Mark England was recently awarded a $10,000 Fellowship by the Utah Arts Council. His work and that of Jacqui Biggs Larsen of Springville were selected from among 85 applicants for the UAC by New York art critic, writer and teacher Jonathan Goodman. Said Goodman, “(England ’s) visionary landscapes are genuinely original versions of a theme that is nearly overwhelmed by history.”
Goodman isn’t exaggerating about England ’s originality. Take his painting “Biography;” the point-of-view is far above the earth, looking south across the United States. There are the Great Lakes and the Great Salt Lake and the outlines of Baja, Mexico and Florida and also…bananas resting on a book and giant palm trees, oil derricks, telephone poles with snapped wires, teepees, cottonwood trees, a pig, a watch, a lobster and the Washington Monument. The landscape in-between is covered with the geometric shapes—circles, checkerboards, rectangles, crossed runways and so forth—that you’d expect to see peering down from an airplane. Beyond the U.S. , there’s the featureless, narrow and truncated isthmus of Central America and a red road winding past the Andes rising from the west edge of South America, and beyond that continent, an enormous white Antarctica , with an evergreen peeking out from just over the horizon.
I spoke to England by phone at his home in Salt Lake City. “One of the things I’ve been doing with my drawings especially is dealing with perceptions; perceptions of history and the earth and the land we live in,” he says, “I’ve always been intrigued by how we have these official histories and then there’s the unofficial history and then there’s the perception of what was going on. History is subject to who is perceiving it and who is writing it.”
“My paintings attempt to record the history of our perceptions and marks we leave upon the land. Ever since the early American romantic painters there has been a struggle to reconcile the industrial with the sublime, natural with man-made. It is like trying to reconcile the spiritual with the physical. I see them as one long spectrum. This seems to be what the Incas were doing with the way they made temples and building s or scratched images and lines in the desert. Everything in the earth was sacred to them so there was no separation between the secular and sectarian. Maybe that is why the remains of their culture are so incomprehensible to us.”
The palm of “Salt Lake Palm,” is about the size of the Great Salt Lake and sits right at its edge. Nearby are the comparatively tiny oil refinery tanks and evaporation fields, signs with cryptic messages of squares and lines and the same geometric agricultural patterns, like etchings on a microchip, and cottonwoods and cactus. England has said elsewhere that palms trees, which are not endemic to the southwest, are symbolic of “how unnatural our landscape is,” and here that symbol, in a box planter no less, occupies center stage. It’s as if we were witnessing the final triumphant imposition of our own artificial vision on our environment. England might well have included ubiquitous tumbleweeds and tamarisk in his painting, as neither is native to the West.
Asked about his influences, England replies, “I employ elements and images from medieval landscape painters to da Vinci’s surrealistic landscapes to the flattening and deconstruction of Cezanne to the collage of Joseph Cornell and Rauschenberg. I consider myself a conservative artist on a certain level. I love studying and learning from the masters of every century and culture. I am influenced by every image I see or find.”
In addition to his collages, England is also interested in earth-art sculpture, which may be why he includes the Spiral Jetty, which juts into the Great Salt Lake and is the largest earth-art sculpture on the planet—in most of his drawings and paintings. He proposed the construction of his own earth sculpture in Alpine, south of Salt Lake City, where he used to live.
“I wanted to do something that acknowledged our place in the world, our connections to the outside world and vice-versa,” says England, “because there were a lot of issues about ‘how does Alpine relate to the outside world; how does it want to be separate from the outside world.’ It was a way of visualizing that. I wanted to create radiating lines of boulders from Alpine, directed towards important places around the world, events or locations important to people living in Alpine or other communities which could reciprocate with their own lines pointing back towards us. The lines and boulders were similar to the Nazca, Peru lines, which have always intrigued me, and Stonehenge, which refer to things beyond the self; the stars and far-away landmarks. The wonderful thing was that it was a local project generated by local people and yet it was a world-wide earth-art project in the sense that anyone could be part of it. The potential was really quite exciting and powerful.”
Amazingly enough, the city council allowed England to build his sculpture in the park. There it stood; Alpine’s own earth-art sculpture, made from donated five-foot wide boulders. Children played on it. And then one older resident, a woman whom Mark calls “very civic minded” and “very protective of her vision of the community park” convinced the council to see things her way and they removed the sculpture.
“She was really very patriotic-minded,” says England, “We just had a difference of opinion about best use of the park and I don’t have any bad feelings.”
In fact, he’s thinking that maybe the project would be suitable for Salt Lake City. If so, he might want to submit his proposal while the relatively liberal Rocky Anderson is still mayor.
You can see Mark England’s art beginning on March 16th as part of the third Friday Gallery Stroll at the gallery of the Rio Grande Depot; 300 South Rio Grande Street (455 West) in Salt Lake City.