Related sensibilities create a resonance between three installations on view right now in RiNo — two at Ice Cube and one at Ironton. In each case, the artist created an all-enveloping environment, and in each one, the shared characteristic is an ethereal or insubstantial element. Another connection is the necessity for viewer interaction, since you have to literally enter and engage with the works in order to see them.
In Regina Benson: On Fire, the artist has conveyed the essence of fire through textile art. Last summer, Benson was forced to evacuate her home and studio in Golden because of an approaching wildfire (luckily, her property was spared), and her views of the fire from down the hill inspired several pieces in On Fire. But Benson says she's been obsessed with fire for a long time, and some of the other pieces here refer to molten lava or embers.
The centerpiece of On Fire is unquestionably the forty-foot-long enclosed walk-through, "Passage," that's defined by a pair of curving walls made from continuous bolts of cloth that run parallel to one another. The cloth has been reinforced with a hidden armature to ensure that it follows the predetermined curving contour Benson has laid out. Attached to the armatures are nearly invisible nylon lines that have been suspended from the ceiling in order to hold the whole piece up. Benson colored the cloth through an elaborate multi-step process, with the results having the look of burning embers. She begins by dying the fabric numerous times in colors including red, yellow and black. To create the illusion of something burning, she discharges the dyes to different color saturations ranging from amber to black. Benson lays the fabrics on the snow outside her studio, then applies hot liquid containing sulfur applied with a brush or a sprayer to partially remove the dyes until the desired tone is achieved. The melting snow underneath the fabric is also used as part of the process. As the snow melts, the fabric wicks up the water and further dilutes the dyes in places, thus changing the colors in those spots. The fire reference is also reinforced with the gallery lighting. Both of the suspended cloth walls are lighted from the exterior, so when viewers walk in, they are bathed only in the glow that comes through the cloth.
Benson's "Passage" is so strong, had I been the curator of the show, I'd have been tempted to exhibit it all by itself with no other works in its space, and then I would have displayed the related "Ablaze" wall pieces in the small niche gallery in the back.
Though it strikes me as the perfect pairing of outings, especially in light of the fact that both shows are anchored by suspended cloths, Sherry Wiggins: Prayers for Others, also at Ice Cube, is taken from another vantage, the complete opposite in intent and appearance from On Fire. Whereas Benson is conjuring up something as emphatic as fire, Wiggins is looking to something as subtle as the spiritual realm. (The contrast prompted one visitor to remark that taking in both shows was like seeing heaven and hell simultaneously, and that's not a bad observation.)
Wiggins has divided her space into three parts. In the center is a video projection of people on the gallery's side wall; they are either alone or in groups, reciting prayers for others. Wiggins used word of mouth in her home town of Boulder to gather volunteers to be recorded praying for this project. On either end of the space, like bookends for the projection, are two "prayer rooms" that are visually enclosed with fabric panels and made into two ten-foot cubes. For each prayer room, trellis-like grids of light-colored unfinished wood have been suspended horizontally from the ceiling. Hanging from the grids and oriented to both directions of their structures are elongated vertical strips of silk that hang almost to the floor. In a space within each prayer room — accessed by pushing aside the panels — is a wooden cube that serves as a bench or table holding a CD player with headphones so that visitors can hear recorded prayers. Guests are invited to either listen to these prayers or compose their own. Interestingly, it's impossible to see the video from within the prayer rooms; while the silk panels are gauzy and somewhat transparent in single sheets, Wiggins has used many sheets to make them visually solid.
Another show that employs video projection as a component of an installation is the poetically titled Bradley Borthwick: Not All Borthwicks Were Noblemen, on view at Ironton. If Benson was looking to the real — fire — and Wiggins to the unreal — the spirits — Borthwick, who lives in Denver, has combined the two. Though there is an elaborate historical narrative that underlies the pieces in this exhibit — a massacre of Borthwick's noble ancestors at Flodden, Scotland, at the hands of Englishmen using long bows — the story is only obliquely and abstractly told in the various elements that make up the show. Personal genealogy and history are not the only themes Borthwick embraces; others are aggression, violence, ritual and the masculine cult of the warrior.
The presentation begins in Ironton's kitchen, which serves as an impromptu foyer to the gallery proper. In this space, Borthwick has constructed a handsome apparatus made of a transparent plastic tube mounted on wooden risers. The tube pierces the wall between the kitchen and the gallery and continues partway through the space. Just beyond the end of this tube, and at the same height from the floor, are a cluster of arrows embedded in a panel set perpendicularly just beyond the end of the tube. There's also an arrow in the rear wall and a few on the floor. The arrows are evidence of a performance Borthwick did in which he shot the arrows using a long bow through the tube, meaning that he's not only an artist, but also an expert archer, because what he did was no mean feat. His prowess in archery is showcased in a video projection on the wall adjacent to and beyond the panel of arrows. The provocative video is based on an 8-millimeter film shot by Chris Perez, of Borthwick enacting a symbol-rich ceremony on a high plateau in the mountains, a stand-in for Flodden. There is also a haunting soundtrack of vocals and drums composed by Borthwick.
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In the film, Borthwick, nude save for an ad hoc backpack of sheepskins strapped to his body, runs to an area that has a beam of wood set vertically in the ground. Nearby is a rectangular pool filled with water and clay particles. Borthwick takes off the sheepskins, immerses himself in the cloudy water, emerges and approaches the wooden stile. There he removes a primitive key from a slot and uses it to scrape the clay mud off a simple tattoo at the top of one of his legs. He then unfolds the sheepskins, which are sewn into leggings, and puts them on. He picks up the longbow and arrows and shoots them into a darkened rectangular patch in the field — and every one he shoots hits its mark. The pool, the tattoo and the darkened patch of earth are all in the form of a broad, dark bar that Borthwick says symbolizes his family crest.
There's an obtuse quality to all three of these installation shows, and all are crammed with content and information. But that's not why they're all worth seeing. Rather, it's because they're all worth looking at.