In this episode of SLUG Soundwaves, Josh Harmon, lead singer of The Backseat Lovers, articulates their journey that led to winning Velour’s Battle of the Bands earlier this year. Based out of Heber City, The Backseat Lovers have diligently gone through the motions of embedded their indie rock (with a hint of folk) in the Provo and Salt Lake scene and continue to make their mark. Harmon also recalls the unique process that The Backseat Lovers went through to record their first album, Elevator Days.

Harmon discusses the relationship between bandmates Jonas Swanson (guitarist/backup vocals), Ethan Christensen (bass/backup vocals) and Juice Welch (drums). Harmon provides an endearing timeline of their development and, more importantly, their growth together as close friends and a band.

Harmon describes his source of inspiration that drives his songwriting to be a form self-reflection. Like most artists, Harmon elaborates on how creating music has been a method for personal growth and self-discovery. Harmon tells us childhood stories that instilled his passion for music and songwriting—an example being Harmon’s triumph at the Intermountain Acoustic Singer/SongWriter Competition when he was just 16.

Conquering this year’s Battle of the Bands was just the beginning for this eager and blossoming group of gentlemen. They intend on moving to either SLC or Provo soon and consequently putting in the work to bring their music to fruition. Harmon touches on the intent to tour and record their first LP within the next year. In the meantime, they aspire to play with Grey Glass in late July and have shows peppered throughout August with dates yet to be confirmed.

At the end of this episode, enjoy their single “Out of Tune.” You can find The Backseat Lovers on Instagram at @the.backseat.lovers.


Thanks for listening to SLUG Soundwaves.

  • This podcast was created by SLUG Magazine and produced by Angela H. Brown, Secily Anderson
  • Associate Producers: Alexander Ortega, Joshua Joye, John Ford, Kathy Rong Zhou
  • Executive Producer: Angela H. Brown
  • Music by The Backseat Lovers
  • Soundwaves logo and art design by Nicholas Dowd
  • Technical design by Matthew Rasmussen
  • Photo courtesy of The Backseat Lovers
Jenn Wasner backing Madeline during a solid opening set. Photo: Matthew Hunter

Wednesday night at Metro Music Hall saw an appearance by 10-year tour vets Wye Oak, performing songs from their new album, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. The new album, released in April of this year, is the sixth full-length record released by the trio in just over a decade and builds on the foundation they’ve laid with past albums like Shriek and Tween. Of course, a group that has been together as long as Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack will naturally evolve and progress over time, but the noticeable sheen of their live performance on Wednesday night, compared to past years’ performances, might be due in part to the addition of bassist William Hackney. For as long as Wasner and Stack have been performing together, they’ve been doing so as a duo, with Stack playing drums with one hand and operating loops or playing various synthesizers with the other, and Wasner crooning folksy, complex melody lines over guitar, bass and keys. This tour, however, has come with the addition of a third bandmate who, on Wednesday night at least, freed up Wasner to contribute new sonic layers to old songs or to spend more time interacting with the audience.

The crowd was in high spirits, too, despite the unusually hot climate inside the venue. In a rare moment of silence between songs, Wasner commented on the positive energy—“You guys take your woos very seriously around here”—which, in turn, elicited even more cheering. The crowd didn’t seem to be bothered much by the lack of any semblance of cool air either, as a large portion of them showed up early for Madeline Kenney’s opening performance and stuck around to the last notes of Wye Oak’s set. Overall, it was a fun and fresh performance that made for an idyllic summer show.


Click images for captions

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Durham, North Carolina’s, electro pop duo Sylvan Esso became an especially compelling cohort among the stellar 2018 Ogden Twilight Concert Series lineup Tuesday night. This marked only the second show of the season to sell out entirely—and on the day of—much to the elation of the crowd and the artists themselves. Vocalist Amelia Meath slid onstage with a clever challenge to the crowd: “Are you ready to feel your feelings?!”

A glowing, geometric-faceted stage setup with an array of synchronized rotating spotlights spun like a hive mind and lit alongside Meath’s vocal entreaties. The slight size of the venue made for a more engaging interaction, an especially enjoyable aspect of the Ogden Amphitheater. Sylvan Esso is an all-electro complement manned by only the duo Meath and Nick Sanborn, a talented producer and sound wizard. No additional stage accompaniment was included, leaving the audience to interact solely with Sanborn and Meath in all their skill and oddity. A properly sizeable crowd of eclectic indie consumers mingled with a jumbled haze of fruity vape and stanky smoke in the air. With a few hefty whiffs, one could easily develop a pleasant and emotional “contact high” from the ambience and the sounds emanating from Ogden’s emerald gem in the heart of town. Meath’s challenge to the audience to connect to themselves through the set seemed to be manifesting itself rather swiftly.

Straight away, Sanborn began twisting knobs voraciously to the clicks of his Tempest drum machine. His engaged electronic ministrations are a joy to behold and a representation of the challenge to keep viewers engaged when the instrumentation is purely buttons, dials, laptops and trigger pads. Meath’s unique voice was not betrayed by a live setting especially during hits such as “Signal”. Sanborn and Meath clearly love their “day jobs” as evidenced by their strange dyadic energy, which imports an odd intimacy. Such a performance could easily become flat-footed and tedious, yet this dynamic duo manage to maintain the vibrations through the entirety of their set. A small sea of voices sang along excitedly during several hits, including “Die Young”, with Meath’s strange gyrations as awkward and charming as her soulful vocal talent. Both display an unexpected athleticism in their onstage performances, something others such as their 2015 Tiny Desk set somewhat fail to capture. Any skeptics of their live execution would likely be mummed by their Ogden Twilight set.

Sylvan Esso’s music made for a lovely soundtrack to a warm, relatively humid midsummer night’s-midweek eve. Their bright, demi-pop electronica and house beats brought the historic Downtown alive in proper fashion. Ushering in the twilight with mellow hit “Coffee” served as a perfect choice for the second half of the act. An overall enthralling and joyful set came to a close with popular early hit “Slave To The Radio”. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Sylvan Esso’s resoundingly successful, sold-out Ogden Twilight set came as Meath summoned the crowd to a collective howl at the moon as the final threads of daylight drew bare. There was a sense the droves were indeed letting forth a primal wail of both glee and sorrow, something rather reflective of exactly what live music ought to be about—the limitless liberation of the inner voice.

Photo: Delaney Teichler

When you dig into the Motor City’s sonic landscape, you’ll discover many different acts with varying talents and abilities such as Trick-Trick, Phat Kat, Bronze Nazareth, Illa J and others (RIP MC Breed, Proof and J. Dilla). However, if I were to make a top-five list of Detroit rap artists from the outside looking in, I’d have to mention Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, Elzhi, Big Sean and … Black Milk.

Black Milk is one of the only rappers I have a comfortable time putting the “underrated” stamp on. His career is storied so catch up if you’re lacking. Regardless of record sales and media hype, his catalogue doesn’t lack for anything when compared to many household names, especially since he’s taken a new direction that has put him in a category that may further distance him from his peers.

SLUG: Who wins a seven-game series, the 1990 Detroit Pistons or the 2004 Detroit Pistons?

Black Milk: Oh! That’s a good question. 1990, easy, ‘cause they’re way tougher. Both of them were great teams, but I’ll go with 1990.

SLUG: Why did you name yourself Black Milk?

Black Milk: It was like everybody on the scene at the time in Detroit had pretty interesting names, unique names. You had the Eminems, you had Slum Village… it was just a lot of different names and for whatever reason, Black Milk was one of the names that came to mind that I thought would make me stick out. I was gonna change it a couple different times, but I didn’t man—it just stuck. I felt like it always thought it made people’s ears perk up, so yeah, that’s kinda how that name came about.

SLUG: What’s the difference between working with a DJ and working with a band?

Black Milk: I mean, you got more freedom to do more things musically … spontaneously, with the band, stuff that wasn’t part of the plan. When you have talented musicians onstage, you can go off and do whatever, versus when you have a DJ, you just gotta stick to the track and the audio that’s coming out of the DJs laptop. I like to have freedom and dynamic sets with the option to be spontaneous onstage.

SLUG: Being from Detroit, how did you pull a band together from New York, Cleveland and Washington, DC?

Black Milk: Well, it started with my man Ab (Aaron Abernathy), the keyboardist. He came in, and we linked up on my second album, Tronic, in 2008 … he was singing on some stuff and playing keys on some stuff, and I decided at that time to do more—not only have live music in my production but bring it to the stage, and he was the guy that kinda brought the musicians together with Malik Hunter (bass player) and, at the time, Daru Jones (and eventually current drummer, Zebulun “Z” Horton, on the drums. Those are the guys he was already playing with, musicians he found from going to Howard University and just being around the scene in DC. We all linked up, had good chemistry and been rocking ever since.

SLUG: What advice to you have to young musicians out there?

Black Milk: Only advice I could give to someone that’s aspiring to be a musician is get ahold of whatever instrument you want to play and train and practice and study that instrument and be a student of music—[don’t just] be a fan. Really get into it. That’s how you become very, very good at what you do. You might have a gift, but you still have to own that gift.

SLUG: Why did you name the new album FEVER?

Black Milk: When I was recording the album, I was writing about all the stuff that’s going on in the world in terms of social issues. We’re in a period where the temperature is high. It’s hot. I don’t know the right word … we’re just on edge. I called it FEVER because the temperature is really high right now. 

SLUG: The album sounds so much better live, which isn’t the case with a lot of hip-hop. What went into that?

Black Milk: When I make the music, especially on my last couple of albums, I keep the live show in mind. I try to keep the band in mind when I putting together a lot of the [material]. So of course, it’s naturally gonna sound even bigger and fresher and just have a different dynamic onstage than in a studio recording. That’s the plan. Do the studio recording and use the album cover as the flier for the show, and when you come to the show, it’s an even more in-your-face, bolder experience.

SLUG: If you could add any artist, dead or alive, to your band, who would it be?

Black Milk: [Exhales] We already got bass, we already got drums, we already got keys… my man [Isaiah] Sharkey. He’s been doing his thing for a minute. He actually played in D’Angelo’s Vanguard. So, I say Sharkie as guitarist—and I got one more! I probably add Coltrane. Some horns, yeah, add a different flavor to the band.

SLUG: What do you miss the most about your hometown when you’re traveling?

Black Milk: Probably the food. Being from Detroit, our hometown food would be Coney dogs, chili dogs, chili fries. I can’t get it in too many other cities—at least I can’t get it like it tastes at the crib.

The next time Black Milk & Nat Turner arrive in Utah, I want them to be to greeted by a sold-out venue in Ogden or Salt Lake City. Something like a park on a weekend. The sound these men produce is too big for an indoor venue and too rich with nutrients for the soul to be overlooked. The summer is still ripe, and festival season is in full swing. Promoters and booking agents, make it happen!

You can purchase Black Milk’s FEVER on all major platforms.

My Life with James Dean (Ma vie avec James Dean)

Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Dominique Choisy

My Life With James Dean is charming, funny and sweet. The slow pace, small-town setting and care with its characters work together to give this film an atmosphere of kindness as aspiring indie filmmaker Géraud Champreux (Johnny Rasse) befriends the people he meets in the coastal town where his new film is being shown for the first time.

Things begin poorly for Géraud when his phone is stolen by a child on the bus into town. They continue in a similar fashion when there is no one there to greet him once he finally arrives at the theater, which—to the knowledge of the staff—is not actually scheduled to play his film. Adding insult to confused injury, when they do show it, only one ticket is sold. The morning after his poorly attended screening, and the night at the bar that followed it, Géraud wakes up in his hotel room. He has been carried there by Balthazar (Mickaël Pelissier), the projectionist from the theater, and Gladys (Juliette Damiens), the hotel receptionist. There, he is greeted belatedly by Chairwoman Sylvia van den Rood (Nathalie Richard), who invited him to show his film, and who explains over breakfast that she is currently going through a bad breakup that caused her to forget about his film entirely.

At this point, My Life With James Dean becomes a rom-com of sorts with trains of people all following each other around town, sudden declarations of love and tirades against the idea of happiness in life when it doesn’t work out, with Géraud right in the middle of everything.

My Life With James Dean’s strongest element is how well it approaches its tropes, particularly that of the film within a film. When creating an homage of any kind, it can be easy to fall into tired clichés or mere repetitions of past work. This film doesn’t waste time trying to explain Géraud’s film to the audience—or worse, showing it. Instead, we see enough to get the idea—an artsy romantic drama that the locals classify as difficult cinema—before shifting focus back to Géraud, his artistic journey and his relationships with the people around him. Similarly, the sillier elements aren’t painted with the broad slapstick comedy strokes often seen in rom-coms, though they still maintain many of the better elements of romantic comedy. And finally the characters are well-written and fully rounded. Each character is odd enough to be funny but small enough to feel real. They all have their little eccentricities, but they don’t fall into the trap of coming off as superficially charming and quirky one-liner machines—they feel like people with real feelings and desires, even when those desires lead them to do ridiculous things. The overall effect is a film with a uniquely sweet story and a cast of characters who—though strange—are relatable and fun. –Lois Brady


Showtime:
Saturday, July 21 // 11:45 a.m. // Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Read more of SLUG’s coverage of the 2018 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

Sisterhood

Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Tracy Choi

Sisterhood is co-parenting without romance. Sei (played by Gigi Leung as her older self and Fish Liew as her teenage self) and Ling (Jennifer Yu) are two Chinese women without any romantic attraction to each other. Ling bears a child into a family outside its definition—two women who love each other as sisters, bonded from their time as masseurs and each willing to raise a child as partners. It’s a premise that could only play out under a system where two people can struggle, where survival is a narrative that follows logically, naturally. I love Sisterhood for many reasons, but the struggle to survive cannot be overlooked. It is born from a place that doesn’t have to exist, but here we are, watching children, wishing their mothers had more. It’s as though this kind of life were avoidable, as though mothers anywhere didn’t need to suffer as they do now in 2018.

Ling works as a masseuse in a Chinese parlor, years before any law imposed respect for women where handjobs are expected with a massage. Ling is defined by her number, and that becomes an identification between her and her friends—Sei chooses 18 to be next to Ling, 19. So begins the unlikely intimacy between both women.

It’s presented as a frame narrative. Sei, now a Taiwanese citizen, visits the part of China she knew as a young girl, only now realizing the exploitation they faced. Her memories of working as a masseuse are punctuated by real experiences of jerking off men—realizing that a double salary carried the shame of stroking a dick. A reality of men’s sexual expectations drives Sei’s early income, and it’s hard to forget.

I’ve talked about co-parenting with several of my friends. It’s not a wild concept—believe me, you could rear a child without a nuclear family—and yet the myth persists: Everyone’s best chance for success lies in heteronormativity! Sisterhood squirms in this apprehension. We see two women who are not romantically involved rear a baby, and the grease of capitalism is unkind. Whatever quarrel you have with China, well, here we are. Sisterhood depicts how raising a child outside the constraints of monogamy is a concept so foreign, it might as well be from another country. These systems are designed to make this harsh, and as Ling and Cei clash, the grease gets sticky.

As an older Sei visits her friends in the massuese business, we see flashbacks to the inception of Lok, the child Sei and Ling raised for two years. An early scene of Sisterhood shows us Sei and Ling at a New Year’s celebration years ago. Sei confronts Ling about their shared child—their quarrel now a foregone conclusion—about how the child deserves a life well-lived. The two parents argue about that, and it comes to a head during the moment of the new year, the significance of which is certainly not lost on Sei, our protagonist and lens. Long ago, she took on a birthday of her own, deciding her importance to the world. It’s this moment that they split, and a moment Sei returns to continually as she searches for the child in modern day.

Some queer people may wonder why a film like this has a place in queer cinema. Let me posit this: Sisterhood is inherently disruptive. Women loving women, even platonically, can be a radical act. In Sisterhood, it’s nothing less. The product of love is emphasized less than the act of loving outside its defined boundaries, and it’s there, the confused space, that we find friends who exist outside of heteronormative boundaries. –Parker Mortensen


Showtime:
Saturday, July 21 // 9 a.m. // Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Read more of SLUG’s coverage of the 2018 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

Close-Knit

Close-Knit (Karera ga honki de amu toki wa)

Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Naoko Ogigami

Naoko Ogigami’s thoughtful, pastel-hued family drama Close-Knit follows the self-sufficient and searching Tomo, played by Rinka Kakihara. Tomo is an 11-year-old schoolgirl who subsists on packaged rice balls in the messy apartment she shares with her careless mother, Hiromi (Mimura), who thinks nothing of running off and leaving her daughter alone for days on end. Each time Hiromi disappears, Tomo—frustrated but unsurprised—dons her large backpack and walks to a bookstore. There, she waits for her kind uncle, Makio (Kenta Kiritani), to finish working and heads to live with him until Hiromi shows up again.

This time when her mother vanishes, however, there’s a shift in the pattern: Makio has fallen in love, and he now lives with his girlfriend, Rinko (Tôma Ikuta). A transgender woman, the sweet, gentle-mannered and open-hearted Rinko works as a nurse for the elderly—Makio tells Tomo that he first fell in love with Rinko when he saw the softness with which she cared for Tomo’s grandmother. Rinko immediately adores Tomo, and Tomo, though guarded and confused at first, soon embraces Rinko as a friend and mother figure. Tomo enjoys with Rinko all the close-knit family experiences she didn’t have with Hiromi: Rinko cooks Tomo’s favorite dishes and assembles adorable bento boxes, plays Wii with Tomo and her classmate Kai (Kaito Komie), races bicycles with Makio, and teaches Tomo how to knit—a pastime Rinko turns to whenever she feels angry or “so depressed [she wants] to die.”

That last bit hints at the very real but more difficult conflicts that Ogigami touches on in Close-Knit. Beyond the soft lighting, intimate dialogue, orchestral score and warm family scenes, we see both Tomo and Kai (who confides to Tomo that he has feelings for another boy), already at a lonely and transitioning point in their lives, get bullied, feel abandoned, and lash out—or lash in. In both the present and in flashbacks to Rinko’s adolescence, we see that while she was lucky to have a supportive—though somewhat no-filter—mother, she still faces bitter, day-to-day discrimination, feels self-conscious about the large size of her hands, and has to deal with the bureaucratic barriers that come with being a woman but having “Male” listed on your identification card.

Close-Knit is deeply felt. While Ogigami certainly adds some stylistic flourish throughout, she’s not here to solely wring emotional acrobatics. Instead, with the film’s 127-minute runtime, Ogigami is patient and sensitive as ever in her filmmaking. She’s in tune to the pulse of her arcs, making for adeptly timed and paced moments of upheaval. And while she doesn’t minimize her characters’ traumas or struggles, she centers their shared joy. Brought to life by excellent and compassionate performances from all its cast, Close-Knit is mostly gentle, mostly measured as it weaves through what it means to grow up, to nurture and to love. –Kathy Rong Zhou


Showtime:

Sunday, July 22 // 9 a.m. // Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

Read more of SLUG’s film coverage of the 2018 Damn These Heels Film Festival.

(L–R) Eugene and Rock Kim have started The Bean Yard in Sandy for high-quality, Q Grade coffee experience in Sandy.

Walking through the front door of The Bean Yard, it’s clear to see the sleek, communal vision of Sandy’s newest coffee shop. Eugene Kim, co-founder and General Manager, stands behind a brand-new, chrome espresso machine working on his latte art. In addition to the espresso machine, there are siphon brewers, both for in-store use and for purchase, as well as drip brewers for on-the-go customers. There are also two rooms with large windows facing the café area, one for roasting and one for classes. The main café area is spacious with ample seating, which Eugene hopes will encourage people to come work or have meetings at The Bean Yard, “I think that because there’s been a lot of growth in this area it makes sense to have more local community shops for people to come and enjoy and support,” he says, “We want people to be comfortable and relaxed when they come in here but also to provide a collaborative environment.”

The need for specialty coffee in the south part of Salt Lake County was one of the factors that drove Eugene to start The Bean Yard. “It’s not specifically a passion for coffee for me, it’s the business side of being a community and giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy something different in this area,” he says as he works on frothing the milk to achieve the perfect cappuccino. Though Eugene manages the logistical side of The Bean Yard, co-founder and resident Q Grader Rock Kim has the knowledge, coffee passion and expertise to support The Bean Yard’s mission of providing ethically sourced coffee to a new market. “I think the biggest thing that makes us stand out [in Salt Lake] is that Rock is a Q Grader. Q Grading is the highest certification for cupping coffee and understanding the quality of the coffee that you’re getting,” says Eugene. Though Eugene’s coffee knowledge isn’t as extensive as Rock’s, he is currently engrossed on being able to cup and process coffee properly under Rock’s guidance.

Photo: Bonnie Ward | @gymclassphotography

As a Q Grader, Rock is recognized by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) to “cup coffee using specific methods, grade coffee beans based on taste and smell and trained to hone in on traits of quality coffee,” according to Rock. Part of the aim of the CQI is to promote mindfulness of how coffee is brewed, processed and sourced. This is something The Bean Yard hopes to reflect in its practices. “Fair Trade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified, a lot of these terms are used, and we try our best to meet these standards … Rock wants everything that comes to us to be fair to everyone in the process,” says Eugene.

Specifically, The Bean Yard is working with vendors who get their beans from E Café Chiapas, a coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico, whose mission is to fund schools in coffee farming communities around that area. For Rock and Eugene, being able to use quality coffee while also supporting this symbiotic relationship was an easy choice. “Our major point with supporting E Café is supporting the community—the schools and the farms,” says Eugene. Working with E Café to help fund education in the area where coffee comes from ensures that the communities who grow and sell coffee can continue to do so, as well as providing the highest–quality coffee for The Bean Yard. The Bean Yard also plans on hosting classes—taught by Rock—on coffee processes and cupping that will be open to the public in the near future.

The vision that both Rock and Eugene have for The Bean Yard is to bring coffee to the Sandy area that is ethically sourced and can be held to a global standard, something they’ve started to see in Utah in other specialty coffee shops but want to make more commonplace. “We’re trying to educate people on the standards and bring them into the process as well,” says Eugene. “[We’re trying to] educate people on why this coffee, why we’re doing it this way and the flavor profile you’re experiencing.” In addition to coffee, The Bean Yard is planning on selling breakfast items, with some offerings from Sandy-based Lone Pine Bakery as well as serving tea. The Bean Yard, located at 883 E. 9400 South. in Sandy, plans on opening to the public on July 16. They are premiering an Ethiopian coffee with notes of honey and blueberry as a first official offering. For more information on E Café or The Bean Yard, visit e-cafechiapas.com and thebeanyard.com.

Nancy Rivera's show featuring series After van Huysum goes up in UMOCA's A-I-R Space Aug. 3–Sept. 1. Photo: @clancycoop

Sitting on a table in Nancy Rivera’s modest studio in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) are three green vases on a paisley-patterned, silk-like paper that’s emerald green. In the vases are flowers that are delicately and methodically arranged but somehow still erratic to the eye—perhaps because they’re synthetic, completely artificial, or perhaps it’s their relative foreignness to each other, each flower from a season and even biome that would normally preclude their existence together. In any case, the flowers look perfectly real. They require no maintenance. They are beautiful, unique—and could only realistically exist as fakes.

Nancy Rivera, "After Jan van Huysum: 2" from After Jan van Huysum (2018).
Nancy Rivera, “After Jan van Huysum: 2” from After Jan van Huysum (2018). Bouquet arrangement: Mia Atherton.

These arrangements are a component of Rivera’s residency at UMOCA, after which her work will be displayed through this August. The vases are a purposeful appropriation of the work of 18th century Dutch painter Jan van Huysum, well regarded for his still-life paintings of flower arrangements. Because Huysum’s paintings were composed of flowers imported from all over Europe and Asia, the paintings would take years to create, ultimately becoming composites of flowers that had never actually occupied the vase at the same time. “Now it’s the year 2018 versus 1727,” Rivera says. “I have the ability of going online and order the exact same flowers that he used to create those arrangements, except they’re all synthetic.” It flips the thought on its head: What was fake is real, and what was real is now fake.

Of course, it was always fake. Van Huysum made paintings, and Rivera takes photographs. But the point is to steer you down that line of thinking. Most art is “fake” under a certain definition, but that subconscious moment of choice, a lightning strike between boundaries, is exactly what keeps Rivera chipping away at the concept. The pieces bring Van Huysum’s ideas into not just the contemporary current but also the landscape around us. “We are surrounded by nature,” Rivera says, “but within that world we still have things that we construct that we still call nature.” As an example, we discuss lawns: We curate them, mow and preen them, taming their growth. And maybe it’s not that deep—a lawn is a lawn—but undeniably it’s also a preference for a certain order, a patch of the wild for decoration. Rivera is asking about those assumptions, those ones we make about our relationship to the natural world, and what that designation means: its value and, when we inevitably alter it, how and why our perception of its value changes.

Rivera has wrestled with this boundary of the real since her days completing her MFA at the University of Utah. Her work centered around the cyanotype processes, a cameraless form of photography that exposes a photosensitive iron solution onto a surface and then dries it in a dark room. (The name cyanotype comes from the color of the resulting images, which are shades of light blue, cyan.) This was the process of the first recorded woman photographer Anna Atkins, who was trained as a botanist and photographed plants for her own scientific reference. Rivera plays off Atkins’ work as well, creating cyanotypes of flowers both synthetic and real, and the finished product makes the difference near indistinguishable. “It’s very hard to see which one’s real and which is artificial,” she says.

Photo: @clancycoop
Nancy Rivera’s Herbarium Obscura series challenges our notions of the natural and artificial with cyanotypes of both real and synthetic leaves. Photo: @clancycoop

Though blueprint-like, the cyanotype destabilizes our perception of the camera as the origin point of the photograph, challenging our reliance on a perceived natural order. Rivera’s use of craft materials works similarly. “In the late ’70s, early ’80s, artists were still debating what was considered ‘contemporary fine artwork’ versus ‘craft,’” says Rivera. “A lot of artists started creating things like embroideries, quilts, that type of thing, that’s usually thought of as a ‘craft’ but incorporating it into a contemporary art context, bringing it into the gallery, has people look at it and say, ‘This is art.’” From here follows Rivera’s vases and synthetic arrangements, which, beyond their high-level conceptual wringing, are aesthetically very pretty. You could even call them beautiful, though Rivera characterizes that as reductive to contemporary art.

“I think people minimize ideas,” Rivera says. “They see, for example, the cyanotype pieces … and they’re like, ‘It’s beautiful!’ … That’s something you really have to push [the audience] into thinking more about. Some people are more open to it than others, and it’s fine. Art is supposed to be fun to look at and something that’s appealing. All art in some way is inherently … beautiful? I hate to use that word, but there you go.” 

Rivera’s family emigrated from Mexico when she was 12. “I just stuck around,” she says. We both agree there’s a calmness to Salt Lake in comparison to other, larger cities. But one of the things that bothers her is the relatively small amount of space given here to contemporary art. “We have one contemporary art museum and a couple of contemporary galleries … sometimes I just want to see things and get inspired by other people’s work … going online and looking something up, it’s not the same as going into the gallery,” she says. “I’m seeing the work. It’s such a different experience. I think Salt Lake lacks that, and that’s my only complaint about the city.” I ask her if she thinks things are improving. “I think there are a lot of people who are trying to make a change,” she says. “There’s Luminaria, who are a photography studio who’s doing alternative and contemporary photography work, and that’s really exciting. But we used to have Central Utah Art Center—I used to work at CUAC just before it closed, and it’s just disappointing to see places like that leave.”

Later that weekend, after our interview, I mowed my lawn, but before I did, I noticed my compulsion to do it, to bring it into a feeling of order. It’s a moment that usually passes unnoticed. That evening I bought some flowers, some real ones, and put them in a vase, and I tried not to think ahead to the inevitable day when I would throw away the dead thing.

Nancy Rivera’s four-piece exhibition opens in UMOCA’s A-I-R Space on Aug. 3 and runs through Sep. 1. For more information, visit utahmoca.org and find Rivera on Instagram as @_nancy_rivera.

Editor’s note: The bouquet arrangement of “After Jan van Huysum: 2” was previously uncredited. It has been updated with credit to Mia Atherton.

Charles K. Lassiter, "Blue Group Reclining" (detail), from An Outsider Looking Inward.

Click images for captions

Charles K. Lassiter, "Blue Group Reclining," from An Outsider Looking Inward.
Charles K. Lassiter, “Blue Group Reclining,” from An Outsider Looking Inward.

I’ve been to the Bountiful Davis Art Center (BDAC) many times, but this particular gallery opening felt special: the streets were adorned with chalk from the chalk festival, and children and adults were celebrating art with caricatures of Lightning McQueen or Rapunzel. It was a warm Friday night, one of those soft Utah nights that hint at true summer. As those nights of heat near, BDAC offers six new exhibitions that explore abstraction, mediation, color and more.

In the main gallery is An Outsider Looking Inward, a showing of several pieces of art by the late Charles Keeling Lassiter. Lassiter broke from popular abstract expressionism in the ’50s and became renowned in his own right, but today a big part of what frames his works is his agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that few of us know much about, but about which much is assumed. Lassiter’s paintings and drawings are colorful and diverse, often depicting human-looking shapes and structures in perspective using complementary colors. The abstractions often feel anthropomorphic, such as in “Blue Group Reclining,” where it almost looks like a group of blue figures are having an orgy, holding each other and bent across one another. It’s messy and incongruous, but to me it’s there, and with Lassiter’s work I often felt this tendency to lay my ideas of agoraphobia down as a lens for his work. Knowing as little about the phobia as I did, I couldn’t help but want to see a longing, a meditation on solitude as well as socialization. “Waking Brain” depicts a man looking at his audience; he seems shirtless, and his gaze is unnerving. Lassiter’s best works—such as this one—shake you out of your ability to pathologize his art.

This is a sharp contrast to Oonju Chun, whose show Ignition shares the main gallery. “My paintings are totally devoid of meaning from its creator,” Chun says. “The emotional response is direct and immediate.” It’s true, and you can ease your strain to connect with art just by looking at Chun’s work. A painting like “Big Fifth I,” for instance, instantly draws you in by not requiring anything from you more than the moment you decided to look at it. Chun makes work that looks erratic but holds a sense of calm—it’s a rawness turned into something visual and there’s something comforting about knowing that you can trust how you feel about something. A piece like “Linger,” in which most of the painting is offset by a large, black void overlapping many suffocating colors, may have the capacity for a robust reading, but there’s something to be said for looking at a work using intuition alone.

Lastly in the main gallery is The Heritage of Mankind by John Mack. “My intention is to invoke curiosity,” Mack says. “The objects may appear familiar yet have instilled in them a sense of mystery as to their purpose and identity; stimulating the imagination and hopefully forcing us to think beyond what we know.” These curious objects are large and punctuate the gallery, a sort of way to pull you in and out of other works with their knowing alienation. “Probe 82012” is a spiny satellite while “POD 1051882” almost looks like a large, homemade steel bomb. They’re strange artifacts with whimsy and polish, and as you move between Chun’s fluttering paints and Lassiter’s fascinations, it’s impossible to avoid the strange allure Mack creates.

Annexed from the main gallery is Leslie D. Pippen’s Choose to See a Car Accident, Snake or Owl. These simple paintings of flowers and sunsets and back porches with UFOs are mediated by hundreds of small, translucent beads sitting flush on the paintings’ surface, and the effect is that the work reflects a different light, channeled into a grid of plastic pixels. “Eclipse in Totality 2017” is my favorite: a large portrait painting of a watermelon and a plant, the sun above sprinkling down drops of yellow that form the background. Up close the watermelon looks simple, colorful but unremarkable. It’s once I step back, then forward and back again, that I see how much odd vitality is added by the beads. “Plastic is the material of modern mechanical reproduction and the legacy of human distancing from nature,” says Pippen. “It is quite possibly the residue of a creature that has outgrown its incubator and exhausted the yolk.”

The last two showings are in BDAC’s underground gallery. Amy Fairchild and Havoc Hendricks share the space, and Fairchild’s minimalist and color-focused Color My World pairs nicely with Hendricks’ focus on clean shapes and lines in Moons & Mountains. Fairchild spent most of her young life in Germany, but after graduating from Westminster, she found herself exploring color through photography. “Striving to remove the complications of daily life into a morphing form of pure color is what I pursue,” she says. The photographs are calming and hazy, though pure in color, and they play off any light sources near them. Seeing myself reflected in them and their soft hues was comforting, and I liked holding up my camera light to them to see the way each would react. Hendrick’s pieces don’t play with light, but their minimalist, graphic design–esque nature slots well with Fairchild. “Mountain Install” looks three-dimensional but isn’t, which is a simple illusion of its cascading line work and flowing color. “Moon Arch Blue” and “Moon Arch Pink” both sit together, two pieces that also focus on one color and use it to draw your eye across the acrylic.

You can see each of these exhibitions through June 22 at BDAC, 90 N Main St. 10–6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Visit bdac.org for more information.