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."
Artists are "prescient," he says. "They are often the first to recognize the ominousness in the air." Artists, he says, sense the need for a spiritual boost as things get darker in the world, and they respond. So the number of highly significant pieces in this show is higher than ever. "Of course, there's always room for improvement. We fully expect next year's show to be better than this year's."
But there are plenty of pieces here to savor and enjoy, he says. "Some are historical; some are interpretative; some are thought-provoking."
For example, there's Michael J. Bingham's "Good and Evil," a wood sculpture of a church spire that appears to be rotting at the bottom. There's Patrick Marco Devonas' "Jesus," which "a lot of people have told me is their favorite portrait of Christ ever," Swanson says. There's Jean J. Clay's cloth mache figure of Gordon B. Hinckley that is very endearing. There's Doc Christensen's "Sacrament Meeting," which looks like a familiar scene until you notice who is passing the sacrament. There's Adam Abram's "No Greater Love," which shows Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. "The scriptures say there was a storm, but no one ever paints the rain," Swanson says. "Here, you see the wet hair, the storm. It's very emotive."
Brian Kershisnik's "Descent From the Cross" is equally compelling, Swanson says. "Every few years Brian does a piece on a major scale. He always has something to say that penetrates deeper." In this case, you see grieving family and friends taking down Christ's body, "but you also see beyond the veil, the cavalcades of angels, who are also weeping. Even though they know more about what's going on in the big picture, they, too, can't hold back the tears of pain and grief. It's very powerful," Swanson says. In fact, it was the piece he selected for his Director's Award.
One of the things Swanson also finds very exciting about this year's show is the number of "artists that I've never heard of before. I do try to keep up with the state's artists, but there are always new ones coming along. I had never heard of Dennis Domingo. But after viewing his harrowing sculpture, I will never forget him."
The same could be said for others. "I love this show," Swanson says. The sense of power, the complexity, the emotion — these are things that will touch the soul and the mind. "They say that religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. That's what you get here. It's just an amazing, amazing show."