Church vs. State at UMOCA
–reviewed By Alexandra Karl
In a culture that scorns judgment, comparison between two things is often declared the jurisdiction of the Lord. Not so at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), where holdings of Utah’s two main collecting agencies—the State of Utah and the LDS Church— are laid bare for all to see. Church vs. State: Contemporary Collecting Praxis, curated by Felicia Baca and Laura Hurtago, opened in February and runs till April 11.
Continuing the trend for museums to turn the spotlight inward and examine their own institutional navels, the show ultimately begs the question: Which offers Utahns the bigger bang for their buck: taxes or tithing?
On the side of the State, works by Adam Bateman, Brad Slaugh and Amy Jorgensen stand out against an essentially unremarkable group of works. In particular, Jorgensen’s hypnotic Red Delicious (2003) video presents the artist staring into the camera, as an apple swings just inches from her face. With blonde hair and bright lipstick, the artist stands as a prototypical everywoman or Eve, while her gingham shirt and braids reference the pioneer heritage that perpetuates her patriarchal shackles.
Contemporary art has often been accused of isolationism. For non-Mormons, one would expect contemporary Mormon art to be even more cryptic and inaccessible. And yet, in Church vs. State, the opposite is true. Though restricted to doctrinal subjects (you won’t find works here extolling the virtues of gay marriage or gun regulation), one encounters a more experimental approach to materials and tropes.
Mark Hendengren’s 2011 photograph A Church Member Cleans the Ward, Gunlock Utah captures an elderly cowboy, pillar of the American West, in an endearingly reverent moment. Levi Jackson’s 2014 photograph Pearly Gate promotes an interpretation of “heaven on earth.” Unlike conventional depictions of paradise, replete with fauna and flora, Jackson locates heaven in Utah Valley: both pristine and desolate. Finally, Daniel Everett’s 2014 Untitled peels back the outer shell of the (usually sacrosanct) Provo Tabernacle Temple to reveal its soft white underbelly: consisting of profane construction materials usually seen at a construction site.
I can only imagine the impact of this exhibition on young Mormons, as the works showcase a new generation of up-and-coming artists who upend the saccharine clichés of the Mormon cultural establishment. The significance of the exhibition for non-Mormons (such as myself) is also noteworthy. It suggests change within the ranks of an institution that exerts a near-stranglehold upon the cultural life of the city.
Such conclusions are surprising, even counter-intuitive. In any other place, the most avant-garde art is fueled by private, state and federal support. In Utah, where private collection is also diminutive, the LDS Church appears to be in the ascendancy. Whether the Church and its artists will reach the soaring heights of their European counterparts, which have commissioned works such as Anthony Caro’s Choir of Light at Bourbourg or last year’s cooperative installation of To Be In Limbo in a Viennese Jesuit church, only God can say.
Utah Museum for Contemporary Art (UMOCA):
20 South West Temple.