SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has never quite assimilated into the romantic lore of cowboys and Native American souvenir culture popularized by cities throughout the Southwest. Known instead for Mormon pioneers, sweeping mountains, and sprawling deserts, the state’s artistic variety is seemingly as vast as its terrain. 

Modern West Fine Art was envisioned as a contemporary art gallery that caters to the large base of Western-focused collectors in the region, while cultivating the state’s abundance of local talent. The gallery, placed in a historic building west of downtown Salt Lake City, hosts titans of the Southwestern genre, Indigenous artists, and increasingly, a focus on contemporary artists who may or may not have a stylistic relationship to the region.

Installation view, Convergence

In a union that acknowledges Modern West’s contemporary focus, the gallery’s latest exhibition Convergence features two artists, Shalee Cooper and Sheldon Harvey (Navajo), in a compelling, if at times dissonant, examination of the formal and material possibilities at the heart of abstraction. Comprising works made in 2021 and early 2022, the project came from both artists realizing the modernist connections in their practices.

Sheldon Harvey, “Mai Deshgiizii ni (Jagged Edge)” (2022), wood on panel, 60 x 48 x 10 inches

Harvey is known for his mixed media sculptures and abstract paintings. His sculptures incorporate folklore from ancient Navajo creation mythology, elaborately crafted to portray deities adorned with intersecting and overlapping patterns of boldly colored panes. 

His paintings recall abstract trends from high modernism even more startlingly. In “Convergence” (2022), for example, curvilinear patterns run vertically across the canvas, betraying a notable influence of Joan Miró. Many of Sheldon’s other works, including “Solace Spirit” (2022) and “Ni zho ni Bah” (2022), read as an homage to Cubism, showcasing an array of intersecting geometric shapes and linear segments which are shaded in a style similar to that of Picasso’s.

Sheldon Harvey, “Ni zho ni Bah” (2022), oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

While Cooper’s work also recalls high modernism — more Malevich than Picasso — it feels stylistically divergent from Harvey’s. The two contemporary artists share a mutual interest in geometric abstraction, but the minimalist and conceptual underpinnings at the core of Cooper’s work inspire an entirely different conversation from Harvey’s energetic compositions.

Cooper, an artist and curator, is Modern West’s executive director and chief curator, as well as one of the gallery’s 36 represented artists. She contributes 16 paintings to Convergence, the most extensive display of her work since becoming director in 2015.

Installation view of works by Shalee Cooper in Convergence

Trained as a photographer, Cooper’s process has evolved to be a multidisciplinary investigation of positive and negative space, utilizing cut out shapes to form bold geometric collages she then photographs in full frame. Her new work translates this process to painting, using minimal elements — black gesso on raw canvas — to allow the viewer to relish in the material and organic interaction of this dynamic.

Cooper’s work has often encouraged an interactive process with viewers. In 2011, she crafted a conceptual experiment, Heel Toe Project, in which she sold cowboy boots to individuals who were instructed to use a disposable camera to record their experiences in the shoes.

Cooper’s paintings in Convergence carry an instruction to prospective collectors to reconfigure the works as they see fit. Since installation, gallery staff have reoriented works such as “Phoenix’ (2021), which Cooper sees as an invitation for viewers to contemplate new ways of seeing, even empowered to make curatorial decisions. “Reflection” (2022) is displayed in the gallery’s Kiva Room, a recreation of a chic lounge area, as if to inspire the purchaser to picture the work within their own living room. Hers is a democratic approach to artistic authorship that flips the modernist ego script on its head.

Installation view of Shalee Cooper, “Reflection” (2022), gesso on raw canvas, 40 x 60 inches, in Convergence

Perhaps Harvey’s work invites the viewer’s participation on another level, as a student of art history for instance. And despite a familiarity with his modernist stylistic influences, the surface texture and rich brushwork evident in his new paintings reward a close investigation. 

The exhibition is instantly striking as one enters the space and sees large-scale artworks adorning the gallery walls. Indeed, the sleek presentation in fine art galleries and modern art wings often contributes to the idea that abstract art, as compared to representational art, is outside the realm of understanding for ordinary people. Convergence, however, creates an opportunity for a process that may incite curiosity about abstract art for those who consider themselves unfamiliar with it.

Convergence continues at Modern West Fine Art gallery (412 South 700 West, Salt Lake City, Utah) through May 6. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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Scotti Hill

Scotti Hill (she/her) is a Utah-based art critic, curator, and lawyer. In addition to teaching art history at Westminster College, she’s a regular contributor to 15 Bytes: Utah’s Art Magazine...