Midvale, Utah recently instituted a cultural revitalization project to enhance its downtown. A large mural depicting two nude figures and a ghoulish specter has become the talk of the town.
Midvale, Utah is situated between Salt Lake City and “Silicon Slopes,” a much-lauded hub of technological and entrepreneurial fervor that attracts throes of outsiders to our stunningly beautiful, yet landlocked state. And while Utah’s tech ventures and lightning hot economy are touted by politicians and residents alike, the public art along the population hub of the Wasatch Front is nothing to scoff at either.
Except for maybe the latest headline-grabbing Midvale mural, which residents have called “pornographic” and “inappropriate.” Midvale, home to an annual mural festival that seeks to expand the city’s art profile by encouraging local artists to create public art, has drawn locals and neighboring art enthusiasts in recent years with an impressive volume of painted sights that add flavor to the city’s small downtown.
But the mural in question, created by artist Shae Petersen on the exterior wall of a tattoo shop, is in a category all its own. Not since Salt Lake City’s “whale,” which debuted earlier this spring, has a work of public art been so polarizing.
The untitled mural depicts two large figures—a man and a woman—engaged in an embrace of sorts. Floating above and around puffy white clouds, the female figure has luscious, billowy hair that might as well be an advertisement for your local salon’s latest Brazilian blowout offerings.
She intimately and seductively reaches around a male figure with two claw-like hands much too small for her frame, her arms oddly foreshortened in a way that would make one worry that her right forearm and shoulder are joined together without an elbow to separate them. Her profile nestles up to the face of the male figure whose eyes are closed, neck arched in the sleepily aloof Cupid pose of mythological lore. His hair also looks fantastic.
Among the most confusing aspects of the composition is the interrelationship between that of the man’s left arm and the woman’s body. Her left arm encircles the man and covers her right breast in a pose that reads as a warm-up to strangulation. To their left, a winged shadowy grim reaper-like figure looms ominously, holding a wooden staff.
Meanwhile, the man’s disembodied hand emerges from behind the woman’s lower back. It is depicted in a lighter gray tone, distinct from the hues of the two figures.
To be fair to Midvale’s concerned citizens, the figures do appear to be in the throes of passion. Yet, their nudity is seemingly obscured by the artist’s vague anatomical renderings. I think The Salt Lake Tribune put it best when, in a recent headline, they asked, “Is it a man’s arm or a female breast?” Who is it to say? And why should it matter? These two are clearly into each other and we should be happy for them.
Modern art has taught us that a little anatomical ambiguity doesn’t hurt anyone. Cue Picasso. There are however, two things I do worry about.
One, the demonic killjoy. Perhaps an allegory for Utah’s hyper-conservative culture? Petersen claims the woman is protecting the man from darkness, but to me, the two seem ignorantly oblivious to the cloaked figure. Dance like no one is watching!
My second worry is their ashen skin. Perhaps the artist’s attempt to mimic the Renaissance-style grisailles figures that line the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s famous narrative panels? Maybe not? Let’s just hope this isn’t a sign of a much larger health issue for our young lovers. Or worse, a message to the kids that no matter how sexy you are, if you engage in premarital sensual experiences, the demon will follow you as your skin rots.
Regardless of whether the mural shocks or intrigues you, it’s worth a jaunt to Midvale’s Main Street, where this is one in a wide array of fascinating public works.