Spiritual and Religious exhibit honors Utah's best

Published: Friday, Dec. 17 2010 8:00 p.m. MST

Lynn Smith Griffin, "Last Wagon, Hole in the Rock, San Juan Mission," oil

In the center of the Springville Museum of Art's Music Gallery, there is a huge contraption, replete with all kinds of knobs and levers. In the center chamber, a tornado rages; supposedly it has the power to vaporize the unrighteous and send them off to perdition.

Whenever museum director Vern Swanson gives tours of the gallery, he likes to stop by the chamber and invite anyone who wants to stick their hand inside. There is always hesitation, he says, because, no matter how good we think we are, there's always that niggling feeling that we're not good enough.

"Tornado 3.0," by Andrew Peterson Smith, is a perfect example of everything that Swanson loves about the annual Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah exhibition at the museum. It not only shows that there are many, many ways to think about faith and art, but also that those works teach us a lot about ourselves.

That's the purpose of the annual juried show, which is now in its 25th year, he says. "We look for art that is overtly spiritual or religious. And if it is not, it better have a good title."

This is a show, he says, "where titles really matter." You might see the occasional "Untitled" fallback, but in this kind of art, "it is much better to let the artist tell us what he is thinking. A good title is the literary equivalent of a good frame; it sets the work off and offers a key to the content. Of course, it is an abbreviation and can't tell the whole story; you still have room to make up your own story. But this show demands well-thought-out titles."

For example, Susette Billedeaux Gertsch has a dramatic work showing an artist painting a stormy sunset. It's just a pretty picture, Swanson says, "until you read the title: 'Father, I'm Listening.' With the small artist in the corner and the title, there's a point and counterpoint that adds a new dimension."

The same is true of Kirsti Ringger's bronze hand, which hangs pendulum-style over a box of sand. The slightest movement causes it to make patterns in the sand. It's interactive and fun to play with, until you see that the title is "Jesus," and then you think of the story where the woman taken in adultery was brought before Jesus, Swanson says, and the scripture talks about how he drew in the sand. "It becomes quite poignant — such a powerful, simple statement."

And there's a sculpture by Dennis Domingo of Christ on the cross. "This is the most painful, most harrowing sculpture of that I think I have ever seen," Swanson says. And then you read the title: "Paid in Full." And that grabs you even more, he says.

As you walk through the show, which runs through Dec. 28, you will see much evidence of the power and ability of art to convey spiritual messages, Swanson says. You will see scenes from the life of Christ, scenes from the Book of Mormon and the Mormon pioneers. But you will also see representations of Hindu faith in Trent Alvey's "Green Tara" and "White Tara." You will see some meditative mandalas by Gil L. McIff called "Intuition" and "Inspiration." You will see a billboard by Ron Escudero that was a call to "Come Unto Me" for a church in Ogden.

"Although it is judged like an art show, it is really more about spiritual expression than art per se," Swanson says. "That means that many nonobjective abstracts and straight landscapes tend to get juried out."

The show has 193 works. And, Swanson adds, "it's our best one yet. I don't know if that's because after 25 years, the show is reaching a new level or maturity, or because with all that's going on in the world, there is more of this kind of art. You hear a lot about how people went to the movies more during the Great Depression, but they also went to church a lot. They were striving for something to take away the pain."

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