Utah Stories

Funny, Unique and Relatable Art at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

Located in downtown Salt Lake City in the cultural core known as THE BLOCKS, The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), is a chance to explore art that’s funny, unique and relatable—if you are able to get on the same wavelength as the artist.


Lenka Clayton
Portrait of Lenka Clayton by Lisa Jaka

Located in downtown Salt Lake City in the cultural core known as THE BLOCKS, The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), is a chance to explore art that’s funny, unique and relatable—if you are able to get on the same wavelength as the artist. For myself, the experience was the first venture into the “Contemporary” Art. The obvious question: what does the adjective “contemporary” add to the art? The simple answer is that it’s art without boundaries. It’s art in which meaning and relevance are based on the viewer’s interpretation. In other words, it’s art from which at least one piece you will be certain to talk about.

I went to the museum to see the exhibit Lenka Clayton: Under These Conditions. Ms. Clayton works in all sorts of mediums but the art pieces she currently has on display are a fascinating series of short videos, one called The Distance I Can Be From My Son.

In this exhibit, Mrs. Clayton challenges the comfort level of the viewer. And if the viewer happens to be a mother, as an artist, it’s a true test of innate maternal boundaries. In one of the series of short videos the mother allows her toddler to walk off completely free a large field, finally going after him as he approaches the forest line. After doing so, the distance between child and mother is measured: 58.8 yards.

In another setting, the toddler is allowed to venture up a rural road before mom goes after him. The distance is significantly less than the field, but even more nerve-racking to watch because of the increased potential for disaster. A third setting we see the toddler walking away in the grocery store. The stroll up an isle isn’t far until he turns the corner and is out of sight, which sets mom after him once more.

The question is, at what point does the mother feel the urge to run after the child? Does the child have an urge to return? When are we okay with letting go?

Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
Photo by Dung Hoang.

While watching the short video, I could feel my anxiety level rising as the son got farther away. Like any good suspenseful movie, The Distance I can Be From My Son has you on the edge of your seat and for me and many others, the edge of our comfort level. I believe that’s the point: to see art and to FEEL something within the storytelling of it.

For Driving Home, Lenka creatively uses an old-fashioned typewriter and it’s left to right movement to draw/type a drive home. Hyphens, carets (^), and backslashes become roads, trees, and houses that rhythmically pass by as you are looking out of the window, making the ordinary feel whimsical in the process. It’s an extraordinary twist on ASCII graphic design art.

Beyond Ms. Clayton’s work, there are other interesting exhibits. The first exhibit, just past the gift shop, is by local artist Heidi Jensen. The exhibit is called Sit Comfortably in a Darkened Room and Think of Nothing. It’s a series of drawings of lace, bows, feather dusters, fans, and toilet brushes– all objects the artist thinks of as hyper-feminine.

Next to this display is a funny exhibit called Gettin’ By, by Mike Simi. He asks the audience, “Are you more likely to consider something once you’ve laughed at it?” His objects are created out of glass, molds and sculpted materials and include a bowl of Fruit Loops with milk, a solitary hot pocket, glass Nike shoes, and a perfect replica of a deli tray with darts sticking out of it like a dart board. These are all so realistic, so lifelike, they look like the actual ordinary objects in our homes, but in reality, it’s finely detailed work of resin and glass. It made me chuckle, then it made me start asking questions about reality and what we aspire to in our lives.

Curator Jared Steffensen combines art exhibits to tell a story. The current displays for the next few months are focused on the suburbs and our relation to everyday objects. Jared has constructed a 10’ square cinder block exhibit representing the contrasting aspects of suburban life. One the one hand, there is safety and security and on the other hand, confinement.

Mike Simi contemporary art
Photo by Dung Hoang.

Contemporary art such as a life-like bowl of Fruit Loops and milk hanging vertically on a wall can be difficult for some. It can be weird. It can be cool. You can hate it. But at least you got off your couch and tried something new. Perhaps you’ll see something that shakes you up or makes you think, or starts a discussion… even if it’s, “That’s art?”

The UMCA staff is small but very involved and knowledgeable. When walking in the front doors a hostess and Curator, Jared Steffenson welcomes guests. They are more than happy to answer questions and prepare you for your museum tour. There are even stroller tours which allow caregivers the opportunity to experience the museum with little ones.

Unlock your art comprehension potential with Art Fitness Training. These free 2-hour workshops are designed to give adults a greater understanding of art principles, allowing one to SEE, not just look at contemporary art. To get further information before registering, contact Erin Hartley at erin.hartley@utahmoca.org or 801-328-4201 x124.

The UMCA (formerly known as The Salt Lake Art Center) is Utah’s only contemporary art museum and is located within THE BLOCKS at 20 S West Temple, Salt Lake City. Admission is free with donations graciously accepted. We are lucky to have such an offering in downtown SLC. The website to explore current and upcoming exhibits, and to check out their educational outreach program and other future events is: https://www.utahmoca.org/

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