Last month I kindly provided my husband some uninterrupted bonding time with his children and flew to New York City for a few days. On the recommendation of a friend (bloggernacle personality D. Fletcher), I stopped by Lane Twitchell’s current art show, “Here & There,” at the Greenberg Van Doren gallery in midtown. Twitchell is a Utah-born and Mormon-bred artist presently based in Brooklyn, and his work has generated an enviable commercial and critical attention in recent years. The Van Doren gallery housing his installation is tucked into a floor of an office tower on Fifth Avenue, a lucid space of white walls and right angles and open to glorious crown sky lighting.
The show comprised nine wall pieces. The pieces, ranging in size from about 48 to 72 inches square (with the exception of two much smaller works), are assembled from an intricate cut-paper stratum layered on top of wood panel and underneath a glossy plexiglass casing, with colored paint applied to each layer in places. The dimensionality of its construction collapses in display, however: the pieces are viewed like paintings on a wall, flat in contour (though not in color or texture). Twitchell’s fold-and-cut paper technique–a grown-up version of a schoolchild’s paper snowflake–allows him to produce an inexhaustibly detailed field of cut forms, and then, astonishingly, to exactly reproduce a perfectly symmetrical opposite field: a work of art in our age of mechanical reproduction that, managing to marry aura with reproducibility, might even please Walter Benjamin. In this show, the relentless symmetry of Twitchell’s method orients itself around the diagonal axis, rather than around the radial or perpendicular as his past work has done; in certain pieces, however, Twitchell slyly shifts the organizing diagonal in successive concentric squares to produce a complex rubix-cubed effect, at once symmetrical and varied. His nesting rectilinear forms, like the yarn-and-popsicle-stick godseyes I made in elementary school, converge on an off-center vanishing point below the midpoint of the diagonal axis, providing an entry point for the eye and an anchor for perspectival lines. Twitchell uses color to draw the eye across the surface of the piece, often laying down darker earth tones in the bottom left or right corner and graduating the chromatic values–sometimes with an abrupt shift at the vanishing point–along the diagonal toward airy arabesques on top. The total effect can be shockingly polychomatic with neons and pastels or somber and restrained with neturals–but always kinetic, drawing the eye along swoops and sweeps of colored form. The forms themselves–the shapes cut into the paper–are intricate, iterative figures from natural landscapes (tree limbs and spider webs) and urban cityscapes (street lights, power lines, parking spaces). These shapes can be wildly diverse, without apparent thematic or narrative connection: cryptic personal symbolism, mundane images of a daily lifescape, and pure abstract form are connected only by the paper itself, incised as they are into a single sheet. In this sense, theme and narrative recede behind the papery medium itself. Twitchell’s cut forms are whimsical, often witty, as in motifs of Pringle cans and lotion dispensers. Their flat surfaces and sharply-cut outlines have a comic book’s clear graphic edge, and its weightless aesthetic, too.
What Twitchell’s work doesn’t have–and what, as a Mormon viewer, I couldn’t help looking for–is an overtly Mormon aesthetic project. This is in part an effect of his non-representational (or at least highly-mediated-representational) style: it’s difficult to say that his work in this show, at least, is “about” anything in the way that, say, Greg Olsen’s or even Wulf Barsch’s work is “about” something. In the past, Twitchell’s titles have provided a Mormon lens through which to view the work–phrases like “The Blood & Sins of This Generation,” or “Lands Northward & Southward”–but here the pieces’ titles were not posted. (Possibly titles were provided in a program or catalog, but this viewer, at least, could not locate any such thing in the gallery.) Twitchell has characterized paper cutting as part of the folk and craft tradition, continuous with historical Mormon craft traditions like carving, quilting, and pine carpentry; this connection doesn’t appear to me, however, either vital in present-day Mormonism or active in Twitchell’s work.
This is not to say that Twitchell ought not be considered in a Mormon context, however: Twitchell himself has situated his work in precisely that context in his contribution to Mormoniana , a fabulously innovative collaboration between LDS artists and musicians in which Twitchell’s creation is paired with the sublime work of D. Fletcher. Nor is it to suggest that Mormon imagery is absent from the show. The most striking instance is a large fist that appears to emerge, foreshortened, clearly displaying a CTR ring; its mirrored twin on the opposite field, however, wears a slightly different ring that substitutes a symbol resembling a doubled X for the CTR. Since this is the single passage of false symmetry that I detected in the entire show, it seems significant–but I’m at a loss for interpretation. (The artist was present in the gallery while I was there, and I almost approached him to ask about the mysterious CTR switch-out, but was uncharacteristically overcome by bashfulness.) Another piece features a white thrust ascending the diagonal above a field of green and brown and toward a heaven-like expanse of curving, dancing lines: Twitchell’s take, perhaps, on that most Mormon of all visual images, the temple.
Mormon visual aesthetics is still young, and its forms have largely been driven by its functions. Its functions, though, have been surprisingly diverse: included among them are portraiture, including the oil portrait of my children’s ancestor Charles Rich that hung in the Nauvoo temple; documentary, including C.C.A. Chistensen’s magnificent pioneer epics; ritual-liturgical, including Minerva Teichert’s breathtaking mural in the Manti world room (I was nearly transported with joy when I learned that the Nauvoo temple would feature wall murals); decorative, including the work of the French-trained “art missionaries” John Hafen and James Harwood; and, above all, devotional and pedagogical including the work of Arnold Friberg and Harry Anderson, who, incidentally, was not Mormon but Seventh-Day Adventist! (For an excellent and very lovely survey of Latter-day Saint art, see Richard G. Oman’s Images of Faith.) And the functional diversity of Mormon art, together with the (recent) cultural diversity of its producers, make it difficult to fix Mormon art along the Catholic-Protestant differential that has organized most discussion of Christian art. The traditional categorical divisons of liturgical/pedagogical, idolatry/iconoclasm, literal/figurative–all of which are simply cognates of the central Catholic/Protestant distinction–can’t accommodate Mormonism’s complex relationship to the the visual arts: a glance around an LDS chapel assures me that we’re resolutely pedagogical, not liturgical, about our art, but the recent emphasis on placing images of Christ and the temple in our homes bears a distinctly Catholic devotional cast. (For a fascinating discussion of Mormon aesthetics centering on the image of Christ, see this great issue of BYU Studies.)
That a Mormon aesthetic is difficult to discern in Lane Twitchell’s work, then, may owe as much to the aesthetic as to the work itself. In short, I don’t think a distinctly or uniquely Mormon visual aesthetic has emerged–and perhpas it never will. Inasmuch as Mormon art elevates theme and function above style and school, it must be understood as a primarily ethnic (religiously construed) rather than an aesthetic movement. And I, for one, like it that way. Because the emotional sensations accompanying an aesthetic stimulus can resemble the sensation accompanying a spiritual stimulus–you know, that thrilling rush of warm tingles–a “religious aesthetic” may muddy the message: am I responding to a recognition of spiritual truth, or to a recognition of artistic achievement? Later in my visit to NYC I visited the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s masterpiece “Bird in Space.” As I entered the room, I was immediately moved to tears by an overwhelming and totally unexpected emotional response to the beauty of its pure form, undulating, elegant, pristine; it was a singular artistic experience, and one that I treasure. I’ll never have that response when I look at a Del Parsons painting, probably. But when I do feel that rush of glad emotion as I contemplate the life and the love of Jesus Christ, I’ll recognize it as a spiritual witness. And I’ll treasure it.