Something's Fishy

The Museum of Contemporary Art lays out a postmodern fish story.

Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, feels that the museum's facility in Sakura Square is too cramped -- and who could disagree? As she points out, the space also has a lot of environmental problems: Sunlight streams annoyingly into the galleries, producing glare and uneven lighting; there is no way to control the building's humidity; and the heating and cooling systems are apparently only rudimentary.

Because of these concerns, Payton and the MCA's board of trustees are looking for a new building to buy or lease. Some of the properties they've checked out include a couple of historic buildings downtown; another possibility, Payton says, is "building our own museum in the Platte Valley, something like Site Santa Fe -- a simple large space with high ceilings." (Payton, of course, is referring to the world-famous exhibition venue in Santa Fe, New Mexico.) In the latter scenario, gifted Denver architect Steve Chucovich, who runs ArchitectureDenver and has a longtime friendship with Payton, could perhaps be involved.

The decision to move is a good one, because only by having its own building will the MCA be able to become one of the better small- to mid-sized museums in town.

"Kokonee Salmon, Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe," by John Matlack, cibachrome print.
"Kokonee Salmon, Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe," by John Matlack, cibachrome print.
"El Nadador/Nacimiento," by Patrick Nagatani, chromogentic print.
"El Nadador/Nacimiento," by Patrick Nagatani, chromogentic print.


Through January 6, 303-298-7554
Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street

Wherever it goes, the MCA will need to have a civic presence and a monumentality appropriate to a museum (in these regards, the Sakura Square location works). If a historic building is selected, it's got to be a modernist one, and one with a dramatic and iconic design. That goes double if the museum decides to build its own place, especially considering the MCA's major competitor in the field: the new Denver Art Museum wing being designed by Daniel Libeskind, not to mention the existing building by Gio Ponti. A big shed like Site Santa Fe wouldn't work, not if it's to be taken seriously as architecture, at least around here.

But since the MCA hasn't even launched a fundraising campaign, it will remain in Sakura Square for the foreseeable future. And something needs to be done about that facility right away.

The most urgent problem is that too little space is devoted to exhibitions and, although it was never huge, the MCA is now smaller than ever. That's because Payton eliminated the gallery space under the mezzanine to accommodate an all-purpose room and offices. I don't think that was a good idea, as the critical mass of gallery space has been lost. But the fact that I don't like the situation won't make it go away -- and so, as I have done with each of her predecessors at the museum, I will give Payton some unsolicited, and perhaps unwelcome, advice.

If additional office space is needed -- and I believe that it is -- Payton should convince one of the wealthy museum trustees to donate a couple of off-site offices in a nearby building. The commercial real estate market is pretty soft right now, and there are plenty of empty offices around. The DAM's offices are mostly off-site, and there's no reason the MCA couldn't do the same thing. But no matter how the problem is resolved, one thing is clear: The gallery space under the mezzanine needs to be brought back. (Trust me on this one, Cyd.)

Whatever physical woes the MCA might have, there's absolutely nothing wrong with its programming, now that Payton's scheduling sophistication has had a chance to emerge in her first real exhibit. Go Fish! is a theme show of photos and photo-based pieces on display through the end of the year.

At times lurid and at others outrageous, the exhibit includes upsetting, creepy and thought-provoking images. Very few are beautiful, though, which makes sense considering that Payton turned to well-known writer and curator Jane Fudge to organize the show. Fudge represents an ideology in contemporary art that rejects beauty as an easy way out of the aesthetic dialogue; she clearly prefers the pointedly non-beautiful. As a result, most of the inclusions in Go Fish! are extremely in-your-face (though a few are more subtle).

Fudge, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, was a longtime staff member at the Denver Art Museum. When she retired last summer, she was an assistant curator specializing in photography. Although she organized Go Fish! long-distance, she was in town a week or so ago to give a lecture at the MCA, so I sat down and talked with her.

"The genesis of this show came a couple of years ago, when I was still at the Denver Art Museum," she said. "I had conceived of a show tentatively titled By Water and wanted to include images of people swimming, of people drinking out of water fountains. I like doing group shows organized by theme because it's a way to give a lot of artists the pop of being in a museum show. But, of course, I did not get to do the show at the Denver Art Museum."

Eventually the idea changed a little. Instead of people and water, Fudge decided to look at people and water and fish. "I've been interested in fish and other sea life in art mediums going back more than twenty years," she said. "I attended the Jungian Study Center of Denver, just for personal growth. At the time, I did a lot of reading on archetypal psychology. In that field, the great archetype is the ocean; for Jung, the symbol of the content of the unconscious is the fish. The fish is a very, very fertile image. Religion abounds with it."

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