Aesthetes snigger. Academics chuckle. In fact, there’s all sorts of condescending chatter that erupts whenever people—cultured people—discuss traditional, representational art. It ignores the psychic tensions bequeathed to us by Freud. It’s tone deaf to the philosophical ramifications of quantum physics. Blah, blah, blah.
Everyone knows that the work of Thomas Kinkade—progenitor of chapels amidst nature scenes, the man who spawned a national chain carrying his name, the man who buries his wife’s initial somewhere on the canvas in cloying tribute—is God’s gift to anyone looking for something to match that plush recliner in a room of multi-hued shag carpet. The man’s work is proof that the line between banality and horror is dangerously thin.
In the same breath, it’s time someone admitted that Dali’s melting clocks are more cliché than a Warhol print. Even fans of Jackson Pollock laugh at the joke that only he knew when his spattered masterpieces were hanging right side up.
Our city is rife with traditional art, and you might as well embrace it. “First Day of School,” a sculpture on Main Street near 100 South, offers a poem to tell you exactly what the mother thinks as she combs her daughter’s hair. This is spoon-fed art, even if you’d rather keep your mouth shut and feed yourself. No one said this was Paris or Berlin. But here’s a devil’s wager: If you’re a beginner in the world of art, you could do a lot worse than starting at the traditional end of the stick. For it’s here that you’ll soon start to “get” the more wacky stuff. To rebel against tradition is to know tradition.
A perfect starting point is the Southam Gallery. A look through the storefront glass suffices. Where else are you going to get true-to-life images of a rancher with two horses on a snow-covered path bedecked by trees? Actually, a few other galleries besides, but ignore that for a moment. Some Southam offerings flirt with Impressionism and bold brush textures. There’s a quite wonderful painting of sailboats docked in harbor that doesn’t necessarily look like sailboats docked at harbor. Paint misbehavin’! As for the painting of a restaurant worker pouring liquid in a back kitchen, well, all you really come away with is the image of a restaurant worker pouring liquid in a back kitchen. Ten minutes of gazing at that will lead you to …
The Repartee Gallery at ZCMI Mall. This is the perfect spot for any future purchase of Arnold Friberg’s famed “Winter at Valley Forge,” or any spiritual art you hanker for. Painters of Russian icons gave the Savior and all the church saints an eerie, mystical look, as if to say that the ways of God are beyond human imagining. Not here, where Bible scenes are rendered in all the clean detail of television screen images. The politically correct would have a field day. Artist Liz Lemon Swindle gives Jesus and Mary (both Aramaic Jews) blue eyes. With the exception of a few Dr. Seuss prints and fairy tale scenes, the gallery’s offerings are so sincere you feel guilty even shrugging your shoulders.
“I think this kind of art reflects our customers values and loves,” said gallery manager Linda Seivert. “When you can look at a picture that makes you feel warm, safe and happy—that’s what this sort of art work does.”
Walk into the gracious confines of Williams Fine Art, also at ZCMI Mall, and you’ll not only get some of the best in traditional art, but a short course in Utah art history. Hanging right behind the entry desk is a J.T. Harwood original. Along with four others, this poor kid from Lehi was among an elite group of artists the early LDS Church sent to France for instruction. Upon returning, Harwood painted images in the downtown temple. The Harwood painting, which sells in the thousands, radiates a subtle command of beguiling color.
Owned by the equally gracious Clayton Williams, this gallery is one of the last words in early and contemporary Utah art. Himself a painter, Williams worked as an engineer before gathering enough pieces to open his own business in 1988. Representational art does well in Utah for all the traditional reasons. Look at our politics, Williams says. Art, then, is a reflection of what people are comfortable with—a bias everyone’s guilty of. Sure, Williams could offer more daring works, but it somehow wouldn’t seem honest. Honesty. Sticking to what you know and love. Now that’s traditional.
“I appreciate some of it [abstract] art,” Williams said. “But I don’t understand it enough to carry it. I’d feel nervous about recommending it, because I’m not an authority on it. You can’t cover all the bases.”
Love or hate traditional art, few would deny it’s the springboard from which so many other tastes are born. Elitists can snigger all they want. What they should really be is grateful.