Side Show Attractions

Contemporary art is the focus of two small shows at the DAM.

One of the ways Bluestone achieves this is by introducing concepts that are more familiar to contemporary painting, such as minimalism -- or maybe even post-minimalism, considering how weaving, by its labor-intensive nature, is anything but minimal.

Some Bluestone weavings, like the pair from the "Journeys Series," are color fields. In both of these tapestries, the visual interest is created by gradations of color: Bluestone has created a luxurious effect in which the color slowly shifts from blue to purple to pink with no clear margins.

The "Journeys" tapestries are the most minimal in the show. They completely lack any compositional element aside from the grading of the shades. Others are more geometric and sport bars or squares of color that contrast with the backgrounds. The backgrounds themselves are handled in the same way as the "Journeys" pieces, with graduated shading.

"Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions," by Moyo Ogundipe, acrylic on canvas.
"Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions," by Moyo Ogundipe, acrylic on canvas.
"Untitled," by Rebecca Bluestone, textile weaving.
"Untitled," by Rebecca Bluestone, textile weaving.

Details

Woven Harmony: Tapestries of Rebecca Bluestone
Through November 10, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
720-865-5000.

African Renaissance: New Forms, Old Images
Through March 23
Denver Art Museum.

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The three "Untitled" pieces, in various colors, are fine examples of geometric abstraction; all three have horizontal bars and a grid of squares done in metallic threads. Also very nice is "Four Corners/8," which the museum owns. These geometric pieces are based on Fibonacci number sequences. Fibonacci was a Renaissance mathematician who developed a rational system of number sequencing based on addition. These sequences are sometimes used by Bluestone to determine the specific arrangement of her grid patterns.

Woven Harmony isn't the only show displayed upstairs at the DAM. Among the others is African Renaissance: New Forms, Old Images, in the seventh-floor Gates Gallery.

African Renaissance was put together by DAM assistant curator Moyo Okediji, head of the African division of the Native Arts department. He has held the post, which was essentially created for him, since 1999.

Okediji, a native of Nigeria, earned degrees from that country's University of Ife and University of Benin. He came to the United States in 1992 and completed his studies at the University of Wisconsin, which must have been quite an adjustment. In addition to his curatorial duties at the DAM, Okediji teaches art history at the University of Colorado's Denver campus.

For African Renaissance, Okediji wanted to link historic traditional art from Nigeria's Yoruba culture with contemporary art. "When people think of African art," Okediji says, "we tend to think of the art of the past. In this show, I wanted to demonstrate the continuity that exists in African art."

Okediji put together a historical show of wood sculptures and carvings and then paired the old material with new -- in this case, the work of a single contemporary Nigerian painter, Moyo Ogundipe. Ogundipe was born and raised in Nigeria and educated in Britain and the United States. He currently lives in Denver and, like Okediji, teaches in the fine-arts department at UCD.

The historic part of the show includes several loans from private collectors. The DAM has only modest holdings in African art, though this has changed incrementally since Okediji was hired a few years ago.

The older pieces that Okediji has chosen include a wide range of masks, headdresses, house posts and even doors with carved or sculpted imagery. "Birds are very important," he points out, "and so are snakes." The naturalistic imagery is based on symbols from the indigenous animistic religions of Nigeria. "But with the imported religions, Christianity and Islam," says Okediji, "the native religions have been dying out." The symbols, though, have not, and they've been preserved in both traditional and contemporary Nigerian art.

One of the most impressive pieces included in African Renaissance is the house post by Olowe of Ise. "Olowe is the most important twentieth-century Yoruba artist," says Okediji. "The house posts," he explains, "were not structural, but solely decorative. That's why, even though so many of them were removed, the old houses are still standing." Olowe's house post is covered with stylized figures.

Another standout is an elegant pair of doors depicting a scene from a tribal war. The doors, which date back to the mid-nineteenth century and are among the oldest objects in the show, are thought to be by an artist known as the Master of Ikere.

One piece that connects the historic works to the contemporary paintings is the Egungun headdress, a wood carving with flowing skirts made from wildly colored fabrics. The reds, purples and other strong tones are a direct corollary to the colors Ogundipe uses in his paintings. One of the best of these, "Land of Lasting Song," is meant to capture the experience of watching tribal dancers wearing things similar to the Egungun headdress.

Imagery also connects the old and new halves of African Renaissance. The same birds, snakes, and male and female figures that appear in the historic material can be seen, albeit in very abstracted forms, in Ogundipe's paintings. A good example is "Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions." According to Okediji, it is the show's "pivotal painting," and the work that originally inspired him to organize the show.

Rebecca Bluestone and African Renaissance are hardly blockbuster exhibits, but that doesn't mean they should come and go without eliciting the notice of museum visitors. The majority of those who pass through the big rooms on the first floor won't make the effort to go upstairs. Don't let yourself be among them.

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