While many of the figures in UMOCA’s A Greater Utah are familiar, the ambitious scope of the project allows for new perspectives outside of the state’s metropolitan center.
A Greater Utah
July 28, 2023-January 6, 2024
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City
Whereas the Utah Museum of Fine Arts serves as the state’s preeminent collecting institution, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art lends credibility to the state’s vibrant artistic output. By providing a critical venue to contextualize Utah artists, UMOCA also legitimizes the state’s place within and acknowledgement of important international trends in contemporary art. Yet, cultural institutions like UMOCA fall into the same pattern as their national counterparts—rendering the metropolitan center as a monolith of the state at large.
Perhaps this is why UMOCA’s leadership endeavored to expand their reach in the ambitious collective A Greater Utah, a survey of sorts, of not just Salt Lake City, but the artistic output of the entire state. The exhibition is organized by counties within the state that comprise significant cultural or geographic regions, wherein curators were invited to craft individual exhibitions based on these locales. The curators include Nancy Rivera for Salt Lake County, Peter Everett for Utah County, Tiana Birrell for Northern Utah, Amy Jorgensen for San Pete County, Jessica Kinsey for Southern Utah, and Valentina Sireech (Ute) for Eastern Utah. The curatorial and institutional objective is to “destabiliz[e] the singular voice of a set curatorial practice,” according to a press statement.
The idea here is novel, especially considering this inevitable trend that befalls all similarly situated states with a metropolitan center nestled within a large geographic area. In other words, the sprawling landscape often exists as subservient to the cultural center, unique histories and traditions ignored. This isn’t the first time UMOCA has undertaken an elaborate survey of Utah art. In 2013, the museum launched the Utah Biennial: Mondo Utah, which sought to uncover, through an anthropological lens, the state’s forgotten or misunderstood cultural legacies. The exhibition was the brainchild of former senior contemporary art curator Aaron Moulton.
A Greater Utah contains simply too many excellent artists to name—yet some highlights warrant explicit mention. Representing Northern Utah, photographer Fazilat Soukhakian contributes selections from her ongoing Defiance series (2019-present) as well as Queer in Utah (2019-2022), a collection of deeply moving portraits of LGBTQI+ couples. Soukhakian, an Iranian American artist whose work highlights the oppression of women in her home country, injects a similarly political focus to these portraits, whose very existence has become increasingly weaponized in our highly conservative state.
Jorgensen’s Central Utah focuses on sprawling landscape and the indelible impact of human history. Artists Kelly and English Brooks, Ray Farmer, Reza Safavi, Meredith Laura Lynn, and Katie Hargrave each manifest these themes in drastically different ways. Jessica Kinsey’s curatorial objective for Southern Utah explicitly recognizes the impact of colonization on this history, while also tackling, as a parallel narrative, the rampant land use that threatens the very survival of the region. Artists nic b. jacobsen and Alana Tapaha (Diné), situate their own identities as trans-nonbinary and Indigenous respectively, to anchor discussions about cultural erasure and violence.
Nancy Rivera’s curatorial effort in Salt Lake County presents some familiar favorites such as the abstract figural artist Andrew Alba and the whimsical paintings of Wren Ross, while also spotlighting lesser-known figures like Stephanie Espinoza and Xi Zhang, a studio art professor at the University of Utah.
As a native Salt Laker, I found Valentina Sireech’s emphasis on Eastern Utah to be among the most fascinating. Sireech focuses exclusively on Indigenous creators, including RJ Colorow (Ute), Chelsea Kaiah (Ute, Apache, Irish), and the curator’s own work, all visually stunning and contemplative inclusions.
It’s become increasingly rare to see Utah institutions invest in curatorial talent, with budgetary concerns and a critical lack of exhibition spaces hampering such efforts. And while for the Utah art insiders, many of the featured artists and curators are familiar, UMOCA should be applauded for the parallel effort of fostering artists working outside of Salt Lake City as well as giving a voice to burgeoning curatorial voices.