About Us, The Look of Nowhere and Jezebel

Conceptual art sets the stage at BMoCA.

One of the weirdest twists in the art world over the past few decades has been the way artwork with recognizable subjects has gone from being the most traditional aesthetic pose to being at the forefront of experimentation.

Of course, I'm not referring to sweet and sappy depictions of animals or children — though those kinds of things have their own specialty audience — but to conceptual realism, an umbrella term that seeks to reconcile both realism and conceptualism.

Much of what's dominating the international scene is conceptual realism, especially in authoritarian or post-authoritarian countries like Russia, the former East Germany and, most emphatically, China. This means that Eastern European and Asian conceptual realism has roots in socialist realism, the official style of all these countries.

"The Infinity Room," by Scott Johnson, clay, glass, mirrors and other materials.
"The Infinity Room," by Scott Johnson, clay, glass, mirrors and other materials.

Details

Through September 6, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 303-443-2122, www.bmoca.org.For a complete slide show of this exhibit, go to slideshow.westword.com.

American art is a little different, but it also sports its own version — or should I say versions — of conceptual realism. The American rendition comes out of traditional realism and photo realism rather than any official style. In fact, a good deal of conceptual realism, here and around the world, is done in photographs or photo-based methods.

I bring all this up as a prelude to discussing About Us... at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art because conceptual realism is the only way to connect the diverse pieces done in an array of methods here. The show, installed in the large West Gallery by freelance curator Mark Addison, includes more than two dozen works.

Addison is a major Colorado-based collector, arts advocate and donor who has long had an affinity for conceptual realism and has bought many first-rate examples of it. The pieces that make up About Us... represent a small fraction of his holdings.

According to Addison's statement, he is interested in "art about who we are and how we live," in art that takes on "the big questions of life, its beginnings and its end." In mapping out this enormous territory, he has featured an incredible range of media and sensibilities, and that's probably why the show never really jells as a coherent entity.

But despite the lack of a singular vision, there are a number of wonderful and interesting things on view, and there are so many ideas whizzing around the large room that it's impossible to comprehend them all — which is invigorating all by itself.

Among my favorites is "Terrorist," from 2000, by the incomparable Vik Muniz. The piece, a photo from his "Pictures of Ink" series, looks like a blown-up news picture of a terrorist aiming a gun, but it's actually an enlargement of a photo of a blob of ink. Muniz is the world's foremost photographic trickster and specializes in making one thing, like ink, look like something else, like a terrorist.

I also really liked "Golden Yella Girl," done in 1990 by Carrie Mae Weems. The piece comprises three photos of the same young, light-skinned black girl. Under each of the photos is a word, either "Golden," "Yella" or "Girl," meant to highlight racism within the African-American community itself.

Other major figures whose work is part of the mix are Fred Tomaselli, Alfred Leslie, Roy De Forest and Robert Colescott. Though Addison is known to be interested in Colorado art, few local artists are part of this show. One exception is Floyd Tunson from Manitou Springs, whose iconic and funky "Delta Queen" holds its own in the elevated company of internationally famous artists. The piece is a three-dimensional assemblage that's part arte povera sculpture and part neo-pop portrait.

More than anything else, About Us... is about Addison's personal vision, and it reminds us that he got into conceptual realism even before it was the hottest thing around.

Beyond About Us... is The Look of Nowhere, featuring the work of Scott Johnson. Born in Colorado and now teaching at Colorado College, Johnson has exhibited his work a couple of times in the Denver area over the last couple of years. Before this show, I'd never heard of him, let alone seen his work, but based on The Look of Nowhere — which is absolutely great — I'm sure we'll be seeing more of it.

The show, which is conceptual though not a bit realist, begins in the East Gallery's anteroom, where a wall-mounted monitor is showing a split-screen video, "Ruminando," that explores the labyrinth of back streets in Venice. The title of the video is Italian for "ruminating," and the exhibit is purportedly about Johnson's reflections on Venice, though that's extremely hard to perceive when you're walking through it. Plus, Johnson inserts a lot of other content as well, including references to a varied list of topics, from atomic weapons to classical mythology.

The video and several other elements in The Look of Nowhere carry their own individual titles, but everything actually feels like different parts of a single installation, with the visual and ideational connections between the separate elements being extremely close. Doubtless, it is in acknowledgement of this characteristic that the pieces are collectively called "The Problem of Essence." Walking through the installation feels like a trip to a haunted house, and this effect is heightened by the spare and dramatic lighting.

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