Process art can trace its origins back a century, to the time when Marcel Duchamp dropped three pieces of string on the ground and took the shapes they assumed as a guide to cut three sheets of wood. In this way, he introduced thought, time and accident into the equation of art making. But despite its long history, process art has really only become a major current in contemporary work in the past twenty years or so.
Today's conceptual artists — who are creating art that is as much about thinking as it is about looking — are the heirs of Duchamp, but their work is more relevant to those who took it up in the 1960s and '70s.
Another tendency that has gained traction recently is the combination of high- and lowbrow sensibilities. These ideas can also be traced back to Duchamp and his bar stool and bicycle wheel, or his inverted urinal. But this kind of neo-modern work owes more of a debt to the combination of pop art (as pushed through a Murakami sieve) and the comix.
I bring up these two factors — conceptual process art and neo-modernism — to set the stage for two shows currently on display.
The first is Adam Milner: Wave so I know you're real, at Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus. The title refers to something that happens during webcam chats, in which one person asks the other to wave in order to establish that the other person is real and not some kind of bot. In a way, the issue of reality as it relates both to the individual and to humanity is the core of this ambitious, difficult and intriguing show. There's also a leitmotif that's dedicated to modern society's relationship — or, more specifically, Milner's — to the Internet.
Milner made a big splash two summers ago when his work became ubiquitous in the local exhibition scene; the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, MCA Denver and other venues showcased his imaginative and thought-provoking efforts. On one level, his work, which is always, in some way, about himself, functions as one big psychosexual autobiography; on another, Milner tried to use these self-portraits and self-references as a way to cast himself as the everyman, acting as a symbol of the individual.
The show at Emmanuel, which was organized by director Shannon Corrigan, is the latest in a series of exhibits featuring Colorado-connected artists and dedicated to what used to be called cutting-edge art. Based on Wave, it's a successful formula. The overall impact of the show, as you enter the gallery, is very subtle. The main-level space has two rows of tables with objects on them, and there are piles of cushions on the floor, while the walls have unframed drawings lining them, along with a video on a tiny screen. The effect is more like a study room in an archive or library than an exhibit, and this was Milner's intention. The loft space is more emphatically visual, owing to the greater density of the installation and the fact that most of the works upstairs are done in color; although there are color works on the first level — the Polaroid photos and the mannequin hands, for example — the overall impression is of a white world with small, dark intervals.
This whiteness is reinforced by the grids of drawings on white paper. One set of these works, "Captcha Drawings," comprises meticulous copies of those wavy sets of letters and numbers that you need to type in order to log in to certain websites. For Milner, drawing is the most personal kind of art, and another set of drawings is the result of his falling asleep with a pen in his hand, poised over a small sheet of paper. These works are a key to understanding his oeuvre, which is simultaneously minimal and expressive. Also contributing to the character of the main part of the show are the white-painted library tables covered with books, photos and other objects. One table is dedicated to "Memories Trapped in Objects, Removed From My Bedroom Due to Heartbreak," in which Milner has instinctively arranged an array of objects that remind him of lost relationships. Upstairs, "A Selection of Related Objects" is similarly arranged; here, Milner has associated various things in some unknown way, with the viewer invited to interpret them.
The show has some sexual content. For instance, there is a video made of screen captures of people (mostly men) masturbating. But the images go by so quickly that there's no sense of vulgarity to them. The same is true of a video of Milner's face with his mouth open to "catch" the gleaming light that comes off the chrome pipes of urinals; it's charged with X-rated content that is essentially left unseen in the piece.
Milner has thought a lot about who he is and how he relates to the world, and about the dynamic of real versus virtual.
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Shifting gears, the other show I'm reviewing is The Everyday Circus: Hollis + Lana, at Gildar Gallery, which is mostly made up of neo-modern abstract paintings and sculptures. Put together by director Adam Gildar, the show is strikingly beautiful. The paintings, done by the husband-and-wife team of Conor Hollis and Amorette Lana — known collectively as Hollis + Lana — are automatist compositions that have been fleshed out into imaginary forms. It's impossible to tell that there are two hands behind each of these paintings, because they are so seamlessly resolved into unified wholes.
The paintings are essentially non-objective, but representational images do appear here and there, like menacing-looking teeth and shapes and colors that suggest internal organs. But these are ambiguous enough that they don't come off as visceral.
The paintings are a setup for the sculptures, which are similar in sensibility. There are two small ones that fall into that creepy kids'-toy movement so popular in the lowbrow street-art scene. But the big one, "Alterity," which means "otherness," clearly represents a breakthrough, since it's so much better than the small ones, having an unexpected monumentality despite its lyrical colors and whimsical forms.
"Alterity" is made of expanding acrylic foam that's been injected into a mold; when it sets, it becomes as hard as fiberglass. Hollis + Lana have picked out the details and shapes in paint and toned down the finish with varnish. It's a tour de force, and surely the start of something great for the couple.