SALT LAKE CITY — An abstract photograph of the Provo Temple, artistic scribbles transcribing LDS general conference and a hanging installation of decorative paper are among the diverse array of artworks in the new exhibition “Church vs. State: Contemporary Collecting Praxis” at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
The state of Utah maintains a variety of labels on both a domestic and national stage. The stunningly rugged beauty of Utah’s terrain continues to enthrall locals and outsiders alike. Meanwhile, the unique cultural influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be overstated.
Art often accompanies religion as a communicative force of human interaction. UMOCA’s mission has long been to mine Utah’s specificities and create art exhibitions that both reveal and challenge the state’s cultural norms.
UMOCA’s “Church vs. State” links two separate art collections — from the state of Utah and from the LDS Church — and in doing so explores the ways art simultaneously augments and challenges Utah’s collective identity.
The exhibition is a collaboration between Felicia Baca, visual arts and exhibitions program manager at the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, and Laura Hurtado, global acquisitions curator for the LDS Church History Museum.
To differentiate the institutions from one another, each collection occupies separate rooms in the gallery. The show’s title reflects the common assessment of Utah’s political climate, with artworks that are both literal and symbolic. The comparison evokes fascinating observations, showing how the collections complement and depart from one another. Displaying recent acquisitions obtained by each institution, the exhibit affirms the importance of contemporary art and the ongoing practice of collecting. The state’s assortment encourages the collection of artworks on a diverse spectrum of media, subject and style, while the church selects creatively inspired artworks that resonate with its core objectives and demographic.
For both institutions, a desire to remain relevant to the current artistic climate is apparent. As opposed to more traditional artistic practices, contemporary art often requires acute visual, intellectual and philosophical contemplation. Levi Jackson’s photograph “Pearly Gates” (2014) depicts a ranch fence isolated in the desert. While unspectacular in subject, the solitary gate conjures the loneliness of the vast Great Basin terrain traveled by early Mormon pioneers. Such stark portrayals remind viewers of the price of religious freedom, and the hardships faced by many of our ancestors.
Many of the artworks in this collection affirm the contemporary notion that art does not have to be representational or traditional to be effective. Ambiguous visual statements that hint to — rather than overtly spell out — themes of religion, identity and community mark the exhibition. Brad Slaugh’s oil painting “Latter Day Saints” (2011) recasts contemporary American figures in a style reminiscent of medieval European religious painting. Viewers are invited to take the title quite literally, as they view a modern pair of ‘latter day saints’ taking a drive on a rural highway accompanied by their small dog. While Slaugh’s subject matter is playful, it posits Mormonism as part of an ongoing lineage of religious art.
For visitors, this exhibition is one that reveals valuable insights about both the state of Utah and the LDS Church. “Church vs. State” presents a unique opportunity to evaluate the increasingly complex — albeit unconsidered — collecting strategies taking place behind the scenes.
Each institution’s art collection affirms a vested interest in supporting local artists and communicating intellectually and spiritually relevant messages to the community.
If you go ...
What: "Church vs. State" art exhibition
Where: Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple
When: Through April 11, open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Scotti Hill is an art historian based in Salt Lake City. She teaches art history at the University of Utah and Westminster College and works as a freelance curator and writer.