By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center
An artist known for using everyday items and upcycling materials such as plastic bottles, discarded grocery bags, and milk crates is breathing fresh air into the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) Great Hall with a new exhibition.
Strips of pink plastic flagging tape hang from the ceiling, an inverted neon kelp forest swaying in hypnotizing patterns just above head-level. Across the room, a mosaic of blue starbursts and grid patterns spreads over glass windows, changing color with the changing daylight. Not until you’re up close do you realize that it isn’t stained glass.
Project mastermind Tony Feher filled me in on the secret last week—the material covering that window is painter’s tape.
Ordinary blue painter’s tape, the kind you can buy at the hardware store. He says he likes its versatility—it can be both translucent and, when layered, opaque; and it can have both a straight edge, when it is first unrolled, and a rough, organic edge when torn.
Feher has been creating art from everyday objects for some time. Past exhibits have featured plastic bags, plastic bottles, fruit boxes, paper, and that simple, standard blue painter’s tape. What he does has been termed art, sculpture, and even poetry, but a better label might be re-imagining—that is, revealing the beauty of generally utilitarian or overlooked objects. He is a celebrator of the unsung, the unseen, the in-between. He is, in his own words, “aestheticizing something that was never meant to be seen that way.”
The museum’s central Great Hall seemed like a perfect place to feature works by Feher, says Whitney Tassie, UMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art. Like many of the materials Feher uses, the Hall seems challenging to deal with at first—it is heavy on vertical space; its hard-to-control natural lighting rules out the display of light-sensitive works; and its frequent use as an event space means that nothing can be placed on the floor. It is, however, a beautiful, arching, dynamic room, “the heart of the museum,” says Tassie. It would just take the right person—with the right imagination—to “transform the visual experience of the space,” she says.
Tassie says she found that person in Feher. She had worked with Feher in 2004 and 2005 and was struck with how he just
“saw things differently,” transforming objects Tassie says she might see as useless materials in simple, yet innovative ways.
Feher says it’s easy to extrapolate from this celebration of “useless” materials. If we can hold up a plastic bottle and allow it to be beautiful, we can just as easily start paying attention to the people at the bottom, he says, or to landscapes we don’t immediately think of as dynamic or stunning.
This exhibition, which is site-specific, is all about the Great Hall itself, says Feher. He notes that the Hall is far from empty and the strips of pink flagging, by collecting and channeling the movements of the air in the room, demonstrate this fullness. “Air moves like rivers,” he says, noting the “gentleness of its movement.”
Feher’s exhibit encourages people to look at things in new ways, including the exhibit itself. A fun way to look at the installation is to lie on the floor underneath the pink strips and gaze upward—an experience that can be disorienting, notes Mindy Wilson, UMFA’s director of marketing and public relations. That head-spinning, vertigo-inducing multi-dimensionality, says Wilson, “tells me I’m in the presence of a really cool piece of art.”
“It changes the way I see the room, changes the way I see sculpture, and changes the way I see the rest of the museum,” says Wilson.
The exhibition, entitled “They arrived yesterday, dusty and weary from the journey, but in good spirits,” will open for a free preview at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, followed by a talk by Feher at 5 p.m. UMFA is open Tuesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed Mondays and holidays. Entrance to UMFA is free for Utah college students and U of U faculty and staff with a valid ID.
Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant with the Sustainability Resource Center.