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.

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."

Later, after Fudge had moved to Portland, Payton called her and asked if she'd like to be a guest curator. Recalled Fudge, "I thought about the wonderful fact that this place used to be the Granada Fish Market -- do you remember when the museum first opened, you could still smell the fish? -- and I realized this is the place to do Go Fish!"

As it was finally realized, the show isn't so much a cogent philosophical statement on the relationship of water and humanity with fish as it is a cluster of postulates inspired by humans, water and fish.

Because of the many issues raised by the disparate photographs, it is organized purely on visual grounds. Fudge described her specific photo choices as being based alternately on psychology or religion, or on the way fish stand in as a symbol of female sexuality. "The form of the fish suggests the female sexual organ, and the odor of fish is similar to female fluids," she explained. "It reminds me of the cartoon about the blind man who passes the fish market, tips his hat and says, 'Good morning, ladies.'"

Three difficult-to-look-at photos by Nell Angelo represent this visual nexus of female sexuality and fish. All three show a nude Angelo cavorting with a very large, gutted fish. For Fudge, these photos are pivotal to the show, and she sees them as being expressive of "the human condition and the fragility of life." That may be true, but for me, the gross-out quotient overshadows any other meaning the photographer may have intended.

Happily, Angelo's photos are the edgiest objects in the show, and there are lots of other things that are, if not exactly lyrical, at least not stomach-churning. Especially nice and folksy -- the perfect antidote to those Angelos -- are the selection of nineteenth-century postcards depicting fishing as a sport, as well as the mid-twentieth-century Soviet photos in the same line. Local collectors Paul and Teresa Harbaugh lent these antique photos. "They have such a profound collection," Fudge said. "I just said, 'I'm doing a show about this,' and they just started whipping things out of boxes."

In addition to being a collector, Paul Harbaugh is also a photographer, and the show includes a handsome and ironic (given the combination of natural beauty and real-estate speculation) photo of his, the 1999 gelatin silver print "Lake Front Lots, Angel Fire, North of Questa, New Mexico."

Also picturesque is Mary Alice Johnston's "Quay de Bourbon," a 1956 gelatin silver print of boats and fishermen taken from above, and the romantic "Fisherwoman, Schuylkill River, Philadelphia," by Don Donaghy, a 1990 gelatin silver print of a woman with a fishing pole sitting on a wall.

Harbaugh, Johnston and Donaghy, all Colorado photographers, are among a strong showing from around here that includes Joy Wolf Binder, James Balog, Barry O'Neill, Teri O'Neill, Karen McClean, Steven Nickerson and John Matlack. "Kokonee Salmon, Taylor Creek, Lake Tahoe," a cibachrome print by Matlack, is very elegant. In this color photo, the artist juxtaposes water teeming with fish with the vertical bars of a grate set at a diagonal. It was obviously taken at some kind of hatchery or holding area.

Fudge has also included a number of big-time photographers from across the country, and a few from around the world. There are three color photos by Patrick Nagatani, the most compelling of which is "El Nadador/ Nacimiento," a chromogentic print done in 1993. This print has been tinted a deep red, so that the otherwise peaceful scene of a man swimming above a school of fish takes on a surprisingly ominous character.

There are also a pair of unexpected Arthur Tress color photographs depicting staged still-life scenes of aquariums filled with found objects (medical waste and medical symbols in one). More traditional for him is "Boy in Wheelchair With Sister," a 1975 gelatin silver print from his famous "Theatre of the Mind" series.

Although Fudge has tried to get us thinking about fish, she did say something so obvious that it's easy to forget: "The ordinary place most people encounter fish is on their dinner plate."

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