Water Sports

MCA director Cydney Payton gathers seaside views in a beautiful group show.

Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, is very adept at keeping all the balls in the air. I really don't know how she does it without going stark raving mad, but I admire her for it. With only a skeleton staff at the museum, she practically runs the place single-handedly.

She administers the MCA, oversees employees and creates the programs, which range from exhibitions to educational projects. And she is constantly raising money -- both to keep the doors open and the lights on, and to bring the dream of a shiny new David Adjaye-designed building to fruition. (Just a few weeks ago, John Grant, late of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, agreed to head up efforts to get the new museum built. That, at least, will take some of the burden off of Payton.)

As if all of this weren't enough -- and actually, it is -- Payton is also the principal curator at the MCA. As such, she has put together nearly all of the shows that have been presented at the museum since she came on board in 2000. That means she also gets to endure local critics' slings and arrows, many of which I have shot her way, including the most recent burn-down-the-museum bash of her salute to video titled Truss/Thrust ("What's On?" December 1, 2005). Hated it.

"Untitled (Godzilla)," by Robert Longo, charcoal on 
"Untitled (Godzilla)," by Robert Longo, charcoal on paper.


Through May 28, Museum of Contemporary Art/ Denver, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7554

But with the current group show see into liquid, which is centered on images of water, I come not to bury Payton, but to praise her. She has made a beautiful show by selecting beautiful things. There are marvelous drawings and prints, and many elegant photos. Even the three videos she chose for inclusion are fabulous, and that's really saying something, considering that I'm not the medium's greatest supporter.

Payton says she came up with the idea for see into liquid because she noticed that artists from all over the world were using water as a subject for their works. Surely part of the reason Payton noticed this particular trend was because of her travels to art events (another part of her job description): Last summer, she went to Venice to take in the Biennale and then to Miami for Basel/Miami. It's hardly incidental that both Venice and Miami are defined by their relationships to the sea -- unlike, say, landlocked Denver. Payton goes to these kinds of things to keep abreast of current trends in contemporary art and to provide a presence for the MCA among the attendees. With see into liquid, the museum definitely got its money's worth from Payton's travel expenses.

Photos and photo-based or -related pieces are important components of this show, as has been the case at the MCA from even before Payton took over. First up is a pair of untitled monumental C-print photos of surfers by Catherine Opie, done in 2003. Opie, who works on the East and West coasts, has gained a lot of respectability over the past ten years and has emerged as a major contemporary photographer. Her large photos in see into liquid are very similar, with almost the entire frames being filled by the ocean and the overcast sky. A mist partially obscures the landscape and the lone tiny surfer in each of the pieces, making these color shots predominantly gray. These Opies are rather blurry, which gives them a neo-pictorialist quality and makes them very poetic.

Across from the Opies is something completely different: an odd little watercolor by New York artist Ellen Gallagher. The piece is expressionistic, a special interest for Payton, who loves pieces in which the paper puckers and the depictions are sloppy, loose and ambiguous -- as they are in Gallagher's charming rendition of sea life.

The Opies and the Gallagher are hung in the anteroom that connects the entry space to the main central gallery, with its wide expanse and high ceilings. This main gallery has been sparsely hung, mostly given over to Robert Longo's photo-realist views of waves done in charcoal drawings and prints. Longo came to the fore in the late '70s as either the last gasp of pop art or the beginning of neo-pop. His signature was the gigantic, super-realistic figure study in charcoal on paper, and Payton sees the wave drawings in see into liquid, which were done in 2002, as revitalizing Longo's career. But it's important to point out that Longo is by far the most significant artist included in see into liquid. Unlike even the best known of the others in the show, he already has a place in the history of American art.

Longo's two drawings are stunning, in particular "Untitled (Godzilla)," which is the size of a billboard. Longo records his subjects with a photographic accuracy, and his wave drawings look like blown-up snapshots. Amazing, considering his material: charcoal dust. The two Longo pigment prints hang off to the left of the drawings on their own wall.

The only other works that Payton put in the main gallery are those by Italian photographer Massimo Vitali. Hung on the wall opposite the Longo drawings are two of Vitali's aerial C-print photos of beach-goers. The photos are overexposed, with washed-out colors that seem to express the bright sunshine illuminating the scenes. There's a kind of Reginald Marsh quality to the scenes -- but without the homoeroticism.

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