Psyched Out

Photo shows at the CVA and CPAC are filled with edgy psychological subject matter.

The dead of winter is either the best or the worst time to see art shows filled with heavy psychological content. The best because it's the time of year to go inside and to turn inward; the worst because being inside and turning inward might make you depressed -- and who needs that?

I've got a job to do, so regardless of any potential risk of brain damage, I had to see Anxiety and Desire: A Photographic Map of the Psyche at the Center for Visual Art. Fortunately, the work is so unremittingly elegant and aloof, so ultimately polished, so vague in its content, that there's absolutely no bummer factor at all.

The man responsible is Clare Cornell, an assistant art professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver who specializes in digital imaging. It was CVA director Kathy Andrews who invited him to be a guest curator.

Image from the "Bed_Ridden" photo series, by 
Cinthea Fiss.
Image from the "Bed_Ridden" photo series, by Cinthea Fiss.
"Edge #1 -- Cisterns, Lily Mountain," by Andrew 
Beckham, quadtone inks on rag paper.
"Edge #1 -- Cisterns, Lily Mountain," by Andrew Beckham, quadtone inks on rag paper.

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Through January 15, Center for Visual Art, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207.

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"When Kathy Andrews came on board at Metro, she had a meeting with the faculty and said, 'What can I do to support you guys?' I said, 'Show me stuff I don't have to go to New York or Los Angeles to see'," Cornell recalls. Soon after, Andrews granted Cornell's wish by drafting him to put together Anxiety and Desire. Sally Everett, a former faculty member at Metro who addressed anxiety and desire in her criticism classes, also worked on the show in its early stages.

"I started to look at the idea of anxiety and desire, which is something I've thought about for a long time," Cornell says. "It's kind of common. For example, you're driving down the road and there's an accident. You have the desire -- the want, the wish -- to see it, but then once you see it, it produces anxiety."

Desire is nearly the perfect opposite of anxiety, which allowed Cornell to put just about anything in the show, because just about anything would qualify. Adding to Cornell's curatorial freedom was the conceptual organization of the show around theories of the psyche -- where black could mean white and vice-versa. To be frank, the only thing that connects the seven artists is their use of photography or other photo-based methods.

Anxiety and Desire begins with the entire entry gallery fitted out with digital prints by nationally known Colorado conceptual photographer Cinthea Fiss. The series, called "Bed_Ridden," is made up of grainy shots of people in bed, as seen on television. The cheesy production values in the shows -- mirrored in the lowbrow high-tech digital prints -- suggest that Fiss is appropriating images from soap operas. This is also suggested by many of the actors' being somehow unconvincing in their roles as people lying in bed -- if you can believe that. This lends the prints a wry quality, but because everyone in the photos is alone in bed, the specter of disease is also implicit, as the series title underscores.

Proceeding to the large multi-part space that runs across the back of the CVA, viewers encounter a group of photos by Mary Beth Heffernan, who lives in Los Angeles. For these silver-gelatin prints from the "Corpus Inductum" series, Heffernan took poultry skin and sutured it into the form of Christ's loincloth as depicted in Renaissance paintings. She then photographed the poultry-skin loincloth against a rich black background, creating very abstract forms. The inspiration for the series, which is pretty outrageous, came to Heffernan when she noticed that paintings of the crucifixion often featured the loincloth as a key compositional element. Heffernan had done earlier photos of small creatures made of poultry skin, and the loincloth pictures are an outgrowth of that work. As gross as the idea of sewing up poultry skin is, and as seemingly crazy as it is to focus on Christ's loincloth, these oddball Heffernans are undeniably beautiful.

In the small niche in the corner is the work of Robert Flynt. The New York artist used found historic photos from the turn of the last century and laid in images, typically of nudes, that he took himself. The historic images predominate, with the nudes appearing to be shadows or smudges on them. This suggests that they might represent the ghosts of the people who sat for the original antique photos.

The most famous artist in the show, New Yorker Clarissa Sligh, is the only artist who is not afforded a solo-type presentation. She is instead featured with only a single work: "Wrongly Bodied Two," an artist book in a Plexiglas case placed next to the gallery filled with Flynt's photos. It's hard to appreciate this piece, as the book cannot be paged through because it would be damaged in the process -- always a problem when displaying artist tomes. The book, which Sligh bound herself, interweaves three narratives: a transsexual's journey from woman to man; the story of a Civil War-era female black slave who passed as a white man; and Sligh's personal history as an artist.

In the space connecting the two galleries, Cornell has paired a selection of digital enlargements by Los Angeles artist Donna Tracy with small pieces from Seattle's Leta Evaskus. Tracy, whose day job is as a computer special-effects artist in Hollywood, does what she calls "digital dumpster diving." She retrieves one layer from a multi-layered digital image that has already been used in special effects and then discarded, and uses it to create abstractions with animal imagery. These pieces are kind of scary. Even scarier are Evaskus's photos of a beautiful nude female torso that has been "adorned," so to speak, with X-rays of the spine and the ribs -- which aren't so beautiful. Though they look digital, they were actually created in the darkroom.

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