Off Beat

Pop and conceptualism mix it up at Pirate and Capsule, while the MCA chooses wisely.

Not since the 1960s has there been so much aesthetic interest in popular culture. It all began a decade ago, when many contemporary artists grew tired of formalism and expressionism and began picking up on the pop-related styles of a previous generation. Some of these new-pop artists revived the original style, while others, informed by post-modern theories, championed conceptual art with lots of pop references.

This conceptual variant is what's being featured in Andy Miller: A Deconstruction of Life, an important solo at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis. I was surprised at how good this show is because, to be polite, Pirate hasn't really been cooking lately. But the incredible Miller show has the old place sizzling again.

The exhibit is installed in the main gallery, a spot normally reserved for full-time co-op members. Associate members such as Miller are ordinarily consigned to the awkward back space under the loft. But there was an open slot, and Miller grabbed it. So Pirate's sloppy organization paid off for a change.

"Falling" (from left), "Hanging" and "Shooting," by Andy 
Miller, patinated aluminum and 
"Falling" (from left), "Hanging" and "Shooting," by Andy Miller, patinated aluminum and neon.
"El Mundo," by Evan Colbert, mixed media on panel.
"El Mundo," by Evan Colbert, mixed media on panel.


Andy Miller: A Deconstruction of Life
Through April 18, Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 303-458-6058

Through May 1, Capsule, 554 Santa Fe Drive, 303-623-3460

Although Andy Miller is made up of only four sculptures, they're so large, they fill the gallery to capacity. And not only that -- they also firmly establish Miller as one of the most significant young sculptors around.

The four sculptures share the same unappealing theme: suicide. When I first heard about the show, I felt like telling Miller to cheer up. But apparently he's not exploring his own dark feelings; he's attempting to address social issues in a political way. "The sculptures are not about suicide, specifically," he explains. "I'm not suicidal, and no one close to me has ever committed suicide. They're about how our culture treats violence, how it's always the headline of a news story -- the whole thing seems like a big machine to me."

Miller was born here in 1971, and he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1998. At the time, he was one of a group of promising young sculptors at UCD that also included Russell Beardsley and Emmett Culligan. Miller's mentor was Andrew Connelly, a conceptual installation artist who taught at the school. But he also rounds up the likely suspects of '90s art stars -- notably, Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney -- as influences.

After graduating, Miller traveled around the world, leading him to the ideas on which the sculptures at Pirate are based. Each of the suicide sculptures takes the form of an international male symbol. The symbol -- familiar to all as the character on men's room doors -- is little more than a fleshed-out stick figure with two lozenges for legs, two similarly conceived arms, a box for a torso and a circle for a head. Miller was intrigued by the communication conveyed by these representational symbols, which are free of any association to language.

For his sculptures, Miller took the symbol, which is usually very small, and blew it up until it was twelve feet tall. He then cut two mirror images out of aluminum and set them back-to-back, about a foot apart, and filled the space in between with aluminum sheeting to create a freestanding, three-dimensional form.

"They're made just like outdoor signs," Miller points out.

This concept is one of the things that provides a key link between his work and popular culture, as is something else Miller uses: neon. "It was interesting to me to combine this kind of imagery with the materials of a sign, aluminum and neon."

Let's not forget that the male symbol itself is a sign, so these sculptures are signs about signs that are made like signs. Wow! Talk about post-modern hermeneutics.

Some may recall that Miller previously exhibited sculptural renditions of standardized, conventionalized figures for an installation that was on display outside Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. For this two-piece group, called "Bathroom People," Miller created a male and a corresponding female figure out of sheets of metal that he partially covered with pigskin. The four suicide sculptures at Pirate are clearly a direct outgrowth of the thoughts Miller first expressed in "Bathroom People," which, by a happy coincidence, is currently on display at Englewood's Museum of Outdoor Arts.

As the Pirate show unfolds, the first of the monumental Miller sculptures that viewers will encounter is "Shooting," in which the male symbol is aiming a gun at his head and red neon stands in for the resulting blood spatter. Ahead is "Poison," where the male symbol is drinking a glass of poison that is indicated by a teardrop of white neon. Hanging from the ceiling to the right is the male symbol leaping to his death with blue neon bars suggesting movement in "Falling." Lastly, hung from the ceiling near the back wall is "Hanging," in which the male figure dangles from a yellow neon noose.

The four sculptures are the first of a series that Miller is planning, which will address crime and violence. That means the suicide content of these particular pieces is somewhat misleading in relation to his ultimate goal, but he did them first because they are the simplest, with only a single figure in each. Future pieces will have multiple figures that convey situations in which there will be both a victim and a victimizer. The most ambitious of these will capture a riot, include many figures and measure some forty feet long.

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