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Three artistic looks at the Great Salt Lake

Published February 3, 2014 9:00 pm

UMFA • Exhibits showcase artists who use film, oil paint and digital video to explore Utah's singular body of water.
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The emptiness of Great Salt Lake, Bonneville Salt Flats and surrounding basin and range of Utah's west desert often proves inspirational to artists.

Think of land-art displays including Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels or Karl Momen's "Tree of Utah" that use the lake and its surroundings as expressions of light, water and vast open spaces.

Through May 4, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus is offering three distinct artistic perspectives on the lake.

There is the more traditional art form as represented by classic oil paintings from the late 19th century in the exhibition "The Savage Poem Around Me: Alfred Lambourne's Great Salt Lake." There is the aerial digital video "Great Salt Lake Landscan" produced in November by the Los Angeles- and Wendover-based Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI). Finally, using the medium of 35mm film, British artist Tacita Dean has produced "JG," which explores the nature of time and artistic inspiration through the lens of Smithson's Spiral Jetty and the J.G. Ballard science-fiction short story "The Voices of Time."

These exhibits are a continuation of the museum's longtime look at the beauty of Great Salt Lake. It began in 1996 with "Images of the Great Salt Lake: An Exhibition Celebrating the Utah Centennial" that featured 70 paintings. In 2002, the museum presented "Photographs of the Great Salt Lake." And, in 2012 and 2013, "Nancy Holt: Sightlines" explored the artist's early work, including the Sun Tunnels on a remote piece of land in northwestern Utah.

To those who explore Great Salt Lake, Lambourne's paintings are a reminder of the timelessness of the empty spaces. This is especially true of those of Gunnison Island, a small island where American white pelicans and California gulls nest and raise their young in a place seldom visited by humans.

"They are like a museum white wall, tipped over and just spread out," Matthew Coolidge, founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, said of the white Bonneville Salt Flats. "They work the way a museum works in a funny way. … The Salt Flats are a big empty space. You put something on there because there is less there to get in the way of seeing what there is with an object isolated on the flats. It can be a car or something more mundane."

Coolidge said the entire Great Salt Lake system is largely an artificial entity, with its form controlled by humans, either intentionally or as a byproduct of other activities. Control structures such as gates, dikes, mines, railroads, highways, dams and pumps all change the lake's environment.

"Everything in the landscape has been affected by human forces, chemically, physically or climatologically," he said. "We don't live in a natural environment anymore. We live in a natural world that includes humans as part of that nature."

CLUI's "Great Salt Lake Landscan" is a 19-minute digital video commissioned by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and projected on the white wall of the museum. Coolidge said landscans are a single-edit digital creation shot at low elevation using continuous shots. He and his fellow artists mapped out what they wanted to shoot with small airplanes and then used a helicopter along a prescribed route to do the actual filming.

Coolidge said he hopes the video gives a landscape narrative of Great Salt Lake, especially how it is used as a production center to create refined metals using a massive passive solar evaporation system that slowly concentrates the liquids into a marketable solid product.

"CLUI is interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth's surface so that we can better understand who we are and what we are doing," said Whitney Tassie, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art. "Similarly, the UMFA studies the art and artifacts of humans to better understand who we are. We're especially committed to investigating our local landscape and the ways in which it has inspired artists throughout time."

Dean's film, "JG," presented in a museum space especially designed to show an increasingly rare 35mm film, explores time in unusual ways. Dean uses her own aperture gate-masking technique that allows elements of the Spiral Jetty and other Great Salt Lake environments to take shape in almost magical ways.

"I don't convey messages," said Dean, who first came to Utah in 1997 as part of a screenwriter workshop for Sundance, though she said she has never put a word on paper as a screenwriter. "If there was a message, it would be that this is a beautiful medium, the medium of film. With film, you can make things you can't make with digital."

The contrast between her work and the CLUI digital effort is interesting because it shows the differences between the two mediums. Dean expresses concern that film is becoming obsolete in a digital age, when very few movies can be seen on projectors.

"Matt Coolidge works in a digital world," she said. "Mine can only be done with film."

And what a film it is.

It intersperses shots of armadillos and lizards taken at the Hogle Zoo with shots of heavy equipment used by the Intrepid Potash Mine near Wendover. Then there is the "masking effect" that turns the Spiral Jetty into all sorts of different images. There are even "planets" represented by circles filled with film interpretations of different times at the same place. The whole film was shot inside a camera, sometimes using masks, something like stencils, in the gate of the camera, and often exposing a piece of film more than once.

Actor Jim Broadbent's voice can be heard reading excerpts from the short story by Ballard written in 1960, about 10 years before the Spiral Jetty was built. Dean said she believes there was a connection between the two works.

"What's interesting, especially about Intrepid, is that it looks like the most idyllic landscape," said Dean. "The water is blue. And the salt is white. Of course, [the product being produced] is a caustic chemical. That's the magic. It's such an extraordinary place."


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Different takes on Great Salt Lake

The exhibitions continue through May 4 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus, 410 Campus Center Drive.

When • Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday though Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. The museum is closed Mondays and holidays. "JG" will begin showing Tuesdays-Fridays at 10:15 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. Saturdays-Sundays, with subsequent screenings on the hour and the final showing at 4 p.m. (7 p.m. Wednesdays).

Tickets • General admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors and youth and free for University of Utah students, staff and faculty, UMFA members, higher-education students in Utah and children under 6. Free admission is offered the first Wednesday and third Saturday of each month. For more information, call 801-581-7332 or visit http://www.umfa.utah.edu.