Oh, Really?

Realism from three centuries takes hold at the DAM and at Carson-Masuoka.

The Denver Art Museum has long been on the cutting edge of exhibition design. Unfortunately, that's not always a good thing, as is evident right now at the DAM and other major museums around the world, where marketing and demographics are displacing connoisseurship and art history as key components in the creation of exhibits.

It's hard to blame them. They need to attract visitors in a world with an ever-increasing number of leisure pursuits, many of which (sports, anyone?) are generally more popular.

For the DAM, cranking up the number of visitors is essential, not just because it relies on ticket sales and membership dues for a part of its revenue, but because many other funding sources, such as the local Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the federal National Endowment for the Arts, calculate their contributions with formulas based on the number of bodies that come through an institution's doors.

"Artists Sketching in the White Mountains," by Winslow Homer, oil painting.
"Artists Sketching in the White Mountains," by Winslow Homer, oil painting.
"Building (Dexter)," by Barbara Shark, oil on canvas.
"Building (Dexter)," by Barbara Shark, oil on canvas.

Details

Through April 29, 720-865-5000

fig-u-ra-tion
Through May 11
Carson-Masuoka Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive
303-573-8585

Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

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But even if the DAM is basing everything on quasi-scientific methods such as focus groups and surveys, its premise is all wrong, because it is trying to recast itself to appeal to people who aren't interested while taking for granted those who are. And if the DAM goes too far in its varied attempts to broaden art's appeal to non-art lovers, doesn't it risk driving away its core audience? Plus, there's no guarantee that these bold strategies will work.

The latest and most advanced example of the DAM's still-emergent, lowest-common-denominator approach may be found in, of all places, Winslow Homer: Facing Nature, the mini-blockbuster exhibit filled with the quietly appealing work of one of America's greatest artists.

Blockbusters, even small ones like Facing Nature (which closes next weekend), are themselves a part of the DAM's relentless campaign to attract more visitors; love 'em or hate 'em, these kinds of short-run temporary shows are here to stay. There's nothing inherently wrong with them, and they do seem to be an acceptable way to jack up attendance, but guess what? The crowds have been slightly lighter than expected for Facing Nature, despite an extremely expensive, over-the-top installation design that is so emphatic it all but smothers the tiny and delicate Homers.

The bombastic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink design includes a variety of things that compete with the art for our attention. The most egregious are the immense backlighted photo-murals that are unbelievably distracting. Other inappropriately theatrical features include overwrought didactic panels explicating Homer's life and work, and a large play area, complete with easels, sketch pads and a rowboat that visitors can climb into. In one gallery, there's a full-sized replica of a canoe; in another, a water pump with a bucket full of flowers hanging beneath it. Filling our every moment -- unless we get the audio tour -- are the loops of ambient noises. We hear drums beating in one gallery, the sound of rushing water in another. At the last minute, the idea of using artificial pine scent was nixed. Loaners to the show had refused to give their permission because the untested chemicals might damage the artwork.

These gimmicks, which turn the show into a kind of art amusement park that could be called "Homerland," reveal the approach being developed by Dan Kohl, the DAM's founding director of museum design. This is the first DAM show Kohl's been fully involved with; he came on board at the DAM last summer, having been hired away from Arizona's Larson Company. While still with Larson, Kohl was involved in some well-known local projects, including the design of Colorado's Ocean Journey and the Denver Zoo's Tropical Discovery. Like those displays, Facing Nature features fake rocks -- apparently a preferred material for Kohl.

Not surprisingly, the paintings themselves are the best part of the show, and selecting them was a job that fell not to Kohl, but to associate curator for painting and sculpture Ann Daley.

The show is a beefed-up version of one organized by the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, which has a nice collection of Homer's work. Daley supplemented the Portland selections with pieces from the DAM's own collection, as well as from the local Berger Collection and several other lenders, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Facing Nature is in the spacious Hamilton galleries on the first floor, but the museum had to make these galleries less spacious so that the small- to mid-sized show would be able to fill the too-large rooms. To do this, temporary walls were used, some in the form of fragmented arches. There are also a bunch of freestanding rectangular solids on which the paintings have been hung. In this way, five or six small pieces carry an entire gallery.

The show begins with a section called "American Civil War," which leads off with a historical narrative painting called "Rainy Day in Camp," an oil on canvas from 1871. The painting realistically captures a scene of soldiers during the war a few years after the fact. Homer was an artist-correspondent who covered the war for Harper's Weekly. His illustrations were turned into engravings that were published in the magazine. Bound volumes of the magazine, open to his illustrations, are displayed in showcases. In the first gallery beyond the entry, "Sharpshooter," an oil painting from 1863, is paired with the Harper's engraving that was based on it, "The Army of the Potomac-A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty."

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