Risk Management

Cydney Payton sticks her neck out with a courageous MCA summer show.

One of the most hotly discussed contemporary shows of the year is the 2003 Colorado Biennial: 10 + 10, at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. The controversial show is undeniably important, which is not unexpected. After all, it's the state's official biennial and the lone summer attraction at Denver's official contemporary art museum.

This is the MCA's second biennial, but when you think back, it's strange that the little-museum-that-could is the one that had the opportunity to lay claim to presenting this kind of show. Until 2001, when the MCA offered its first biennial, no other art venue, including the Denver Art Museum, had snagged the idea. So the MCA was able to step up to the plate and begin presenting a local show guaranteed to generate interest and visitors -- and, therefore, revenue -- like clockwork every two years!

Launching the series was a brilliant move on the part of Mark Masuoka, who was then director of the museum and is now a private art dealer. And it was gallant of current MCA director Cydney Payton to carry it on, since she has led the museum in a pointedly different direction than Masuoka. Come to think of it, she even put together a distinctly different biennial, focusing on mostly unknown artists. (Masuoka's preference was for more established talents.)

"The Leper's Kiss," by Quintin Gonzalez, digital print.
"The Leper's Kiss," by Quintin Gonzalez, digital print.
"Christmas Ornaments in a Bathtub," by Phil Bender, 
"Christmas Ornaments in a Bathtub," by Phil Bender, installation.


Through September 21
Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street

Payton's biennial started out in an unorthodox way, with her putting out a call for entries, making 10 + 10 a juried show. Though not unheard of, this is far from standard practice for biennials, which are typically invitational events, as Masuoka's was. But if Payton was unorthodox at the start, she was later downright iconoclastic, handing over responsibility for choosing half of the show's participants to others. She selected ten artists and then let each of them choose another.

This hybrid selection process makes the way the show was put together an artwork in and of itself. Payton's 10 + 10 concept clearly exemplifies her attempt to change the traditional role of the curator into that of a participating artist. It's courageous, ambitious, innovative and, in this case, not completely successful.

Payton experimented with a similar idea in last year's Archipelago, which failed utterly as an aesthetic experience. (But then again, being experimental means that Payton risks failure every time.) In that show, a New York artist used the work of others as found objects in an all-over installation based on sky, land and sea that left the museum looking like it had been vandalized. The exhibit failed because Payton put it in the hands of someone who couldn't pull it off; however, she proves better able to carry out being a curator-artist -- though not completely so -- with her intriguing yet troublesome biennial.

There's no denying it; there are troubles with 10 + 10. The show does not capture the current spirit of contemporary art in Colorado, nor is everyone featured an artist worth noting. But these shortcomings aside -- and they are serious -- there's one thing I can say about the 2003 Colorado Biennial without any hesitation: It's not butt-ugly, which is how I very accurately described Archipelago.

Far from being butt-ugly, the biennial is actually quite beautiful -- at times, at least. One of these instances is the pairing of Jeff Starr's ceramics (Payton's choice) with Colin Livingston's paintings (Starr's pick). They are installed together in the first niche visitors come to after paying admission. Though Starr is well known as a painter, it's his sculptures that are included here. The pieces are inspired by a classic Italian-centerpiece form of a bowl filled with fruit. But instead of fruit, Starr fills his bowls with abstracted figures. The surfaces also have an Italian feel, especially the creeping metallic-luster glazes. These ceramics, which have a lot in common with the work of Martha Daniels, seem to be a major departure for Starr, and they work wonderfully sitting adjacent to Livingston's fabulous neo-pop paintings, which combine geometric abstraction with words.

If the rest of the show worked as well as this opening shot, it would have been the best thing that the MCA's ever done. But, alas, that's not how it unfolds, and only a couple more times does a pairing work out as well.

I know it's a cliche to say it, but the show literally goes from the sublime to the ridiculous as we enter the main space. Hanging from the ceiling is an idiotic installation by Justin Cooper that involves a length of garden hose, a psychedelically painted beam and a pineapple. This piece is an all but fatal flaw, especially since Payton perversely decided to hang it at the entrance to the main gallery. And everyone who wasn't accepted into the show will surely obsess on the fact that this Cooper monstrosity did. Also really annoying is the fact that Cooper is off to grad school out of state, and thus won't even be a Colorado artist by the time the show comes down.

Cooper was chosen by Chris Lavery, whose installation "It's Good to Get Out" was Payton's selection. The '70s-ish piece is displayed in a separate small gallery specially created to house the bound pine trees suspended overhead, the fluorescent light panel on the wall and the sound system on the floor. Unfortunately, the sound system plays a continuous loop of frantically barking dogs that invades the entire rest of museum, negatively affecting the other pieces.

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