“Wyoming to the World” —the biennial exhibition of the visual arts fellowships organized by the Wyoming Arts Council — is a big deal.
Three out-of-state jurors selected the artists and one acts as curator for the exhibit and author of the catalogue. The 16 exhibitions since the program’s start in 1985 have featured more than 100 Wyoming artists and provided about as large a picture as we have of visual arts activity in Wyoming.
Does the series tell us something about Wyoming art? Over the years curators have attempted to pull things together. Some, for example, have noted the state’s big spaces and small population. And true to form, Wyoming artists do tend to know each despite living far apart and sometimes they turn to big nature as a subject.
Nonetheless, a look at this or any of the other biennales tells us that artists here make all sorts of things. As Marjorie Vecchio, the 2015 curator, wrote,“Wyoming artists simply cannot be pigeonholed.”
This year I was struck by the fascinating and diverse craft of the six artists, and a strain of deep-diving into the meaning of things. The exhibit, skillfully installed by Nicolaysen Curator E.K. Wimmer, tells a story. We take a journey that starts in bright hope, descends into darkness and returns to our ordinary world, now significant in new ways.
That meaning is bright, vibrant, pulsing and optimistic in Georgia Rowswell’s “Hot Yellowstone” series. Compressed colored fabric twists and turns in thick, rich surfaces that stand as pulsing abstractions and capture the fluid brightness of Yellowstone hot pools. A display of sketches and sayings catch the flavor of family trips, ground the art in daily experience and set us on the journey. The overall mood is upbeat and the art full of energy — apt for both its steaming subject Yellowstone, and our own seething inner life. Yum.
Travel is explicit in the next section. Florence Alfano McEwin offers collages that continue her meditations on Red Riding Hood and striking paintings titled “Passage.” Walls of blue paint spill down the surface of these huge canvases and swamp the little hints of orange boats that peek out here and there. Do we have any chance to make it or should we be happy to be lost in so much dark blue? Are we heading down into darkness? I love the mix of feeling and paint here. “Oceanic,” in the sense used by mystics, may be the right word.
Dark and solemn meditation is the realm of Bailey Russel’s small, almost black tintypes. There is a primal quality to these works that evoke the beginnings of photography and put the viewer in a meditative state. The images, sometimes skulls of animals, take us into thoughts of death and eternity. This “momento mori” engagement continues with a self-portrait that evokes melancholy — that state of being that infects Hamlet and some of us in our deeper moments.
Shelby Shadwell’s giant drawings are a louder dark. His fellowship art in 2011 dramatized truck traffic on I-80 with some sense of the terror of winter driving in the areas near Laramie. Some viewers may find terror this time in the mass of bugs in “Universal Picture” or in the somewhat threatening self-portrait, but everyone will admire the virtuoso technique and the baroque density of the pictures. This is a thick, fascinating world that could be the illustrations for dark science fiction — but this is our world coming at you hard.
We emerge from Russel and Shadwell’s underworld with Jennifer Rife’s large projected photos and smaller prints. The meaning is in ordinary items seen over time. She places objects in the environment, photographs them, and removes the objects. The photos play with scale and refuse to be pinned down, named, and neatly explained. The result, puzzling to a quick viewer, rewards extended looking that stimulates a nice internal quiet and Zen sort of dive into things.
Susan Moldenhauer, well known for her photographs of landscapes, here offers color panoramas of urban scenes. The lighting, exquisite composition, absence of people and clarity of detail give a grandeur to the ordinary subject matter. We might see these as portraits of decay, touches of a wasteland city, but there is beauty and quiet here and a feel for the history of these places. Shot with a cell phone on the panorama function, photos show blurred and incomplete items that make the process of photo-making part of the story.
This exhibit takes us on something like Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. We start at home — in Wyoming, Yellowstone counts — filled with hope, depart and descend into a kind of harrowing of hell, and return, perhaps wiser, seeing clearly and appreciating the ordinary all around us. Or you might track here the process of the individual responding to and recovering from disaster. Time in the dark places can help us embrace daily life and enjoy what’s all around, including this gallery with its encouraging story about the creative work happening in Wyoming.
“Wyoming to the World,” will be exhibited at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper until Dec. 31.
Bruce Richardson is a retired English faculty member from the University of Wyoming. Currently on the board of The Wyoming Arts Alliance, he has been chairman of the Wyoming Arts Council, president of the Nicolaysen Art Museum, and board member of The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.