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Altering Currents

"Woman on a Yellow Rug," by Matt O'Neill, oil on canvas.

There's no denying that Real to Surreal, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in Sakura Square, has garnered some negative word of mouth. Perhaps it's the disappointment generated by the fact that it could have been a great show and is instead merely a good one.

The exhibit represents Mark Sink's swan song as interim director of MoCAD. On January 1, Mark Masuoka officially took the reins of the institution, though he had been working there since December. But Real to Surreal, which runs into February, opened in November, before Masuoka was hired, and therefore is entirely the result of Sink's efforts.

Changes Masuoka has wrought, however, are evident as soon as you are inside the front door -- which is, unbelievably, still broken and makes every visit a potential lawsuit. "Fixing the door is a priority, but we have a long list of things that need to be done," says Masuoka. At least he has gotten started.

Previously, visitors came into a shabby and cluttered gift-shop-cum-office-area that created an initial impression not unlike that of entering a thrift shop. With great economy, Masuoka has solved the problem. Facing you as you enter (once you've dislocated your shoulder opening the heavy front door) is a short wall with an information desk and ticket booth in front of it. To the right is the reformulated gift shop in a new location -- a great improvement. The shop focuses on the sale of original art -- some of it with questionable value -- but may grow to include a book shop.

Beyond this lobby is a passage into the museum proper, with the staircase going up to the second floor on the left and most of the galleries off to the right. The galleries are a maze-like warren of rooms with many dead ends; Masuoka can't wait to start rearranging them, which he intends to do once Real to Surreal comes down. "I want to move a few walls to make the flow better," he says, "but the museum is more set now than it's ever been."

In the meantime, despite the negative reaction to the show -- which Sink and Masuoka both acknowledge -- visitors are coming to see it in droves. "Attendance has been up, and it's been consistently coming up," says Masuoka. "And we could have expected that the people who loved Western Vernacular were not going to like this show." Masuoka is referring to MoCAD's last exhibit, an installation show curated by freelancer Sean Hughes, who works in the collections department of the Denver Art Museum.

Real to Surreal starts with a bang. In its own discrete space is a signature figural group by the internationally known sculptor John DeAndrea. The master of hyper-realism, DeAndrea is best known around here for "Linda," a shockingly realistic sculpture of a reclining female nude from 1983; the piece is made of painted polyvinyl and is one of the DAM's most beloved works of art. ("Linda" was briefly on display at the DAM earlier this winter but is now back in storage.) At MoCAD, DeAndrea's single piece is "Sisters," another characteristic painted polyvinyl sculpture, this one from 1991, and it's even more impressive than "Linda." Instead of a single figure, "Sisters" is, in a way, twice as good, since it comprises two figures.

DeAndrea has placed a pair of casts of nude young women on a draped stand. The women, who face different directions, are seated on different levels, with one placed a foot or so above the other. The artist's casting of the figures is strikingly accurate and detailed. But even more astounding is his skill as a painter of flesh. "Sisters" is so lifelike, you'll find yourself checking it out over your shoulder until it's out of sight.

Where to proceed from here is a quandary, since there are three distinct options. Sink provides one clue: Across from "Sisters," he has placed a row of romantic and realistic paintings of nudes in the landscape by Rebecca Alzofon, a California painter whom Sink found on the Internet. Alzofon's style recalls nineteenth-century British painting, but several of these 1999 pieces include in their depiction of the antique landscape some contemporary details, such as the staked red flags that are left by surveyors in advance of development.

Beyond these well-done, essentially traditional nudes is a room where the works of two widely known painters, Daniel Sprick and Wes Hempel, are shown. "This room is exactly what I was aiming at in this show," says Sink. "Putting different approaches to realism next to one another."

There are two Sprick paintings in this section, both in oil on board. "Next World," from 1994, reveals, in tremendous detail, a softly lit interior space. Empty rooms are a favorite subject for Sprick, and here he shows his accomplished technical skill by including a mirror in the picture. Smaller, but also haunting and skillful, is the descriptively titled "Horse Skull," from 1992.  

One of the more annoying problems with the installation of this show, however, is that Sprick's paintings, as well as those of a few others, are not displayed together.

But Sink is right about this section: The two Spricks do look good in relation to the two side-by-side Hempel paintings that he has hung nearby, "Rescue from Nature" and "Mending Hall."

The first piece, a 1999 oil on canvas, takes up the topic of two young men dressed (to the extent that they are) in contemporary clothing but placed in an antique landscape that recalls the style of the old masters. There's a photographic quality to this painting, though it is not photorealist. Sink, who is a fine-art and commercial photographer, chose the artists in this exhibit with an eye toward those who use photography in their work. Hempel not only employs photography -- as well as art history -- as source material, but he has also created a large body of black-and-white photographs of young men that are finished artworks in their own right.

His other painting, "Mending Hall," an oil on board from 1998, is the kind of thing that made him famous. Above a bucolic landscape, a manor house floats in the sky.

Proceeding through the hallway and narrow gallery beyond, we arrive at another highlight, a large gallery featuring big-time Colorado artists Chuck Forsman and William Stockman.

The Forsman painting, "Feather River," an oil on Masonite from 1992, is part of a series that the Boulder painter has done on the devastating effect that dams have had on the Western landscape. The painting, which bleeds onto the frame, shows a mountaintop in the center of the background. In the foreground are the boulders used for landfill beneath the dam, the mammoth wall of which limits our view. For scale and for narrative purposes, small figures are seen in the mid-ground.

Stockman's gorgeous 1997 oil-on-canvas "The Phenomenology of Birds" is a classic example of the gifted Denver artist's enigmatic approach. In a romantic, if gloomy, landscape, a zaftig woman crouches among a flock of white birds clustered on the ground. In the sky above her head are white line drawings of two mask-like faces placed right on the surface of the picture plane.

Like Sprick's, Stockman's paintings have been scattered around the show, which is really too bad. His small paintings on paper, seen upstairs, look particularly misplaced.

Also in this section are two paintings by Jeff Carpenter, a New York artist who's an old friend of Sink's, and three portraits by Boulder painter Barbara Shark.

In adjacent spaces, but open to one another, are works by two of the most distinguished bad boys in the local contemporary art world -- Matt O'Neill and Jeff Starr. Their placement together is perfect, since these artists are closely associated with one another, and both are apparently interested in a wide variety of styles.

O'Neill is represented by an assortment of works, including examples of his black-and-white cartoons of Picasso paintings based on yearbook photos. Another piece combines surrealist elements with a photo of a retro room from a magazine. Though O'Neill looks to photos for some of his source material, he softens the focus. This smudgy realism is sometimes done in a straightforward and traditional way, as in "Woman on a Yellow Rug," an oil on canvas from 1999.

Starr explores a similar yet distinct array of styles. Among the most impressive are two oil portraits, "Warren Oates," from 1998, and "Gladiator Stephen Boyd," from 1999. Another Starr painting, "Two Musicians," an oil, is related to his only sculpture here, "Replicant Towers," which is made of cast resin and sculpted clay. "Replicant Towers" is billed by the artist as "public art for a new millennium." Both the painting and the sculpture incorporate abstract shapes based loosely on the figure. In the painting, the shapes are seen in a room; in the sculpture, which is a model for a much larger piece, they are encased in tinted resin cylinders.

If O'Neill and Starr may be branded as bad boys, their mentor in misbehavior was surely the much older John Fudge, the Denver painter and teacher who died this past summer. Sink makes it clear that the Fudge paintings here are not meant as a memorial; he had already spoken to Fudge about being in the show only weeks before his death.

Fudge's style is a kind of photorealism with a humorous twist. "Why Am I Here?," an acrylic on canvas from 1992, is a perfect example. A squirrel is perched on a branch before a vividly hued sky. On one level, the painting is mundane, and then we notice that the clouds, the branches, and even the squirrel's tail take the form of a question mark, which refers back to the title.  

More in-your-face is "Some Violence and Sexual References," an acrylic on canvas from 1981, which shows a pair of red spike high heels and Nazi memorabilia, including a dagger, arranged into a still life. Also outrageous is "You'd Better Watch Out," a 1974 acrylic on canvas that finds Santa Claus in the gunnery port of a bomber equipped with a machine gun.

And with that, we are back around at the beginning; it's time to check out the galleries below and on the mezzanine.

Opposite the staircase are two handsome landscapes by Mark Nelson and the compelling portraits of art and literary figures by Gary Michael. Both artists live in Colorado.

Also downstairs are some disturbing installations by Boulder's Terry Maker, the quirky paintings of Denver artist Don Carleno, and those by Dave O'Brien, also from Denver.

Upstairs are the marooned Stockmans, along with the work of other local painters, including Peter Illig, Karen Bozik and Sandra Wittow.

To be honest, Real to Surreal doesn't hold together, and whatever Sink's intentions may have been, they are only glimpsed here and there. But although the show isn't spectacular, many of the pieces in it are, and Real to Surreal may truly be said to be less than the sum of its parts. But with a little visual discrimination on the part of visitors, the show can still make for a pleasant viewing experience.


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