Seen and Unseen

The Bruce Nauman solo at the DAM is filled with contradictions.

Vanderlip organized and installed the exhibit, most of which is borrowed from private donors. "This is the first time, as far as I know, that there has ever been a Nauman show in Denver," she says. "And I've wanted to do one for some time. He's right down the road in New Mexico, you know, and that's very, very important." Despite this proximity, Nauman didn't make the half-day drive up from his ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, where he breeds and trains horses, to oversee the installation, nor is he expected to attend the reception to be held at the DAM next month. He's notoriously reclusive, which has apparently -- and surprisingly -- not gotten in the way of his art career.

The first piece in Close Range, installed in the anteroom, is "Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor)," a single-channel video transferred to DVD-R from 1999. The video is displayed in a large format as a projection directed onto the bare wall. Using unnatural computer-altered colors, it records Nauman setting a corner fence post on his ranch on a sunny day. It runs nearly an hour, but I looked at it for only a few minutes, and that was enough to get the idea. The piece is obviously a parable about the struggles of mankind, but at the same time, it's a purely phenomenological real-time record of the act of putting up a fence post. And though it's less arduous to watch the video than it is to actually put up the post yourself, the experience is equally boring -- or, as Lerner would have it, "meditative."

I have a problem with video and with performance art (this piece is an example of both), as these art forms are only marginally related to the fine arts. From my point of view, video is more closely akin to theater than to the visual arts, and the narrative component in "Setting a Good Corner" is only the most apparent reason why. Even more to the point, these types of art forms are, by their very nature, temporal experiences -- that is, they take time. To really look at "Setting a Good Corner" takes an hour -- and I've never spent a continuous hour looking at any painting or sculpture in my life, let alone a conceptual performance on video. I dare say few visitors will watch the video any longer than I did.

"Plaster Steps," by Bruce Nauman, plaster, steel and light maquette for a large sculpture.
"Plaster Steps," by Bruce Nauman, plaster, steel and light maquette for a large sculpture.
"Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," cast colored wax.
"Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," cast colored wax.

Details

Through December 30, 720-865-5000
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

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The rest of the show brings us away from the performing arts, however, and back to the visual arts with a drawing, a sculpture and an installation.

The 1997 drawing, in graphite, watercolor and pencil on paper, is called "Drawing for Bellingham." It is a fairly finished study for an outdoor sculpture Nauman did for the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. In it, a broad course of steps, straightforwardly and mundanely detailed and conceived, run up a flight, down a flight and up and down again, thus forming a zigzag. Nauman has colored the voids beneath the stairs with bright-yellow watercolor. The drawing is paired with a maquette, which is also a preparatory study for the sculpture. "Plaster Steps," from 1997-98, is constructed of cast-plaster stair treads attached to a steel frame. Underneath, Nauman has mounted sodium lights that cast a strong and eerie yellow-colored glow, corresponding to the watercolor passage in the drawing.

Vanderlip points out that although our eyes are drawn first to the top to the stairs, by lighting the grungy and unfinished underside, Nauman urges the viewer to look underneath the piece as well. As expected of an outdoor sculpture, "Plaster Steps" conveys a sense of monumentality -- it's almost cenotaphic or memorial-like in character -- which is in stark contrast to the anti-monumentality of "Setting a Good Corner."

The last piece, "Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," from 1990, is the most impressive thing in the show. Hung from the ceiling are five paired heads; in each pair, one is mounted upright; the other is placed upside down above it. The heads are cast from colored waxes, which create beautiful surfaces. The castings are crude, and the wires that hold them up are carelessly tied. I was thinking that if Nauman had cast the heads more meticulously, there'd be an unnecessary visceral content. As it is, the piece can even been seen as whimsical, if the viewer wants, or according to any number of other interpretations, such as those about communication or the lack of it. If, on the other hand, the heads had been realistically rendered, we might all think of Auschwitz or the World Trade Center disaster, as Lerner does.

As I was reflecting on Nauman's work (and I'm not a big fan of postmodernism, or of Nauman in particular), I thought of the pieces as being something like empty vessels: so vague, so abstract, so conceptual, and so dichotomous that viewers could imbue them with any idea they wanted to.

For more conservative viewers, the upcoming Alice Neel retrospective will be just the ticket; her tradition-based representational art will be an antidote to the kind of thing Nauman is about. It will be interesting to see the two opposing points of view side by side, or at least to consider them, because seeing Nauman and Neel together is something only the strongest among us could stand.

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