One-Stop Viewing

Cydney Payton, the director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, has little trouble filling the place with exciting exhibits. In fact, she's crammed so much into BMoCA that one of the four current shows, Housed, begins not in the museum, but on the street out front.

Housed is a collaborative effort by a group of well-known local artists working with the city's planning department and division of housing. The two departments just completed a plan meant to address the problem of low-cost housing in Boulder, which, because of soaring real-estate values, is in very short supply. The artists used the concept of home to develop a series of works dominated by sculptures.

As visitors approach BMoCA's main entrance on 13th Street, the first element of Housed, "Take-Out Home," which is parked at the curb, comes into view. "Take-Out Home" doesn't just look like a travel trailer--it is one, complete with a pair of rubber tires. The trailer is functional, and during the course of the show, it has been moved around town.

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The piece was created by Terry Maker, a Louisville-based conceptual artist. Maker radically altered the found trailer, completely covering both the outside and inside with shiny silver Mylar. The back of the trailer flips down on hinges to form a ramp that allows visitors to enter. Once inside, a motion detector triggers kinetic features that make the trailer shake. Other moving elements include small silver houses set on rotisserie bars. As the title implies, Maker links shelter to food: Her trailer, like fast-food, is meant to be taken away.

Also outside the gallery is a set of three small structures by Sherry Wiggins and Jim Logan. Each of the three wood-and-mixed-media structures has been stained in various shades--one is red, one blue and one yellow--and each is raised on tall wooden legs and capped with a peaked roof. Viewers are meant to sit on a bench underneath the sculptures and look up at the different interiors Wiggins and Logan have installed in each.

Housed continues in the tiny informal gallery next to the reception area inside the museum. One of the most interesting pieces here is Denver artist Craig Coleman's "Stain," a computer-generated image on translucent plastic that has been adhered to one of BMoCA's front windows and is thus brilliantly backlit. "Stain" is a luminously colored composition made from aerial shots of houses on top of which sit the ghostly and nearly invisible images of a male and a female.

In BMoCA's West Gallery is a spectacular solo show, Uncovering Life, which focuses on photographer Philippe Halsman. According to assistant gallery director Meredith McGee, some people complained that Uncovering Life is not appropriate for BMoCA because Halsman has been dead for two decades and thus is not technically a contemporary artist. The exhibit, though, provides the naysayers with a cogent rejoinder: "Shut up."

Uncovering Life surveys fifty years of Halsman's portraits, which were lent to the museum by Colorado collectors and BMoCA members Susan and Sanford Schwartz. The exhibit was organized by guest curator Joan Markowitz, and its design is stunning. Facing the entrance, a 1940s Halsman portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, blown up to Herculean proportions, is projected onto the wall, which was painted pale pink for the show. The ethereal effect of the projection is striking.

Halsman was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1906 and began to develop his interest in photography when he was only fifteen years old. After studying engineering in Dresden, Germany, Halsman moved to Paris in 1930 and remained there for the next ten years. Abandoning his engineering studies, he established his own portrait studio and darkroom and soon found success with such prestigious periodicals as Vogue.

In 1940, Halsman left Paris with his wife and infant daughter just ahead of the invading Nazis. Luckily, the photographer had influential friends on this side of the Atlantic, including Albert Einstein, who arranged for an emergency visa for Halsman. In his hasty retreat from Europe, Halsman left most of his photographs behind, save for a dozen selected prints. This biographical detail explains why all of the Halsman photographs in Uncovering Life date from the years after he settled in the United States.

In the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Halsman became one of the most successful commercial photographers in the country and began a long relationship with Life magazine. Life was the premier outlet for photography during that time, and it featured many of the best-known photographers of the day, including Margaret Bourke-White and Carl Mydans. Halsman emerged as one of the foremost Life shooters, creating over 100 covers--more than any other photographer.

Instead of arranging the exhibit to show Halsman's stylistic development over thirty years, curator Markowitz grouped photos according to their subjects. Some of the combinations are straightforward, such as the pairing of "The Duchess of Windsor," from 1956, and "The Duke of Windsor," done in 1947. Others are clever and even amusing. For instance, the 1952 portrait of John F. Kennedy was placed next to one of Marilyn Monroe, taken the same year. But there's more to these two photographs than just humor. In "John Kennedy," Halsman fills the frame with the youthful face of the future president; it's a studio shot, with heavy shadows across Kennedy's forehead. In "Marilyn Monroe," the starlet is seen from the rear as she walks down a brightly sunlit sidewalk in Los Angeles. The contrast between the two expresses Halsman's gift for conveying psychological content in his photographs.

As could be expected given Halsman's long relationship with Life, most of the portraits in the BMoCA exhibit depict celebrities, especially show-biz types, but Halsman also photographed many of the century's prominent artists. He had a long personal and professional relationship with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, and his photos of Dali are remarkable. Especially fine are the two multi-print series that attempt to translate Dali's surrealism into photos. In "Dali Atomicus," from 1948, the artist is depicted in seven closely related photos. Halsman created an elaborate interior setting that includes furniture hung from the ceiling, and as he snapped the photos, Dali jumped into the air. Also aloft are a couple of cats (who presumably landed on their feet) and a thrown bucket of water. Incredible.

The most recent photos in Uncovering Life were taken in the 1960s, although Halsman worked until his death, in 1979.

In the smaller East Gallery is another solo outing, Light and Dark Matter, which focuses on the recent paintings of Michigan artist Beverly Fishman. The term "painting" is used loosely here, since Fishman's work is actually made from photocopied images painted over in acrylic and then covered with thick coats of clear resin. But BMoCA is not alone in describing Fishman's work this way: The famed Cranbrook Academy, where Fishman heads the painting department, does too.

The photocopied images have been applied to small, oddly shaped pieces of wood that are clustered on the wall in complicated arrangements. Because of the complex patterns in Fishman's paintings, hanging the exhibit was difficult for the BMoCA staff--especially since the artist didn't personally supervise the installation. Instead, each element was labeled on the back by Fishman with a letter and a number. To provide a guide to the assembly of her so-called paintings, Fishman sent transparent plastic maps that were pierced where hangers needed to be.

Fishman's work seems to refer to astronomy, the clustered forms intentionally suggesting the constellations. Oddly, though, the specific images Fishman uses have been gleaned from scientific textbooks in which the original inspiration was microscopic cells. In this way, Fishman refers simultaneously to the vastness of space and the limited realm of cellular structure.

Fishman isn't the only cutting-edge artist to be feted with a solo at BMoCA. Upstairs, in the oddly configured Union Works Gallery, is Truncated Infinities & Floating Absolutes, by emerging Denver art star Bruce Price. A former student of Clark Richert at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, in recent years Price has gained a considerable local reputation as a vanguard artist. Richert has described him as one of the first RMCAD graduates with the potential to make a real contribution to contemporary art, nationally as well as regionally.

Taking a page from Richert's mathematical painting book, Price developed an involved pictorial system for Truncated Infinities. He employs this system to express his interest in resolving dichotomies, as suggested by the exhibit's title. As the viewer ascends to the second floor, a group of five tiny vertical paintings called "Untitled" have been hung one over the other at different intervals. The small acrylics, which represent the first and the smallest of three groupings in Truncated Infinities, are painted off-white, essentially the same color as the wall; their sides are done in fluorescent green.

Price determined the sizes of his three groups with mathematical equations: He took the measurement of the first joint of the director Payton's right index finger and multiplied the result by the irrational number that signifies the golden section, a system of proportion used since ancient times.

The next group, and the largest, is one of the strongest pieces in the show. "Bilateral Emptiness," a vertical black box that comes out from the wall, is a real knockout. On each side is a square, one painted cream, the other white. As with all of the paintings, the composition wraps around the top, bottom and sides of the paintings.

The show concludes with the mid-sized paintings, which are, interestingly, the most densely composed. One of the most unusual elements of the pieces in Truncated Infinities is that some have been hung vertically, while others are horizontal. This odd feature, which creates great diversity in this single series, reflects Price's interest in the arbitrary. It's little wonder that Price describes his style as "mannerist," since it contains both strict guidelines and spontaneously made decrees.

The four very different exhibits at BMoCA, all of which come to a close this weekend, demonstrate once again that director Cydney Payton is a gifted--and courageous--exhibition organizer. She has transformed the modest red brick building into one of the most exciting and adventurous museums anywhere. You'd think that with talent like this, the city, as wealthy as it is, would get around to giving Payton a proper museum to work in. After all, if Arvada can afford a state-of-the-art facility for the fine arts, why can't Boulder?

Housed, Uncovering Life, Light and Dark Matter and Truncated Infinities & Floating Absolutes, through May 2 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 303-443-2122.

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