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When the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver unveiled its fabulous new David Adjaye-designed building last fall ("Smart and Sassy," October 27, 2007), director and curator Cydney Payton put together seven discrete shows which were presented in each of the museum's seven clearly defined spaces. Partly because the exhibits all opened on the same day as the building and partly because they were organized under the umbrella title Star Power: the Museum as Body Electric, many people I talked with erroneously perceived them as elements of a single endeavor.
But now that the exhibits ("Starting Now," December 20, 2007) are beginning to close at different times, it's easier to perceive the separate parts and, in the process, to understand that the museum's different rooms were designed to serve different needs.
Among the first of the second-generation shows is Yu-Cheng Chou, on view in the Lu and Chris Law-sponsored New Media Gallery on the first floor. Organized by Payton, the video installation is the first-ever museum show in America for the Chinese-born, Paris-based artist. I don't need to tell you that contemporary art by Chinese artists is hot right now; their creations regularly show up in art magazines, on auction room floors and in exhibition venues across the United States and Europe as China becomes a big player in the contemporary-art scene. Payton was an early proponent of the new Chinese art, and the MCA hosted the area's first major show on the topic several years ago.
Yu-Cheng's work conveys the appeal of Chinese art because it's based on a hybrid of Eastern and Western sensibilities. His work is obviously Asian in its subject matter and in the artist's references to both traditional Chinese art and Japanese animation. But it also integrates the contemporary art of the U.S. and Europe by putting this Asian content into an international context, with Yu-Cheng being a conceptual artist who works in the realms of videos and digital printing.
In assembling and installing Yu-Cheng Chou, Payton was able to combat video's greatest shortcoming; that videos are often boring. She's done this by taking a more-is-more approach to the installation, and there's a lot going on. In filling the space with a critical mass of material, Payton allows the smallish New Media Gallery to trade on its visual interest alone. Though one of Yu-Cheng's pieces may be broadly characterized as being narrative, the others are non-narrative, so viewers can appreciate them without really having to pay attention over a long period of time — just like watching television.
The artist embraces a wide range of approaches. On the floor is the gorgeous, jewel-like "Similarity II," in which Yu-Cheng employs a permanent video image of a Ming Dynasty scroll by Ch'ui Ying depicting a garden party, with the water in the ornamental pools animated to look as though it's flowing. Others come directly out of the kitsch animation and illustration made famous by the Japanese but now fully integrated into Chinese popular culture. The standout is the video diptych "Boys" and "Girls," on vertically mounted monitors, in which wide-eyed, blinking and winking animated boys and girls, drawn in a cutesy, storybook way, are given constantly changing outfits of clothing. Yu-Cheng also does digital photography, as in "Portrait V," a quartet of aluminum panels adorned with inkjet-printed images of a chic Chinese woman holding a pink handbag in a sensibility that comes right out of Andy Warhol.
Yu-Cheng Chou is a nice little show, and even if you're as indifferent to video as I am, it's still worth seeing.
And strange as it may seem, I'm going to recommend another video show as well. At the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar (nicknamed the Lab), is The Plains of Sweet Regret, a multi-screen video installation by New York artist Mary Lucier. The subject of the piece is the steep decline of rural life on the high plains, especially as corporate agribusiness displaces small farmers and ranchers and destroys small towns. There is definitely a regional flavor, since the culture and the landscape could be what you'd find in eastern Colorado, but it's actually set in North Dakota.
The display is installed in the front gallery at the Lab, which has been sealed against light with blackout curtains. There are video projections on each of the four walls, and on the floor is a pair of back-to-back flat-screen monitors. During parts of the presentation, the screens sport different images from one another. Sometimes the images represent different perspectives of the same scene, at others different scenes that resemble each other. Some of the most powerful moments, however, are when all the screens display identical images.
Lucier's soundtrack is particularly well-chosen. It involves a twangy minimalist prelude by Lucier and her longtime collaborator, composer Earl Howard. The prelude leads up to the arc of the piece, a hypnotic rodeo sequence set to George Strait's plaintive and haunting ballad "I Can Still Make Cheyenne." Most of the time, the piece has a documentary character, aside from the absence of a voiceover, with shot after shot of empty highways and abandoned buildings driving home the point that life on the plains is dying. But the rodeo sequence is transcendent. Lucier splits the screen so that each side is a mirror image of the other, making the images on the walls symmetrical and very abstract — or, more properly, surrealist. It's very sad and very beautiful.
In an interesting move, Lab director Adam Lerner decided to pair the Lucier installation with Last Place, a series of conceptual works by local legend Phil Bender. It's an immediate emotional shift in gears. The Lucier induces sadness, whereas the Benders are more likely to inspire nostalgia.
Bender is Colorado's chief proponent of the almost-century-old idea of Marcel Duchamp that if an artist says something is art, it is. For decades, Bender has picked up discarded objects and assembled them in their original states to create installations or sculptural cycles. The initial Benders, which have no titles but can be described by what they're made of, have a vaguely rural feeling to them, thematically linking his work to Lucier's. The first things visitors see are grids of circular crocheted doilies mounted on black boards. At first glance, they look like quilts. Over a long period of time, Bender has found them in thrift shops and has brought together the ones that are roughly the same shape and size but have different details in terms of both the stitching and colors to pull off this monumental piece.
Adjacent to the doily panels is a row of old wooden ladders, each different from the other. Other works are made of kitchen utensils, or Chinese checkerboards — even reproductions of the same cheesy painting — and all of them are similar with differing details.
It's amazing how much visual mileage Bender has been able to get out of his single revelation that art is about perception. And as thoroughly different as his method and means are from Lucier's, the two shows somehow work well together.
When the Lab opened in 2006 at precisely the same moment as the Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum, Lerner led me to believe that he had little interest in showcasing regional art, and instead wanted an international cast at the Lab. Apparently it didn't matter where an artist came from, as long as it wasn't from here. With the inclusion of Bender in the current exhibit, it looks like Lerner has happily reconsidered.
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