And I love it. I’m going to keep my eye on Diediker, because I think there are some amazing things on the way.
Well, thanks for making the trip with me. I promise it will be a lot more fulfilling when you’re there at the SMA in person. If you’re a diaspora Mormon without the wherewithal for trips on a whim to Utah Valley, for $14 and is lovely ““ very nice printing. I applaud the SMA for keeping the Salon tradition alive and I hope to see it produce wonders in years to come.
52 thoughts on “Museums, Fantasy, and the Redemption of Naked Ladies: a review of the SMA’s Spring Salon”
Oh wow, Annie. This:
“it’s profoundly educational without being didactic, it’s aesthetically astounding without being trendy, and it’s genuinely and uniquely Mormon.”
is absolutely correct. Thanks, Sean.
I don’t seem to be able to connect to the SMA’s website. If somebody else is able to provide a direct link to the catalog page, I’d appreciate it.
I’ll definintely be checking this out. I didn’t realize they had a salon every year… my daughter is interested in becoming an artist. I need to start turning to these sorts of things for her sake.
I’m pleasantly surprised by this information, that there is a place for LDS art that doesn’t fit the mold.
Yeah, William, I had intended to link to SMA’s website but it seems to be having some issues. If it comes back up, I’ll add the direct links to the article.
Thank you for sharing. I’m excited to see when the SMA’s website is back up.
This was my favorite-
“It hit me solidly and if it’s not a scathing condemnation of pornography I don’t know what is.”
I’m still struggling with how representations of the nude woman can be done without becoming pornographic. You’re right, the Mormon artworld (and audience) has become overly careful and avoided nudity in order to keep a profound respect to the beauty and sacredness of the body (and women). I’m hopeful to hear of LDS artists who are bridging that gap-and teaching gospel principles along the way.
That looks fascinating; I’ll have to remember to go next year since we won’t be in Utah until June 12 😦 I’m wondering if Mormonism will ever be up to doing the male nude, since it seems to be even more controversial than the female.
Springville’s art must be the best thing in Utah. I wish I could go.
Help me: what are the heads on the background figures there?
OK, it looks like the links to the SMA website are working now. I don’t think the catalog is online, but it is for sale.
Foxy—follow the link for Southey.
A girl can only hope.
I think Mormonism’s teachings about respect for the body being the reason behind its aversion to nudity in art is just so much rationalization of the Puritanical understanding of the body as evil that continues to linger in our society but which we need to find an explanation for because, after all, we are not Puritans. Nudity in the temple didn’t seem to bother the early Saints nor the modern ones for that matter until a few years ago (I speak of the washing and annointing). Our Mormmon culture has become too intertwined with the world’s culture, and by world, I mean the conservative Christian world. Maybe our art will someday help us all to break the bonds of prudishness and extremem politcal conservativism that has, imo, held us back as a powerful alternative to mainstream Christianity.
MoJo–follow the link for Southey.
That makes me feel better about my current sex-crazed fiction.
Curses. I cannot get my hs and rs straight to save my life…..
I did. I liked it.
“I’m still struggling with how representations of the nude woman can be done without becoming pornographic.”
Pornography is images designed to arouse. The “designed” part is key. Any picture of a nude body, even line drawings in a medical text, can arouse. But they are not designed to do so. Arousal is not the intent behind the work. Likewise, nudity in art is only pornographic when it is designed to arouse sexual feelings.
However, any image that arouses, for whatever reason, a particular man or woman is pornography for that particular person. But the image, itself, may not technically be pornography.
I had the unique opportunity to see “The Condition #1” while Sean was working on it in his studio and on display at the SMA. It is an amazing piece of art both visually and in size, I believe it is about 8 feet tall.
I am excited to see the entire collection when it is finished.
Feel free to ignore this post if you’re not interested. Basically I’m just advertising myself and doing a big linkdump. Don’t tell William.
I’ve written on this topic in some depth, although specifically as it concerns literature and not paintings. But for those interested, here are some of the salient posts:
The Erotic in LDS Lit, Part I: Why? (in whichI begin the discussion, including a look at an essay on the topic by Levi Peterson)
The Erotic in LDS Lit, Part II: Jorgensen’s Take (a continuation of Part I taking another essayists view into consideration)
The Erotic in LDS Lit, Part III: Test Case (looking at a w novella by Todd Robert Peterson)
The Erotic in LDS Lit, Part V: Can there be a “Moral Pornography”? (where I really get onto thin ice)
Or if you just want to see them all: http://thmazing.blogspot.com/search/label/lds-eros
Hey, stop stealing our Google juice. I could go and change all those to no-follows, you know.
The human body is an amazing beautiful creation. It has been designed to arouse sexual feelings like bees to the beatiful color of flowers. For me it is the female form I love. If you are ashamed of being in aroused then you are fighting the laws of Our Father. It is a natural response. God’s concern is the action you take because of those felling. He doesn’t ask us to get rid of our sexuality but control and express it in an appropriate manner. The line between art and pornography is a little blurry but porn is what it is and you will know it when you see it. And yes the first Mormons came from Puritan stock.
Of course, both the Puritans and Victorians get a bit of a bum rap (pardon the expression) when it comes to sexuality.
The irony of this discussion about nudity surrounding this depiction of Eve is interesting. Since somewhere in the beginning, during the process of the fall, God placed in all humanity an awareness of our nakedness. I contend that this is the reason we innately cover ourselves and reserve our nakedness for only those we are most intimate with.
Perhaps the notion of modesty has come about because of the exploitation of nudity. There sometimes seems to be a thin line between what is beautiful and sacred and what elicits a sexual response. If the intention of the artist is the former, then it is the viewer’s responsibility to keep their response in relation. I say this at the risk of stating the obvious.
I am deeply moved by this Diediker work.
btw, great article!
(if you like, wm, i could always revisit the topic here; i just don’t want you being struck my lightning for my sins)
“There’s another winged angel in the show ““ a plaster piece that’s just lovely ““ but it didn’t make it into the catalog and I’m ashamed to say I left my notebook on the bus coming back from Springville. If anyone knows the artist name on that piece please let me know.”
Was it J. Kirk Richards? I see on the list of this year’s award winners that he won a merit award for Winged Figure I (plaster).
It was, Tyler. Thanks so much for your detective work. 🙂
I think you’re spot on, Cynthia.
I don’t know how much you were planning to address here, Theric, but I would submit the fact that the nudity portrayed in the pieces I talked about was specifically NOT erotic, and that was my whole point in praising it.
I would distinguish between the erotic and the pornographic but I really don’t want to threadjack here, so I won’t say more unless asked.
I think it is relevant to note that while many faithful Mormon artists are painting beautiful nudes of both genders that Sean Diediker and Trevor Southey (referred to in earlier comment)are not practicing Mormons. While being amazing artists, they are a poor representation of Mormon art and culture.
The phrasing “a poor representation of Mormon culture” doesn’t sit quite right with me. Just because one is no longer practicing, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have something to say about Mormon arts and culture. What they are not, however, are examples of active LDS who are producing works of Mormon art.
“While being amazing artists, they are a poor representation of Mormon art and culture.”
While I see where you’re coming from with this comment, TB—that many Mormons want their art and cultural commentary, etc., straight from active, practicing Mormons—it’s founded on a very narrow definition of what Mormon art and culture is. As I see it, however, Mormon art and culture extends beyond the notion of the Church activity/in-activity. As Laura reminded us last week, the editors of Irreantum posit a much broader definition of Mormon literature (and by implication, this extends to Mormon art) that some of us may be comfortable with, but which I embrace as a statement of the inclusiveness we’ve been encouraged to cultivate. As Laura quotes:
So in my mind, even though they may not be practicing Mormons, their artistic/aesthetic experience is a part of the broader Mormon cultural experience many of us are willing and ready to embrace in our efforts to understand what makes someone a cultural Mormon.
TB – I think your point is a valid one. I am personally pretty wary of art that comes from the fringes of activity in the church.
I don’t want to speak too authoritatively on anyone’s activity or belief in LDS doctrine, but Trevor Southey was an active, practicing Mormon when he painted Eden Farm (1976) and a lot of the rest of his body of work. Though his personal relationship with the church is rather public (he was interviewed in the Mormons documentary), he was a prolific artist for years before he left.
I would be uncomfortable rejecting work by active members even if they later left because then you can’t know what’s valid until someone dies and you know for sure they will never leave. That’s just not practical. Which is part of the reason why the AML definition is best and the only fair option.
Of course, I’d also counsel people to feel free to disapprove of anything that makes them feel edgy or uncomfortable, even if it was produced by your stake president.
The theory is that all art is autobiographical. I subscribe to this notion. So, it is irrelevant if Sean Diediker and Trevor Southey are practicing Mormons. Their ideas are filtered through their personal experiences. If they have been influenced by the LDS Church, such as being a member (active or not) or having grown up in Mormon culture, their concepts are valid, even if it only applies to themselves. Obviously it touched Anneke and resonated with her personal beliefs in a positive manner. Good art does that and truth is where ever you can find it.
TB thought it was important to note that Sean Diediker and Trevor Southey are not practicing Mormons, I think it’s important to note Matthew 7:2. You should keep your judgment to their art and not to their relationship with God.
I am not a Mormon and find it interesting on how you cast judgment on someone you do not know and validate their art and experience to what you think their attendance to Church is? Do you know Sean Diediker or Trevor Sourthey personally? Is their some secret database that you can type in names of your fellow LDS peers and see if they are practicing Mormons this week, month or year? Do you attended the same Ward, do they keep you up to date about their spirituality or do you just assume?
The only thing that I can relate this to being a Catholic moving to a small community in Utah from San Francisco is the work of Michael Angelo. Does Angelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not convey his Catholic experience because he did not follow the Catholic doctrine as strictly as TB would hold Diediker and Southey to the LDS belief system. Michael Angelo’s work is still there and the center of Catholic pride at the Vatican. Diediker’s and Southey’s Mormon experience is as valid as your experience TB.
Yeah, we’ve already made that point so let’s not get all self-righteous about it. The fact is that issues of who is in/who is out, who has cred/who doesn’t are and always have been part of the mix when it comes to the reception and discussion of art from pretty much all ethnic/religious/tribal groupings. I mean, duh, that’s what being an indie rock hipster or a diy punk rocker is all about. What’s the point if you can’t talk about who has sold out and who hasn’t? 😉
So I agree — I don’t think that we should be making open public judgments and castigations and that the focus should be on the work and your response to it.
However: when there are artists who are active LDS and open about that AND they are working in the non-didactic discourses, I’m going to pay extra attention to them. That doesn’t mean I completely dismiss and ignore those who don’t fit the profile, but especially in the narrative arts, what I find most interesting and most worthy of my attention and my support are attempts by active LDS to grapple with literary discourse. Of course, I don’t mistake that personal preference for a universal one.
“However: when there are artists who are active LDS and open about that AND they are working in the non-didactic discourses, I’m going to pay extra attention to them. That doesn’t mean I completely dismiss and ignore those who don’t fit the profile, but especially in the narrative arts, what I find most interesting and most worthy of my attention and my support are attempts by active LDS to grapple with literary discourse. Of course, I don’t mistake that personal preference for a universal one.”
I’m with Wm. on this one (and not just because he’s brainwashed me…I think.)
You’ll never know for sure.
Speaking of which…
I need to send Theric a batch of my “homemade Postum.”
You know I’ve never had Postum and I never felt bad about that until now, when every couple weeks someone leaves another comment on that post.
I find it fascinating–all this banter about whether or not Sean’s activity or inactivity is relevant to his art. I grew up “elsewhere” and submit that only in Utah will you find this kind of debate.
It is indeed an interesting study of man vs God gone public. I thought this might be a private matter.
I too find it fascinating and think that it plays too much in conversations about Mormon authors and artists. However, as I mention, the issue of whether an artist is or isn’t part of the group or if his/her work is or isn’t representative of the group is endemic to all national, ethnic, religious and other ideological/cultural communities that I’m aware of.
So “only in Utah” is an exaggeration. And for better or for worse, private matters figuring in to the public reception of works of art has been present ever since authors asserted the rights to and uniqueness of their work.
My deepest thanks to Anneke for her insightful thoughts and cogent personel reaction to the 85th Annual Spring Salon. After the Museum closes, I often take off my shoes and in stocking feet wander the galleries displaying the Spring Salon. I pretend that I’m visiting for the first time and let the work wash over afresh. Its truly magical. If anybody wants to join me come down about 4:55 pm this coming Saturday and lets spend an hour.
I was recently in Sean Diediker’s studio and had the privilege to lesson to his soul rending explanation of “The Condition #1” and another piece in the series. He’s a great artist and a fine young man, going through things right now.
I was also pleased to hear Anneke’s discription of Chris Miles painting “Muse in Arcadia”. We purchased the painting from the artist for the Museum’s permanent collection.
We hope that the artists who did not make it into the exhibition, and some great ones didn’t, will come back next year more determined to kick down our door! It’ll be good for the both of us.
I was stunned to find myself partially the subject of this discourse. Fascinating. I would say in my case that when I converted to the LDS church in 1960 it was a sort of coming home.I had found my spiritual center. I may now not seek any specific doctrinal home, but the essence of my work in 1960 through the Mormon years until now remains the same. Ideas of the Mormon religion are in many ways universal and perhaps it is that strange mysterious center that made the transition of my work from heathen? to Mormon and back to heathen? seemless.
Thanks for stopping by Trevor. We used to be semi-neighbors (I used to live in North Oakland, but have since moved to Minnesota).
I should also add that I don’t know why you should be stunned: perhaps it’s just the circles that I run in, but your work has been praised to me by both active LDS and former LDS [or heathen 😉 ] not to mention the “gentiles” seem to like it, suggesting that yes, your strange mysterious center seems to speak to a wide range of people.
Thanks for your comments, Trevor. I’ve admired your work for a long time; Eden Farm particularly stuck out to me the first time I saw it.
It’s nice to hear your perspective directly from you; apologies if our bandying it about was out of place.
Enough about Trevor Southey. Any possible artistic contribution he may have made is more then consumed by his destructive lifestyle which he finds it so necessary to flaunt.
[Wm says: I’d like to point out that there are faithful, active, believing Mormons who disagree. A basic premise of this blog is that although an artist’s biography can come in to play, to completely dismiss works of art solely on the basis of biographical details you disagree with is neither interesting, productive, nor charitable. There are plenty of other places on the Web where folks can argue about same sex attraction and the LDS Church. This is not one of them. Thanks.]
And my above comment holds true for both those who support and attack the LDS Church policies and doctrines on same sex attraction. Yes, the personal and the political can’t entirely be ignored when it comes to art, but I’m not interested in flame wars and identity politics.
Wm has removed this comment — not because criticism is out of bounds for AMV, but because criticism needs to have at least some intelligence behind it.
This just in! Handel had a mistress when he wrote the Messiah! The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has vowed never to record or perform any excerpt from the Messiah ever again, claiming that the Spirit cannot be present when performing music written by someone who committed a sin. In fact, the Church is now asking anyone who has ever committed a sin to step down from their callings, as any contribution whatsoever from those types of people are detrimental to the work of the Lord. Only non-sinners can contribute.