This is the place (where we will see bread dough sculptures)

Most outsiders perceive Utah as without art. People who have never been here may shrug off this state as some philistine wasteland, governed by religious dominance and marred by homogeneity. Those in the know, however, realize that the glorious Beehive State actually has a thriving art culture.

Moreover, no one can deny that Utah has quite an unusual history. Especially not artist and sculptor Robert Fontenot.

Fontenot, whose new exhibit showcases a body of work geared almost exclusively for Utahans, was obviously drawn to Utah’s unique and sometimes checkered past. The Los Angeles-based artist offers bread-dough sculpture, needlework and watercolors – domestic handicraft techniques that may resonate with Utah natives – in pieces that blend both beauty and cynicism to reflect what becomes inculcated into our culture and history. Titled “The Place This Is,” the solo exhibit will be on display at Salt Lake Art Center through June 1, 2011.

“The exhibition seeks to create a portrait of Utah from the perspective of an outsider in Los Angeles researching the symbols, myths, landmarks and complex political and religious ideologies that help define this complicated state,” said Micol Hebron, Senior Curator of Exhibitions of Salt Lake Art Center, in a press release.

The title of the Fontenot’s show is an obvious spinoff from that famous quip often attributed to Brigham Young, “This is the place.”  There are, however, still doubts as to whether Young said this or not – there is no recorded firsthand account of this statement’s utterance. The title therefore compels us to remember that we inevitably decide what is memorialized in our history. It also reminds us that we assign the meaning to the objects of our past and present.

“Only occasionally do we hear, ‘This is the right place’,” said Fontenot, referencing another variant of what Young might have said, “and I really like the idea of turning it around. … It’s more about what actually happens here; it’s much more about the people than the place.”

As part of the display, there are over one hundred bread dough renderings of iconic Utah landmarks and symbols ranging from some of the more obvious, like Delicate Arch and Spiral Jetty, to the simply hilarious, such as the goblins featured in the cult film Troll 2 and the Bear Lake Monster. The largest of these sculptures is his tiled bread-dough portrayal of the largest man-made structure in Utah, the Kennecott Copper Mine. A whimsically portrayed draft of smoke spews from the furnace, trailing around the walls of the gallery.

“The idea was to take something disgusting and set it against something fantastical,” said Fontenot.

Fontenot’s work reveals a knack for irony and humor that is often hard to find in contemporary art, something that is especially evident in his needlework pieces.  One installation, titled “The Dictionary of Earthly Delights,” represents Fontenot’s experimentation with complex needlework techniques. The beautiful stitches are paired with violent, macabre and sinister words that are antithetical to the elegance of the embroidery.

“I found a website offering different embroidering techniques, and this is basically a sampler,” said Fontenot. “The words came later. I started looking at words devoid of their meaning. … Some of these are obviously related and others aren’t. When you put a word together with an image, people will try to create their own meaning. I have some with no meaning, even some with counter meanings, and people will try even more desperately to figure out my intentions.”

Fontenot also takes an interest in what he calls the “darker side of the craft world,” which he articulates through an interest in political assassins and serial killers. One of his pieces is rather grandiloquently titled “The Last Words of Charles J. Guiteau, Recited on the Occasion of His Execution for the Heinous Assassination of President Garfield, 1881.” The piece incorporates the same juxtaposition of darkness and beauty, setting the assassin’s last words on a beautifully embroidered church banner.

“As he danced his way to the gallows in 1881,” said Fontenot, “he recited these words. I wanted to represent pure insanity, and I used this church banner to represent the religious basis for his insanity.”

Included in this exhibition are a few other installations, including a photography series of images of his home state of Alabama, called “Lower Alabama.” Fontenot says that these are the familiar symbols, landscapes and individuals that help memorialize his own history and understanding of his home state and thus an “insider’s perspective” of his home. These are included in the exhibition in order to contrast perspectives and display how something intimate can seem so alien to an audience and how something equally foreign to an artist can seem familiar to its audience.

“The Place This Is” will be on display through June 1 at Salt Lake Art Center. For hours and more information about the exhibit, as well as the artist, visit www.SLArtCenter.org.

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