Prescription for Success

The MCA's drug show is not as intoxicating as its proposed new building.

Cydney Payton plays many roles at Denver's smallish, newish Museum of Contemporary Art, including that of director and chief curator. She doesn't put together every show at MCA, but she does organize the vast majority of them. In fact, it was her reputation as a first-rate curator that got her the MCA job. When she was hired a couple years ago, Payton was already a known commodity in the local art scene because she had put on scores of interesting exhibits, first at a string of commercial galleries here in Denver and then at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Payton doesn't always hit a home run, even if she does have a remarkably high batting average. I say this because the current show, PILLish: Harsh Realities and Gorgeous Destinations, is not, in truth, one of her greatest hits. Although, to be absolutely fair, it's not a miss either.

My initial reaction to the show was pretty negative. When the young woman behind the information desk asked me what I thought of it, I jokingly asked for my money back. But my early appraisal of the show has softened through repeated viewings. On my first run-through, I thought it fell flat. On the second round, I noticed that even if there were some really terrible things in the show, most everything else was good -- some of it very good. During my last turn, it occurred to me that the show looked tight as a whole, even taking into account those dreadful pieces that were on display.

Detail of "Vial Piece," by Tom Fruin, mixed-media wall 
hanging.
Detail of "Vial Piece," by Tom Fruin, mixed-media wall hanging.
Model of the proposed MCA building, by David 
Adjaye.
Model of the proposed MCA building, by David Adjaye.

"The idea was to put together an exhibition about something I was seeing in the art world: artists mining the poisonous, ecstatic and health-related sides of pharmaceutical substances," Payton says. "I wanted to put that particular topic out there right now, because it was new and because it would be controversial."

I have to take issue with this second point. PILLish is absolutely not controversial, but that's not Payton's fault. It's hard, if not impossible, to elicit controversy with fine art these days, and the crowd that stops by the MCA is, I dare say, particularly difficult to outrage -- especially when the topic is drugs.

Casting a wide net, Payton chose pieces in which drugs were used as either ad hoc art materials or as narrative content. Organizing an exhibit that surveys international currents by using the work of famous artists is a difficult proposition for a small place with a tight budget like MCA. Shipping and insurance costs are high, and work of the hottest artists is often in short supply, if not completely inaccessible, so Payton was able to get only a few major artists, who are represented only by minor works.

When I mentioned to Payton that there were not many important things in the show, she immediately brought up Larry Clark's photos. Clark's multi-part "Kids Portfolio," a series of color photos depicting teenagers doing drugs and having sex, does, I have to admit, qualify as a major work by a major artist. And it might even be one of the few things in PILLishthat could actually qualify as being genuinely controversial, because the subjects are underage.

But making my point is Fred Tomaselli's "Metalectual," because it's one of the artist's Iris prints and not one of his famous relief sculptures made of wood and pills and capsules. The print, in which skeins of color made from little pill shapes spiral across a black field, is very nice, though very modest in size. Larger and consequently more impressive is Damien Hirst's "Tetrahydrocannabinol," a color etching of dots that is part of his famous series in which dots stand in for pills. In this piece, Hirst laid out circles meant to express the chemical makeup of the substance that gives marijuana its hit.

More like the Clarks, there's another group of photos that qualify as being important works by an important artist: Nan Goldin's C-prints, which record her stay in a drug rehabilitation center in London. The photos are out of focus and hung so that they wrap around a corner in the main space. The one of the Christmas tree at the Priory, a facility that treats heroin addicts, is particularly poignant.

The exhibit includes a lot of photos and photo-based pieces, including digital prints. In addition to the Clarks and the Goldins, there are those by Richard Billingham, Glenn Brown, Thomas Ruff and Albert Chong. Technically, the video installation "The Pits," by David Critchley and Dr. Elizabeth Lee, is also photo-based, but the less said about that self-indulgent effort, the better. (Too bad Payton thought to devote an entire gallery to this nonsense.)

There are few sculptures and no paintings worth mentioning in PILLish, but there are two remarkable wall hangings made of found materials by Tom Fruin, a New York artist who is not as famous as most in this show. In "Vial Piece," Fruin sewed and tied together, among other things, the little plastic envelopes and vials that crack cocaine is sold in, gathering the material for the work on the streets of his neighborhood. The other hanging is similar in concept and appearance. In addition to being beautiful, the two Fruins use the illegal drug culture as a way to explicate the current urban environment.

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