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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — As a poet and performance artist, Alex Caldiero has been a steady fixture of the Salt Lake City scene for decades. He has read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl every five years, from the first lines of the foreword right to the end of the final section, “Moloch.” His readings often take place at Ken Sanders Rare Books, which might as well be his second home. Baggage: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) presents a new side of him: visual artist. His first retrospective, the show includes collages, assemblages, and objets d’art. Some are inscribed, some painted, yet all showcase his characteristic audacity.

Because of a refusal to pander to the status quo, mainstream success has previously eluded Caldiero. His materials can be cryptic. In one work, strings dangle between plexiglass panes bearing texts on transparencies. There are collections of rocks, dead birds, and animal bones. There are bricks among the bric-a-brac. Among these items, a penchant for the occult can be found. There are pentagrams, phrenology charts, Hebrew letters, and Rorschach tests. In this spirit, Caldiero can also be considered a shapeshifter. He is often in transition, wearing a new hat, reverse-coursing and turning inward; changing up his work as soon as typecasting looms. Over the years, he has redefined himself in many ways; the museum website describes him as a “polyartist, poet, wordshaker, scholar, sonosopher [philosopher of sounds], performance artist.” He has also been an outsider and naysayer and, on rare occasions, a troublemaker in Utah, where there is plenty to protest. 

Installation view Baggage: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City

With Baggage, Caldiero’s love of language and myth shines through. This is evident above all in his chapbooks and their powerful, and at times enigmatic, titles: “The Long Breath In,” “Wake Up Covered in Language,” “Sound Mind,” and “Bones in the Balance” are but a few. Indeed, it is not enough to say that he is exploring language. He has been deconstructing it for decades; breaking it down to its elements; exposing not just the sounds and structures but also the ironies and the absurdities of words. In this way, he both demystifies and liberates language, making way for new musings to enter. 

Exemplary is a 2014 work, screened on video in the show, called “Spiraling the Jetty: A Trans-Environmental Performance” that took place at Utah’s land art landmark, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” Caldiero assigned specific words (“water,” “circles,” “going”) to his students, which they recited at different times as they sloshed along to the epicenter of the jetty. The effect was both symphonic and cacophonic. The performance activated the “Spiral Jetty” in ways that complemented Smithson.

Alex Caldiero, In Tongues series (1993–2003), paint on birch wood

While many of Caldiero’s language experiments are rooted in the land, others are anchored in his body, at the junction between his brain and his larynx. This is evident in a 2009 print called “The Sonosopher,” which shows Miro-like chambers inside the artist’s bisected head. Beside him, a 16-line poem unpacks the machinations of his art. Beginning with “In my mind,” he continues, “I’m in my mind. I mind my mind. Don’t mind my mind. My mind is mine,” all the way to the inevitable conclusion: “Never mind.” These ruminations are the work of both an eccentric and a logophile, an academic and a dadaist. 

Seemingly abstract artworks from the In Tongues series (1993-2003) suggest anatomy — pustules or sex organs. Upon closer examination, the contours of Caldiero’s face become visible, with words forming in amorphous internal shapes or emerging from his mouth. His bulbous tongue prepares to launch ideas into the world like javelins. And yet his ideas are conveyed in the simplest of compositions. Caldiero’s palettes rarely venture beyond the primaries, his lines are sinuous, he has no interest in naturalism.

Installation view of Alex Caldiero, chapbooks, at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City

At a time when art is frequently associated with luxury and blue-chip galleries, Caldiero’s work is a reminder that art can emerge from the most unexpected of places and be born from the most humble of materials. This is an important distinction, particularly when compared with works by other language artists. We have only to think of conceptual works such as the LED signs of Jenny Holzer, which can appear cerebral, distanced from the embodied speaker, when compared with Caldiero’s “Sonosopher” shenanigans. 

Caldiero’s penchant for puns, his ear for idioms, his enthusiasm for English are not just the result of a contrarian character, but of his introduction to the English language and regional American dialects: he emigrated to the US from Sicily at the age of nine, and to Utah at 31. Grounded in sands of the West, embodied in his flesh, Caldiero’s visual and textual language attests to the experience of a lived life. In his connection with the earth and the land, he is a Golem with a twinkle in his eye.

Baggage: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect continues at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah) through June 19.

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