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Photographs of Geneva Steel’s dismantle at BYU Museum of Art

Exhibit is evocative elegy to abandoned Utah County industry

For three years Utah artist Chris Dunker documented the dismantling of the Geneva Steel Works in Vineyard, Utah, through the lens of a large-format camera. His photographs utilize color, light and scale to explore the formal elements of the vacant industrial structures and to articulate a sense of loss and mourning for an industry that profoundly shaped the life of Utah County throughout the 20th century.

The striking photographs in “Dismantling Geneva Steel: Photographs by Chris Dunker” — on view at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art from March 14 through Nov. 1, 2008 — survey the complex operation that once constituted Geneva Steel, the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi River. The images also present the viewer with an artistic reflection on the impact of the steel works. The exhibition will consist of 60 pigment prints that follow the plant from “cold idle,” the level of operation just above complete shutdown, through the demolition of the power plant, the last major structure.

The Museum of Art will host an artist lecture and exhibition preview on Thursday, March 13, from 7 to 9 p.m. Dunker will present a lecture on his work at 7 p.m. in the Museum Auditorium on the museum’s lower level. A preview of the exhibition and light refreshments will follow the lecture. The lecture and reception are free and open to the public.

“Dunker’s photographs are both document and poetic form, recording the appearance while musing over the fate of the facility and its former occupants,” said Museum of Art Photography Curator Diana Turnbow. “To those formerly employed at the steel works, the photographs reveal familiar spaces made unfamiliar by stillness and vacancy. To others, the building interiors and machinery reveal an exotic world of heightened color and industrial forms.”

He creates a sense of drama and monumentality in many of his images. He also relies on the modernist techniques of form, repetition and selective cropping to create reason and order out of a potentially chaotic web of machinery and architecture. Speaking about the nature of his photographs, Dunker said that “subjects described plainly and objectively are just alien enough, the light surreal enough, the moment in time ambiguous enough that the imagery catapults the viewer into a state where conclusions are based in fact but tempered by emotion.”

Dunker grew up in Ridgecrest, Calif., adjacent to the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, where he was surrounded by industrial and military architecture; he became increasingly engaged by this landscape and the culture within it. As a graduate student at Utah State University, Dunker photographed 19th-century remnants of railroad, mining and other industrial operations in Utah and southern Idaho. For a number of years, Dunker had wanted to photograph Geneva Steel while in operation. Early petitions to photograph the plant were denied. Dunker persisted in his attempts and eventually was offered the opportunity to photograph the demolition of the facilities in exchange for producing portraits of the corporate officers.

Geneva Steel was constructed during World War II and produced its first steel for west coast shipyards in 1944. The plant remained in operation until 2001. Geneva Steel declared bankruptcy early in 2002, and by the end of the year the company began to liquidate its assets and make plans to demolish the physical plant. Questions as to why and how the steel works came to this end implicitly emerge from the images, as do the controversies within the local community that surrounded its operation and closure. In many ways Geneva Steel is emblematic of the demise of steel works throughout the United States.

“While Dunker’s photographs document a specific site, they prompt thoughtful reflection upon the intricate global network of finance, commerce, and government policy that brought Geneva Steel and other steel production facilities to this end,” Turnbow said.

Dunker lives and works in Logan, Utah. His Geneva Steel series has been shown at 511 Gallery in New York City and is scheduled to be shown in a solo exhibition at Korea’s Gail Art Museum in May 2008. Dunker received a B.S. in Photography from California Polytechnic State University and a M.F.A. in photography from Utah State University. He was an assistant professor of photography at Utah State University from 1998 through 2002. His work is included in public and private collections in the United States.

Tours of “Dismantling Geneva Steel: Photographs by Chris Dunker” will be conducted during regular museum hours and must be scheduled at least one week in advance. Tours usually last about one hour. Call (801) 422-1140 to schedule a tour.

Museum hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Sundays.

The Museum of Art has published a 117-page, fully illustrated catalog to accompany this exhibition. “Dismantling Geneva Steel: Photographs by Chris Dunker” contains essays by Museum of Art Photography Curator Diana Turnbow and Sara J. Northerner, a lecturer in humanities at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and features 40 full color plates of Dunker’s work.

Turnbow examines Chris Dunker’s photographs in relation to the history of Geneva Steel and the portrayal of industry in photography at the height of the modernist period during which the facility was constructed. Northerner further elaborates on Dunker’s roots in landscape and modernism and considers the significance of the photographs within the context of contemporary photography and economic theory.

Hardcover and softcover editions of the catalog will be available at the Museum of Art store on March 14.

Writer: Christopher Wilson

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