SALT LAKE CITY — In late 2020, Utah made headlines as the location of a mysterious monolith, a nearly 10-foot-tall structure unlawfully placed in the desert by anonymous persons on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The act of infringing upon protected space without permission, and the subsequent destruction of the site’s ecology by the ensuing pilgrimage of eager fans, raised questions about access and the consumption of public lands.
In her current exhibition High Visibility (Blaze Orange) at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, artist Jacyln Wright dissects the rugged individualism that often disregards vital stewardship of public lands. Comprising collage-style multiple exposure photography, immersive installations, and satirical performances that tackle a historically gendered power dynamic, her work diagnoses the multi-layered contradictions at the core of the “American West.”
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Blaze Orange refers to the bright hue of hunting vests and clay pigeons, spherical instruments catapulted into the air as target practice. For a large demographic of recreational enthusiasts — hunters, ATV riders, and target shooters — the color is ubiquitous. To Wright, the color symbolizes the incessant consumption at the core of recreational land use, which posits nature not as a delicate ecosystem essential to our continued survival, but as a commodified playground. Moreover, her work critiques the decidedly masculine implications of colonialism that pervades much of our historical understanding of this landscape.
Jaclyn Wright moved to Utah in 2018 after joining the faculty at the University of Utah. During a visit to the state’s West Desert, she encountered the debris of past consumption while unknowingly entering an active shooting range. Her work envisions blaze orange as a symbol of the nihilistic attitudes that underlie these behaviors.
As a photographer, Wright operates a 4×5 view camera to create multiple exposures. Using laser cut dark slides to mask certain parts of the shot, she creates the exposures by inserting the masks into the camera before adjusting it, eventually making four to five exposures on one sheet of film. The result is a palimpsest of layered views — the shape of the exposures also corresponds to specific land masses — that evoke the rich and multidimensional history of the region.
These works combine the artist’s own images with selections from the photographic archives of the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library Special Collections for which she received a Collections Engagement Grant in 2021.
Wright is also fueled by a fascination with photography’s role in perpetuating colonization. Here, photography is conjured as an ideological medium but also as an indexical record meant to delineate expectations of land use. By merging the past and present, Wright demonstrates the ways photography, as a beacon of modernity, has enabled our collective understanding of the land as surveyable, a commodity for the taking.
In Wright’s “Untitled” (2022), we see this historical collision at play. In a sea of intersecting exposures, mountain views serve as backdrop for striking black and white photographs of individuals surveying, hunting, or laboring on the land. In one work, a figure holds up a large rock slab, as if to show the allure of mining riches. Elsewhere, Wright’s hands, laden with blaze-orange gloves, signal and draw attention to images levied within the frame. Just as the images oscillate back and forth between time and space, the hands and orange marks — arrows, tape, and dots — remind us of photography’s transformative properties. Other photographic works, also untitled, utilize similar visual motifs of mapping and indexing, while in another, shards of clay pigeons are combined in an almost abstract grid.
These works present a compelling fusion between concept and material process, subverting in distinct ways the notion of photography as purely objective, while undermining the stylized polish of photographers who rely solely on contemporary technology to impress this point. This conceptual relationship is at times lost by the sheer complexity of Wright’s compositions.
Indeed, if land is at the core of America’s great experiment, art is among the most important vehicles through which we may understand the sublimity of possibilities within it. The Western tradition is replete with a grandiose and explicitly gendered vernacular about the land — as a pure or virginal vessel for the taking — a lyrical crystallization of manifest destiny.
Wright’s performances, cataloged here as video pieces, disrupt this gendered history of land dominance by inserting the female body within the vast, untamed landscape of Western lore. Here, two looped video performances, the single-channel “Untitled (Targets), 1” and “Untitled (Blaze Orange),” both from 2022, are displayed together.
Wright has experimented with performance for nearly a decade. Donning hyper-feminized body suits — in one performance she wears a bikini top crafted out of the blaze orange clay pigeons — she draws attention to the absurdity of the hyper-masculine culture that considers landscape as sport. The performances shine as farcical illustrations of America’s obsession with sport as culture.
Wright utilizes both onsite and in-studio performative practices to illustrate a tension between that which is real and contrived. Her installation “Simulated Shooting Range” (2022) employs the elaborate tableau effect of her in-studio performances to highlight the discarded symbols of recreation in an immersive gallery environment.
By displaying the upsetting remnants of environmental leisure, Wright critiques the selfishness of capitalist consumption and culture of recreation that has wrought destruction on lands in desperate need of conservation. While the spatial vastness of the Western United States allows for a sort of unbridled egoism of cowboy and pioneer lore, artists and activists are drawing attention to issues of conservation, authorship, and the impending hazards of living in an environment that may soon be inhospitable to human life. As we contemplate a future that necessitates collaborative action to solve the climate crisis, Wright’s work shows the folly of rugged individualism that ignores our most pressing realities
Jacyln Wright: High Visibility (Blaze Orange) continues at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (20 S West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah) through June 18, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Jared Steffensen, UMOCA Curator of Exhibitions.