Look Out

Contemporary artists take off on contemporary society.

Surely among the mega-art trends of the early 21st century is art based on popular culture -- which makes quite a bit of sense, because it was also a mega-trend of the late twentieth. It seems that everywhere, there are shows highlighting the different approaches being embraced by artists who wish to make social statements.

Art of this type varies widely; some of it comes out of politics, some from the media, and some of it right off the street. Not only that, but every medium imaginable is being employed, from old standbys like painting to more recent forms such as installation. But whatever the topic or medium, they all have one thing in common: They all sit at the intersection of art and sociology.

Foremost among this spring's crop of sociological art shows is This Year¹s Model, at the Cordell Taylor Gallery. Colin Livingston's remarkably smart post-pop paintings lead off the exhibit, and they've definitely struck a high note. People always tell me what they think about shows, and there's usually a consensus about what's good, but the positive word of mouth generated by these Livingstons has been deafening.

"I Love You/Rated #1 in Painting," by Colin Livingston, 
paint and resin on board.
"I Love You/Rated #1 in Painting," by Colin Livingston, paint and resin on board.

The paintings are both beautiful and thoughtful, which is a rare combination. "I want people to like the paintings," Livingston says, "so I used colors that people like and graphics that attract people, with messages that people want to hear."

Livingston is partly participating in the whole post- and neo-minimalist trip many artists are taking right now, but he is also adding a big dash of neo-pop art. "The forms in the paintings have similarities to the geometric abstraction that's so popular," he says, "but the paintings are also related to what's cool in advertising, on MTV, and in those Target commercials."

For This Year's Model, Livingston has done four diptychs in paint and resin on particle board with compositions made up of squares, rectangles and circles. The placement of these shapes was determined mathematically, using the traditional golden ratios. Livingston's interest in math was inspired by the work of legendary Denver abstractionist Clark Richert, whom he studied under at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. "These paintings have something to do with Clark's hard-edged geometry and with the work of the people I went to school with, but mine are different from theirs," Livington says.

In fact, they are different from the very start. Instead of using artist's pigments, Livingston rolled the paintings with house paint, blocking out the forms using the blue tape that's sold for masking houses. The resin he uses as a final coat isn't an artist's mix, either; it's made to seal bar tops.

Each of the four matched pairs of paintings has its own individual palette, and the color schemes adhere strictly to the 2004 Color Trend Report put out by the Benjamin Moore paint company. This appropriation of paint-industry color schemes for one-of-a-kind paintings is a very post-pop sort of thing for Livingston to have done. He's banking on the tones that industry insiders say will be hot next year, which underscores his point about wanting his paintings to be popular.

Livingston uses painted phrases to put each of the paired panels in a dialogue, so to speak. On the left panel of every diptych is a sincere statement like "I Love You." On the right side are hyped-up slogans reminiscent of advertising, such as "Rated #1 in Painting." Though there's a generic quality to both sentiments, Livingston makes them expressions of his genuine feelings.

This highly personal aspect links these pieces to Livingston's earlier work. When he first came on the scene in 2000, he presented a series of representational paintings that depicted his complicated relationship with his mother -- or, more to the point, with his memories of his mother, since she had committed suicide when he was a small child. The somewhat depressing paintings were based on snapshots of a youthful Livingston sitting with his mother.

Working through the series was therapy, but Livingston came to the conclusion that he had to go in a different direction. "I was trying to think of what to do next," he recalls, "and I decided I wanted to paint about love. I realized that it was going to be hard in a contemporary context, but I feel I've been able to do it. They're about love, and at the same time, they relate very well to what's happening in the contemporary scene."

Sharing the front space with Livingston at Cordell Taylor are two ceiling-hung installations by John McEnroe, a local master in the field of absurd conceptualism. These new decorative screens are preparatory for a larger commission McEnroe received for the still-under-construction Colorado Convention Center. The multi-part installation of screens, which will hang in the lobby, is collectively titled "Model State: A Local Cosmology."

McEnroe is a well-established artist, and his work has often been exhibited in Denver since he arrived in 1995 after earning his MFA at Ohio State University. His work is in a number of collections, notably the Denver Art Museum's.

He's described himself as a "domestic minimalist," by which he apparently means that he's interested in exploring everyday life by taking the shapes of banal objects and turning them into art made of ordinary materials. No material is more ordinary than plastic, which has often been his material of choice. In the past, McEnroe has used plastic to cast his studio tools in the fruity pastel tones of sherbet. On another occasion, he hand-cast a sheet of vinyl in vibrant lipstick red. Just a year or so ago, he was making plastic tree trunks, one of which was also done in a bright red and provided an arena in which to stage a great juxtaposition of a natural form and an unnatural color.

Considering the many dazzling colors McEnroe has used over the years, it may be surprising to find that at Cordell Taylor, he has limited himself to black. But truthfully, McEnroe has worked with black all along, even as he was making those more flamboyantly hued pieces.

The two hanging contraptions in this show, "Fair Lawn" and "Habitat," are elaborate fretworks made of a maze of plastic cylinders, with dangling elements that evoke animals. The deer torso, horse head, snake and other shapes are modeled on the ready-made fiberglass armatures used in taxidermy. It's traditional for McEnroe to use found, as opposed to self-generated, forms.

The complicated overall shape of the hanging installations was derived from the Shrue system seen in model-car kits. In this system, the car parts are cast together with a thin framework and are positioned on it in a way that's unrelated to their eventual proper place in the finished toy. That's exactly the same way McEnroe organized his giant Shrue systems, one of which is ten feet tall. The animal-form elements appear to be arranged in a freely associated way, but McEnroe used his unfailing eye to visually balance them in a stunning display of his instinct for the asymmetrical. But, of course, his giant Shrue systems are not meant to be broken apart and then assembled like their car-kit corollaries. No, the big ones are complete and finished just the way they are.

An interesting aspect of "Fair Lawn" and "Habitat" is that, despite the fact that they are conceptually as wild as could be expected from the likes of McEnroe, the black color, the familiar animal shapes and the elegance of the delicate framework make these pieces seem almost traditional. And that may go a long way in explaining why they were chosen for the convention center, which includes other easy-to-understand commissions of representational images, such as Jonathan Borofsky's "Dancers" and the enormous bear by Lawrence Argent.

The last of the three artists in This Year's Model is Cinthea Fiss, a Denver photographer who received her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1993. Since 1998, Fiss has taught electronic-media design at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Denver. Her work in electronic media and photography has been exhibited nationally since the early 1990s.

For this show, Fiss came up with an idea based on the hardscrabble environment surrounding the gallery. Cordell Taylor is situated at the northeast edge of downtown, which is ground zero for the city's homeless population. Within a few blocks are a number of service providers and shelters; thus, many homeless people can be found on the adjacent streets. It was from this population that Fiss chose models for her photos, and I don't think that was such a good idea -- for several reasons, not only because of safety concerns for the artist.

She solicited homeless men and paid them twenty dollars each to come into the gallery, take their shirts off and strike a "sexy" pose for her camera. The photos are handsome enough, but they really troubled me. This uneasy feeling was only exacerbated by the fancy piss-elegant gold-leaf moldings Fiss used for the frames on the nine "Strangers" images, which are done, as are all of her other pieces, in inkjet on paper.

I know a lot of people who feel that art should raise questions, and perhaps that's true, but I'm not too happy about the questions Fiss is raising with these portraits. For example, do Fiss's photos invite viewers to gawk at the down-and-out guys? Are the vagabonds being ridiculed when they're asked to pose "sexy," when clearly they are anything but? Have they been exploited by posing for the photos?

I'm afraid the answer to all of these questions is a resounding "yes."

The problems with Fiss's photos notwithstanding, This Year's Model is thought-provoking in places, beautiful in others, and one of those shows that really shouldn't be missed.

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