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Eight great shows make up the brilliant Marvelous Mud at DAM

Detail of "Apoptosis," by Martha Russo and Katie Caron, mixed-material installation.

If you haven't yet seen Marvelous Mud, the homegrown, summer-long blockbuster at the Denver Art Museum, you might think it's a single show. But it's actually eight different exhibits, a series of workshops, lectures by artists and curators, various special events, and even a symposium. For the DAM, it's an unprecedented effort on the part of its curators to coordinate their departments around a single shared topic: clay.

The exhibits begin on the second floor of the Ponti tower with Potters of Precision: The Coors Porcelain Company, a small exhibit curated by Darrin Alfred that features a nice selection of the aesthetically pleasing laboratory vessels made in Golden. On the third floor is Nampeyo: Excellence by Name, organized by Nancy Blomberg, examining the accomplishments of the first American Indian woman to gain personal fame for her pottery. Also on this floor, in the elevator lobby, is Roxanne Swentzell's "Mud Woman Rolls On" a bigger-than-life-sized seated woman with her four babies — a traditional Santa Clara Pueblo form — which is a show-stopper and is still being worked on right on site. Up on the fourth floor, Donna Pierce has put together Mud to Masterpiece: Mexican Colonial Ceramics, showcasing Mexican pots along with more than two dozen pieces of Chinese porcelain that influenced the Mexican work. On the fifth floor, Ron Otsuka presents Blue and White: A Ceramic Journey, a show about classic Chinese blue and white ware that changed the taste of the entire world. And you might not think that Eric Paddock, the photo curator, could have participated in a theme series about clay, but you'd be wrong: He's presenting Dirty Pictures on the seventh floor, made up of shots that include clay and other kinds of soils.

Over at the Hamilton, on level two, is Marajó: Ancient Ceramics at the Mouth of the Amazon, wherein Margaret Young-Sanchez breaks new ground with a first-ever look at prehistoric works in clay from Brazil. And beginning on level one, but mostly on view in the Anschutz gallery on level two, is Overthrown: Clay Without Limits, while up on four, there's Focus: Earth & Fire. Both displays were put together by Gwen Chanzit.

Of all these shows, Overthrown — in which artists were asked to create specific works for the museum — is the most ambitious, and it's what I want to focus on. An eye-dazzler, it attempts to deconstruct our ideas about ceramics in a number of ways.

Preparations for Overthrown began several years ago when Chanzit, who doesn't specialize in ceramics, began doing some homework by attending ceramics conferences, one in London and one in Santa Fe, and familiarizing herself with the artists who were being talked about. She also studied the Colorado scene and eventually included a number of local artists. I want to laud Chanzit for her efforts, as the inclusion of Colorado artists hasn't always been a priority for the DAM. I'd also like to salute the DAM for inviting some of the top talents in the area to participate in Marvelous Mud in other ways, with demonstrations by the likes of Robin Furuta, Peter Durst, Gayla Lemke, Janey Skeer, Bob Smith and Maynard Tischler, among others.

Chanzit asked each of the participants to think big and do something that would represent a breakthrough for them. But she didn't want them to go in debt to pull their pieces off, so the DAM provided funds to each to offset expenses.

A couple of the artists in Overthrown have pieces that are distributed around the Hamilton, beginning on the ground level. One is Clare Twomey, a British artist whose "Collecting the edges" consists of red-clay dust — a play on the word "Colorado" — that has been piled up in nooks and crannies and in subtle and unexpected spots. The other is John Roloff, from San Francisco, who created a series of photo-on-vinyl wall hangings, including a pair in the Anschutz anchoring an installation that also includes two canoe-like shapes as well as a mold and the unfired clay that was cast in it.

The only artist whose entire piece is on level one is Canada's Linda Sormin, whose "Mine," at the base of the atrium, is a tremendous collection of found materials — including a broken stained-glass door — that all seem to be held together with bits of ceramic, some of them in cage-like forms, others little more than shards.

The show really picks up steam in the Anschutz, beginning with "Footing," by Nathan Craven, a recent fellow at Montana's Archie Bray Foundation. His work consists of patches of floor made up of fired ceramic puzzle pieces. In a break (excuse the pun) with typical practice, viewers are invited to walk across these pads of movable pieces, which make crunching noises like fallen leaves underfoot.

To the left is "An Incomplete Articulation," by Paul Sacaridiz from Wisconsin. It's a vaguely high-tech-looking installation that includes porcelain, aluminum and steel among a variety of other materials placed on a stage.

Off to the right, in their own separate gallery, are three strange installations by New Yorker Walter McConnell under the collective title "Itinerant Edens." These pieces stretch our ideas about clay sculpture in two ways: first, they are made with moist clay in plastic terrariums; and second, their forms are based on three-dimensional digital copies. So McConnell combines a primitive approach (the unfired clay) with advanced techniques (computer technology). They're very thought-provoking.

In the large space beyond that is a wall with thousands of glazed terra cotta flower petals by Boulder's Kim Dickey that make up a tapestry on one side and a monochrome on the other. The piece, "Mille-Fleur," strikes a heady balance between minimalism and decoration, and it refers to Dickey's interest in the nexus of gardens and clay. As solid and earthbound as the Dickey is "Flake," an installation by Canadian artist Neil Forrest that appears to be floating in the air; contrary to first impressions, the individual elements of the piece are actually quite heavy.

Around the corner is Detroit artist Anders Ruhwald's "Like the new past," a space that has been almost completely covered in commercially made orange and blue bathroom tiles that have been expertly laid despite the non-rectangular joints between the walls and the floor. Placed on the tile floor are simple ceramic sculptures that recall chess pieces, with the tiles suggesting chess boards. Visitors are allowed to walk through the installation but are asked not to touch the sculptural elements. Beyond is one of the show's most striking works, "Apoptosis." For this piece, Martha Russo and Katie Caron, both from Colorado, have filled a corner of the space with mixed materials, including a cut-up telephone pole and internal lights. It will stop you in your tracks.

Another Colorado artist, Jeanne Quinn, has filled a nearby corner with antler-like chandeliers made of white glazed ceramic hanging from the ceiling. It's so lyrical that it comes across like a three-dimensional drawing. Here's a funny twist concerning another artist, Del Harrow, whose three installations are nearby — most notably, a gorgeous tile wall in abstract high relief finished in a dreamy blue-green. When Chanzit chose Harrow, he was living in Pennsylvania, but he's since relocated to Fort Collins, thus becoming yet another Colorado artist in the show.

Further on are two wall-bound installations, both by Colorado artists. First is the somewhat disturbing "Mast Year," by Mia Mulvey. Using laser-cut porcelain paper, cast porcelain and stoneware, Mulvey takes on the topic of scientific specimens — in this case, dead birds and butterflies. Also taking on a conceptual narrative is Tsehai Johnson's "To Dust She Returns," a series of walls covered with ceramic decorative bars accented by feather poufs, one of which is a feather duster. Periodically, a model comes in and does a performance in which she dusts the piece, playing on death — dust to dust — and offering a feminist critique of housework.

Though he obviously had a lot of help from just about everybody who works at the museum, a good deal of the credit for Marvelous Mud goes to Christoph Heinrich, the DAM's director. From the start, he's demonstrated that he's very exhibition-oriented and that he thinks thematically, so his fingerprints are all over Marvelous Mud. It's a brilliant stroke for Heinrich, and conceptually, it's very elegant in its simplicity.

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Denver Art Museum

100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway
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