I was talking with an artist friend the other day, and as usual, the topic was current aesthetic trends. He told me how tired he is of all the art that looks like minimalism but actually isn't. Sometimes this kind of thing goes by the name of post-minimalism, which is a sensibility that's been all the rage for a decade.
His remark made me realize how thoroughly I disagree with him, because I think taking simple forms and jam-packing them with details and concepts is an almost sure-fire formula for successful contemporary work. Post-minimalism is just too rich a visual vein not to tap over and over, and the more-is-less philosophy leads to art that covers a wide range of interests and a variety of looks.
The two shows on the first floor of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Halim Al-Karim/Passage to Sumer in the West Gallery and Kris Cox/New Work in the East Gallery, are good examples of this post-minimal trend. These two artists are working in different materials and to very different ends, yet both create work that's simple and complicated at the same time. And using that clever combination, they both succeed in creating compelling pieces. Not only that, but pairing them, as BMoCA's associate curator, Kirsten Gerdes, has done, produces a tremendous harmony, with the Al-Karim show flowing beautifully into the Cox exhibit.
Al-Karim was born in 1963 in Najaf, Iraq. He attended the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, where he earned a BFA in 1988. In 1991, he left Iraq for Jordan and then Amsterdam, where he attended the Gerrit Reitveld Academy, graduating in 1999. He moved to Denver last year. For the past ten years, his work has been exhibited in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S., including at Denver's Robischon Gallery.
Despite Al-Karim's background, his solo at BMoCA does not in any perceivable way refer to the war. In fact, the effects of his installations are the opposite of those evoked by current television-news images of his birthplace. Al-Karim conjures up a delicate, lyrical environment that contrasts mightily with the death and destruction now commonplace in Iraq. The only hint that anything is wrong is a single sentence in his artist's statement indicating that he has lost everything.
Since the show is called Passage to Sumer, we are tipped off that Al-Karim is referring to the ancient Sumerians, who were among the earliest civilizations on earth and who happened to be situated in what is now Iraq, at the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The exhibit presents an atmosphere that's something like an exotic walled garden from the remote past. All around are bright, sunny colors and glimmering surfaces.
There are nearly a dozen different pieces in Passage to Sumer, some of which are made up of many more parts. But the way they all complement each other, and the way they're displayed at BMoCA, makes the entire show seem like one big environmental piece. Surely the item that will catch viewers' eyes first is "Embryo of the Sumerian Mash'hoof," a boat-shaped pierced screen that is reddish-brown in color and made of a metal framework covered with unfired clay mixed with wool.
Immediately behind this is "Soul Layers," which was installed so that it appears to be a part of "Mash'hoof." Al-Karim created thirteen banners from wool, camel hair and handmade palm paper, tinting them with inks and other pigments, including wine oxide. The banners are all done in monochromes, including rich red and vibrant gold shades, and hung from the ceiling.
On the opposite side of the gallery are two more installations that work together as one. "Clay of Golden House" has nine banners, two of them pierced with all-over patterns, while the rest are printed with the faint image of an arch. In front of the banners is "70 Potions for Each Godmother," a low table covered with candles in glass holders that emit the smell of perfume.
I was knocked out by this show, and it seems so right for early spring; it just glows. But its apparent joie de vivre is unexpected, coming as it does from a displaced Iraqi during wartime.
The switch from the flamboyance of Al-Karim's installations to the quiet dignity of Kris Cox's paintings is perfectly carried out, and it struck me as evoking a journey or progression. Whereas Al-Karim's work is brightly colored with tactile surfaces, Cox's paintings rely on subtle hues and even more subtle detailing. The first group of these are mostly done in ivory tones, though several have tiny dots in a rainbow of shades that barely register until you're right on top of them.
Cox was born in Los Angeles and got his art education at Claremont Men's College and the Rhode Island School of Design. Several years ago he relocated to Basalt, Colorado, where he still lives.
The surfaces of Cox's paintings are remarkably complicated. He begins with a wood and metal panel covered with ad hoc art materials, including putty and asphalt. Then he removes some of the material to reveal patterns that lay underneath, making the finished pieces the product of the artist's additions and subtractions. Sometimes the patterns are linear -- like the stripes seen on "Summerfield Diptych" -- so that the surface is reminiscent of corduroy. Other times, as in "Curtain, Apri," they're covered in an all-over pattern of tiny organic shapes.
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Several of the paintings incorporate faint pencil drawings based on strict geometries of horizontal and vertical lines and concentric circles. These lines were precisely applied with the aid of drafting tools; according to the artist's statement, they refer to the passage of time and represent the intersection of the personal and the universal. This connects his oeuvre to the ultra-minimalist work of the late Agnes Martin, whose style I immediately thought of when taking in the Cox exhibit.
The last of the shows on display at BMoCA, Christopher Morris/My America, in the cramped and awkward second-floor gallery, does not continue on the same post-minimal track. I think that's too bad, but this color-photo show is still pretty great.
Morris is a photojournalist who began to take the fine-art pictures in his "My America" series while covering the 2000 presidential campaign for Time. The topic of "My America," according to Morris, is the conjunction of "patriotism, politics and devotion." Unlike his photojournalistic work, in which every effort is made to come up with a straightforward shot of his chosen subject, these images are often cropped in unexpected ways, as in "Cadet's Lips, Philadelphia," which shows only the bottom two-thirds of the face of a young military-school cadet, cutting out his eyes, or "Harrisburg," a portrait of a man showing only his jacket, shirt and tie.
I loved this show and thought it was completely engaging, even if it required a major shift in sensibilities from the cerebral attractions downstairs. In the last couple of years, BMoCA has made a big comeback after a period of retraction. Credit for this definitely goes to director Joan Markowitz, who's breathed new life into the place, and to curator Kirsten Gerdes, who picked and put together these three intriguing shows.