Hearts and Flowers

The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver finally has a somewhat permanent address: Sakura Square. The ground-floor, two-story MoCA/D space fronts a garden done in a handsome Japanese style, with rocks, gravel and several of those tortured miniature Ponderosa pines that are native to our state. It makes an appropriate entrance for Florals: Unique Visions, the second of a four-part series of shows planned for the place, and one whose subject is sweet enough to overcome any lingering odors from the space's former tenant, a fish market.

Given Sakura Square's artistically correct on-the-edge-of-LoDo location and its modern style--1970s brutalist, all concrete, aggregate and glass, with a whisper of Japanese flair--MoCA/D's move there makes a lot of sense. The area is in bad need of spiffing up, however. The gift shop at the entrance should go, and so should those ersatz Chinese-style security grates that cover the glass curtain-walls facing both the garden and the Larimer Street front. But these are easy cosmetic fixes, and even in its current scruffy condition, Sakura Square--complete with Buddhist temple and a two-story pavilion that could accommodate more than a half-dozen galleries--is a good fit for the youthful, transitional MoCA/D.

Florals was curated by Denver photographer, teacher and MoCA/D trustee Mark Sink, who used his wide network of contacts to invite a mix of old friends and new acquaintances from across the country. As a result, Florals features a bouquet of ideas. The exhibit includes some historic photos and some new, experimental ones; classic shots done in traditional black and white hang side by side with mechanical prints and conceptual pieces. But the show is so dense--and hung so free-form--that viewers may miss some of the ideas Sink lays out. For example, the oldest images--the late Karl Blossfeldt's photogravures from the 1920s--are in the second-to-last segment instead of up front, where they would have worked better.

But even if Florals is confusingly arranged, it's still a beauty. One of its strengths is that, like MoCA/D's 1997 premier exhibit on the mezzanine of 1999 Broadway that highlighted selections from local private collections, Florals integrates international figures with local ones. But it also offers thoughtful reflection on a current trend in fine-art photography--the widespread revival of interest in the humble flower picture.

Photographs of flowers were common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but then fell out of favor. This point is made clear by comparing those Blossfeldts with the lone Paul Outerbridge, also dating from the '20s. The Blossfeldt photogravure "Symphytum Officianale," from 1928, is a dead-center shot of a lovely cluster of buds. It makes sense: A beautiful subject leads to a beautiful photo. But the modern movement, just then coming to full speed, was suspicious of easy virtue in pictures and so took a different approach to beauty, one clearly revealed in Outerbridge's "Waterford Vase" of 1924. In this vintage platinum print by the deceased Los Angeles photographer, the flowers, rather than being the centerpiece of the photo, have been cropped out of the top of the frame. While accomplished photographers continued to make flower pictures into the 1930s, the fad was definitely fading.

For more than the next fifty years, serious fine-art photographers only rarely looked to flowers for their subject matter. Boston's Marie Cosindas was one of those exceptions, and Sink has included several of her color pieces, including a number in her patented--and arduous--dye-transfer technique. But for the most part, flower photos were degraded by the modernists as sappy and sentimental, a subject better left to hobbyists.

Then, in the 1980s, the late Robert Mapplethorpe brought them back--and no one could accuse mad dog Mapplethorpe, the vanguard New York photographer, of being either sappy or sentimental. Sink has included a five-piece suite from Mapplethorpe's magnificent "Calla Lily" series of 1984, loaned to MoCA/D by the Ron Judish Gallery. The five silver prints, each of which places a closeup of a white blossom against a dense black ground in the manner of Edward Weston, represent key moments in the revival of the flower as a fit subject for photography. So it's not surprising that many of the newer photos in Florals reveal the influence of Mapplethorpe's flower studies. For some reason, though, Sink and MoCA/D's Jason Musgrave decided to stick the Mapplethorpes in a back corner of the balcony rather than showcase them on the main floor, where these seminal pieces belong.

There's no denying Mapplethorpe's impact on one of the country's current hot photographers, and no wonder: New Yorker Tom Baril printed many of those flower photos when he worked as Mapplethorpe's assistant. Here Baril is represented by a unique, toned silver print from a Polaroid, the mislabeled "Hyacinth" (it's clearly something else, perhaps a pansy) from 1998. Using a rich palette of blacks, grays and silvers, Baril places the closeup of the back of the flower on a dark silvery ground. Unlike the Mapplethorpes, this single Baril photo is given a prominent display space, on its own wall facing the staircase.

Kevin O'Connell, a member of the Denver Salon, also tips his lens to Mapplethorpe with a series of tiny, luscious platinum Palladian prints of stems and blossoms set on a deeply toned black field. In 1995's "Three Onions," the seed heads are clustered in a jumble of whiplash lines; in "Dying Hibiscus #2," a very Mapplethorpian image, the withering bloom, seen in profile, is lyrically set off-center. Very much in the same mood is the self-described "Dahlia in Water," a toned 1998 silver print by Japanese photographer Tamaki Obuchi.

In addition to Mapplethorpe's influences, Sink explores the wild and woolly world of experimental photography, in the process providing Florals with some of its most unusual pieces. Particularly notable are the exquisite, if bizarre, '70s shots by New Mexico master Walter Chappell. For these works, Chappell laid leaves and other plant matter on metal photographic plates, then charged the plants with electricity, which snapped the photo onto the paper. The results are stunning, as evidenced by a vintage silver print such as 1974's "Avocado Leaf." On a black ground, the very dark leaf is outlined in a halo of white sparks.

Several of the artists chosen for Florals are interested in what might be called "direct" photography, which places the subject directly on photo-sensitive paper, in the manner of a photogram. This technique is seen in the marvelous leaf shots of Canadian Adriene Veninger, including "Folia Series, Leaf No. 39," a sepia-toned silver print that sets a crinkled maple leaf in leaden grays on a brilliant white background. In a copyrighted process that photographer Carol Henry calls a Florachrome, she puts plants, instead of photos, directly into an enlarger. When the enlarger is activated, the flash burns up the plants, guaranteeing that each image is one of a kind. The outcome is tremendous, particularly in the naturalist color she's able to capture. In 1997's "Gloriosa," for example, a fiery orange lily is caught just before it shrivels up.

Adam Fuss, a prominent New York photographer, also uses a direct approach. In the pair of photograms from his "Sun Flower" series, loaned to MoCA/D by collector Ginny Williams, Fuss lays flowers on Cibachrome paper and then slowly allows the images to develop--a process that sometimes takes weeks. According to Sink, these Fuss photograms are extremely rare; it was a happy coincidence that Williams had them stored here in Denver.

Emerging Seattle photographer Steven Meyers has found another successful formula for creating compelling works, one that is sure to be taken up by other photographers. A radiology technician, Meyers places flowers on an X-ray machine; he uses the resulting negative image to print a positive silver print. Meyers calls these theatrical, brightly lit photos "radiographs" to indicate the use of X-rays in their production.

One of the most interesting aspects of Florals is the inclusion of conceptual artists, all from Denver, looking at flowers. It was clever of Sink to show straightforward still lifes alongside the signature text photos of Susan Evans--for instance, "#653," a 1998 silver print that is simply the words "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in white over black. (All of Evans's photos shown here owe a debt to her mentor, painter Roland Bernier.) Also stretching the definition of floral photography is a multi-part photo mural by John Hallin (another member of the Denver Salon) that barely includes any flowers, and Phil Bender's found-object assemblages: One features a grid of seed packets with pictures of flowers, another of tin cocktail trays covered in rose decals.

Sink's eclectic choices for Florals: Unique Visions make for a lively show and also reveal a budding curator who is courageous and intelligent.

Albert Chong: Selected Works, at the Carol Keller Gallery in Highland, is devoted to internationally renowned photographer Albert Chong, who has taught at the University of Colorado for a decade. The work is highly autobiographical, but Chong's unusual background provides plenty of fascinating subject matter: He was born in Jamaica to a mother of mixed African and Chinese ancestry and a Chinese father who was a successful Kingston merchant. Chong's photos play on these conflicting ethnic themes, setting Buddhist images alongside voodoo symbols. But he also uses his work to explore racism, particularly the kind he's encountered since immigrating to this country some twenty years ago.

Chong's signature is the staged photograph, and he often uses long exposure times so he can inject phantom images of objects or figures--typically Chong himself--into the works. In the 1992 gelatin silver print "Mr. Imagination," a ghostly apparition of Chong is barely visible sitting in a crisply rendered throne-like chair that has been set in a field of fruit. The fruit, the chair and the apparition are all related to voodoo. In "Ishence (Ganja Smoke on Black Velvet Chair)," Chong captures a puff of marijuana smoke floating above the empty chair, while off to the right is a potted tree and a pile of empty bowls.

Several of Chong's photos have been printed on copper plates, while others are framed in wide copper mats, some covered in incised script. A particularly impressive example of the latter is "Jesus, Mary and the Perfect White Man," a hand-colored gelatin silver print depicting a broken crucifix set next to the head of a GI Joe doll.

This fine show, which closes next week, neatly fits the goal of the young Carol Keller Gallery: to highlight gifted local photographers who, inexplicably, are seen much too infrequently in their home state. And Chong, who has a formidable exhibition record, including work displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art, certainly fits in that category.

Florals: Unique Visions, through April 9 at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, Sakura Square, 19th and Larimer streets, 303-984-9956. Albert Chong: Selected Images, through February 27 at the Carol Keller Gallery, 1513 Boulder Street, #


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