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About Us, The Look of Nowhere and Jezebel

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

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.

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.

There's no indication of which direction to go as you enter the East Gallery; the space to the right is fairly well lit, while the left is almost completely darkened, so it makes sense to follow the light. This initial part of the show is dominated by a set of glass-topped tables lined up along the south wall called the "Tables of Inadvertence." The tables are covered with all manner of debris, including bits of wood, enigmatic contraptions and what look like dead birds, or at least their feathers.

Beyond this are two hemispheric mirrors, such as those you'd see in a convenience store. As you move forward, the exhibit gets darker and darker. You go past "The Rake of Evening," a floor-bound box with mirrors at the bottom. The crescendo of The Look of Nowhere is a large glass box titled "The Infinity Room." Viewers look through its transparent walls, which catch the light and reflect the contents: a cracked mud floor.

From my point of view, an installation rises or falls on whether the artist is able to completely command a given space. It goes without saying that Johnson has done that, transforming the East Gallery into something that's out of this world.

The last of the three exhibits at BMoCA is Jezebel, a Carla Gannis solo displayed upstairs in the funky and tiny Union Works Gallery. Gannis, who lives in New York, where she teaches at the Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts, has been interested in digital photography since the 1990s. In the Jezebel pieces — which, like the works in About Us..., are also examples of conceptual realism — Gannis has appropriated imagery from the popular imagination as expressed in movies. Her subject matter, as indicated by the show's title, is the immoral woman, or femme fatale. Gannis creates scenes where, according to her artist's statement, "sexuality, power and class issues reverberate."

Many of the photos show the various Jezebel characters sitting or even dancing, but in one, "The Alley," she's been murdered and is lying on the ground, surrounded by police. I also was really struck by the wind-up music box that requires viewers to look through a peephole to see it.

Oh, I know, as a friend said when I was telling her about Jezebel, all you'd need to do is drop a stone and you'll hit an artist doing simulations of reality in posed and doctored-up digital prints. But as common as Gannis's approach is, this group of works is really engaging.

As this trio of offerings makes clear, BMoCA is a reliable source for first-rate shows of contemporary art, conceptual-realist and otherwise, and the credit goes to director Joan Markowitz and curator Kirsten Gerdes. Working together, the two have made the place one of the top aesthetic attractions in the state.


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