Terry Maker's garden grows at MCA Denver

Because the Project Gallery on the second floor of MCA Denver regularly showcases Colorado artists, it has emerged as one of the most interesting spaces at the museum. This is an important part of the MCA's mandate, since one reason the institution was founded was to provide an opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work in a museum setting. The chief motivation behind this goal was the terrible job the Denver Art Museum had done in this same task — something that has changed little in the decade since the MCA first opened.

The first area artist to be featured in the Project Gallery was Jeff Starr, whose paintings were displayed last winter. This was followed by photos and drawings by Jack Balas, presented last spring. Now it's Terry Maker's turn, and she's created an installation called Garden of Nineveh. Maker is a Boulder artist who's been exhibiting her extremely original pieces for the past 25 years along the Front Range, around the country and even in Japan. Born in 1953, she studied at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, where she received a BA, then went on to earn a master's degree at Texas Tech University. She completed her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Wall of thorns, from the Garden of Nineveh installation, by Terry Maker.
Wall of thorns, from the Garden of Nineveh installation, by Terry Maker.
The honeycomb wall, from Terry Maker's Garden of Nineveh.
The honeycomb wall, from Terry Maker's Garden of Nineveh.

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Through January 18, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.org.

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Like her predecessors in the Project Gallery, Maker was selected by MCA staff members, including former director Cydney Payton. But she didn't think her initial presentation to the committee went well. "I felt as though I had really done badly and I wasn't clear about where I wanted to go with it," she recalls. As she was driving home that day, she came up with a different idea from the one she'd pitched. "I wanted the opportunity, and I love the space — it's a great museum — so I centered really heavily on how I wanted this. What popped up in my brain was the idea of our wants and desires — that we, as human beings, were walking cavities of our wants and desires," she says.

Though Maker thought she had blown her chance, Payton called her back and said the committee had accepted her proposal. Maker told Payton that she had changed her mind about what she wanted to do, and luckily the committee was fine with that. Payton has long been a supporter of Maker's efforts, showcasing the artist's work at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art a decade ago. In a phone interview last week, Payton remarked that the artist is well spoken — "she can definitely talk about her work" — and her creations are well thought out. Plus, she's very accomplished at "making art." Payton's choice of words is interesting, because it underscores the connection between the artist and her name: Maker.

Beginning with the concept of "wants and desires," Maker decided to create an installation with three parts. The first is a soundtrack, recorded at the museum itself before Garden of Nineveh was put in place, with visitors asked by Maker to talk about their private wants and desires. As the recorded voices fill the room with sound, the words of the anonymous talkers are impossible to understand. However, Maker has hidden speakers within elements of the installation, and viewers (listeners?) can step up close to them and hear the various voices clearly. Initially, I wasn't sure if the cacophony of spoken words were part of the piece or if I was simply overhearing live conversations emanating from different parts of the museum.

Though conceptually strong in light of her organizing theme, the voice tracks are much less interesting than the two distinct visual effects that complete the piece. To start, Maker has painted the Project Gallery a rich black, with the two facing walls covered with gigantic bas-relief sculptures. There are no freestanding elements and only floor space in between, making it seem as though the installation is unfinished. The emptiness also allows the soundtrack to bounce around the space, causing echoes.

Before describing and interpreting the two different wall pieces, I feel it's necessary to discuss Maker's unusual method and medium. She lays found and specially made materials into a rectilinear form and then binds everything together using plastic resin. When the resin sets, she takes it out of the form and uses power saws to cut it into relatively thin slices. Once the slices have been freed from the cast block, she uses power sanders to create a smooth surface. Finally, she appends cast-plastic elements to the sliced panels, creating a sculptural effect. Maker says she's transparent as a person, and cutting into the cast blocks is an extension of that. "Getting down to the bones, the guts of things," she remarks. "What's inside an artist? Can you look at it? Art today is about being ironic, of having a wit-off, but I'm more old-fashioned, and that makes it kind of new."

In many ways, the two wall pieces are visual and ideational opposites of one another. The first is pointy and threatening, the second smooth and inviting. The pointy side, which I've nicknamed "thorns," is much more literal in a pictorial sense than is "honey," my nickname for the smooth side. The overall colors are opposites, too, with "thorns" dominated by cool tones, especially various shades of green, and "honey" all about warm shades such as brown and yellow. The two may also be read to correspond to the dichotomy of male (thorns) and female (honey). And, really, the listing of these opposing characteristics could go on and on.

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