Altering Currents

The Museum of Contemporary Art swings from Real to Surreal.

There's no denying that Real to Surreal, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in Sakura Square, has garnered some negative word of mouth. Perhaps it's the disappointment generated by the fact that it could have been a great show and is instead merely a good one.

The exhibit represents Mark Sink's swan song as interim director of MoCAD. On January 1, Mark Masuoka officially took the reins of the institution, though he had been working there since December. But Real to Surreal, which runs into February, opened in November, before Masuoka was hired, and therefore is entirely the result of Sink's efforts.

Changes Masuoka has wrought, however, are evident as soon as you are inside the front door -- which is, unbelievably, still broken and makes every visit a potential lawsuit. "Fixing the door is a priority, but we have a long list of things that need to be done," says Masuoka. At least he has gotten started.

Previously, visitors came into a shabby and cluttered gift-shop-cum-office-area that created an initial impression not unlike that of entering a thrift shop. With great economy, Masuoka has solved the problem. Facing you as you enter (once you've dislocated your shoulder opening the heavy front door) is a short wall with an information desk and ticket booth in front of it. To the right is the reformulated gift shop in a new location -- a great improvement. The shop focuses on the sale of original art -- some of it with questionable value -- but may grow to include a book shop.

Beyond this lobby is a passage into the museum proper, with the staircase going up to the second floor on the left and most of the galleries off to the right. The galleries are a maze-like warren of rooms with many dead ends; Masuoka can't wait to start rearranging them, which he intends to do once Real to Surreal comes down. "I want to move a few walls to make the flow better," he says, "but the museum is more set now than it's ever been."

In the meantime, despite the negative reaction to the show -- which Sink and Masuoka both acknowledge -- visitors are coming to see it in droves. "Attendance has been up, and it's been consistently coming up," says Masuoka. "And we could have expected that the people who loved Western Vernacular were not going to like this show." Masuoka is referring to MoCAD's last exhibit, an installation show curated by freelancer Sean Hughes, who works in the collections department of the Denver Art Museum.

Real to Surreal starts with a bang. In its own discrete space is a signature figural group by the internationally known sculptor John DeAndrea. The master of hyper-realism, DeAndrea is best known around here for "Linda," a shockingly realistic sculpture of a reclining female nude from 1983; the piece is made of painted polyvinyl and is one of the DAM's most beloved works of art. ("Linda" was briefly on display at the DAM earlier this winter but is now back in storage.) At MoCAD, DeAndrea's single piece is "Sisters," another characteristic painted polyvinyl sculpture, this one from 1991, and it's even more impressive than "Linda." Instead of a single figure, "Sisters" is, in a way, twice as good, since it comprises two figures.

DeAndrea has placed a pair of casts of nude young women on a draped stand. The women, who face different directions, are seated on different levels, with one placed a foot or so above the other. The artist's casting of the figures is strikingly accurate and detailed. But even more astounding is his skill as a painter of flesh. "Sisters" is so lifelike, you'll find yourself checking it out over your shoulder until it's out of sight.

Where to proceed from here is a quandary, since there are three distinct options. Sink provides one clue: Across from "Sisters," he has placed a row of romantic and realistic paintings of nudes in the landscape by Rebecca Alzofon, a California painter whom Sink found on the Internet. Alzofon's style recalls nineteenth-century British painting, but several of these 1999 pieces include in their depiction of the antique landscape some contemporary details, such as the staked red flags that are left by surveyors in advance of development.

Beyond these well-done, essentially traditional nudes is a room where the works of two widely known painters, Daniel Sprick and Wes Hempel, are shown. "This room is exactly what I was aiming at in this show," says Sink. "Putting different approaches to realism next to one another."

There are two Sprick paintings in this section, both in oil on board. "Next World," from 1994, reveals, in tremendous detail, a softly lit interior space. Empty rooms are a favorite subject for Sprick, and here he shows his accomplished technical skill by including a mirror in the picture. Smaller, but also haunting and skillful, is the descriptively titled "Horse Skull," from 1992.

One of the more annoying problems with the installation of this show, however, is that Sprick's paintings, as well as those of a few others, are not displayed together.

But Sink is right about this section: The two Spricks do look good in relation to the two side-by-side Hempel paintings that he has hung nearby, "Rescue from Nature" and "Mending Hall."

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