For the first time in its history, the Museum of Contemporary Art/ Denver is hosting a set of exhibitions that collectively work like a blockbuster. Decades of Influence: Colorado 1985 - Present sets out to be a sociological analysis, if not a historical survey, of the art scene on the Front Range over the past twenty years. Despite the low self-esteem that some tend to project onto our art world, (and onto Denver), the topic of Colorado art is actually so vast that the show stretches beyond the MCA and into the Center for Visual Art, a co-sponsor, to the Gates Sculpture Triangle and to the Carol Keller Project Space.
The four-stop extravaganza is a stroke of brilliance on the part of Cydney Payton, curator and director of the MCA, who chose wonderful pieces and installed the show beautifully. Most of all, however, Decades reveals Payton's tremendous political savior-faire: More than any other show she's been involved with since taking the helm of the MCA, this over-the-top triumph plays directly to the interests of her audience.
Sure, there are perhaps a score of artists who have been left out who could have been in the show, but with only a handful of exceptions, her choices of who did get in are absolutely dead-on. Payton has an elaborate song and dance that verges on a full-scale Broadway musical to explain how she selected the artists. She denies that she deems these artists to be important or significant, emphatically eschewing the use of both terms. Instead, Payton views those she chose as exemplifying the influences of the times in their work, whether that be art, politics, society, entertainment or any of a zillion other things. Still, nearly all the artists Payton chose for Decades are important and have been influential. She also says that the show does not necessarily represent what she likes.
Well, I have one thing to say about all of her explanations and apologias: Liar, liar, pants on fire. Payton's modus was definitely partly picking work that she likes -- nearly all of the artists she's promoted over the years are in the show -- but it was more than that, too. Payton really reached out to different spheres of influence in the art community, beyond her usual sources. She got all the major galleries involved, several collectors, including the Kirkland Museum, and, of course, the 72 featured artists, at least all of those who are still alive.
Payton also chose to represent as many mediums as possible, with painting, sculpture, photography and ceramics being exhibited in such volume that there are practically mini-shows within the enormous whole. This made me think of Decades as a hothouse for growing future shows, in which specific topics could be blown up into their own blockbusters. There: The gauntlet has been thrown.
To do justice to Payton's magnificent obsession, I'll be discussing the four components of Decades separately. This week, I review the first stop in the show, which is at the MCA, and in Artbeat , I talk about the outdoor pieces at the Gates Sculpture Triangle. Next week, I'll take on the CVA chapter and the installation at the Carol Keller Project Space.
As I walked in to the MCA, I was swept away by how good the show is. Even though some things had not yet been installed and were lying on the floor or leaning against the walls, the place looked breathtaking.
One of Payton's greatest skills is laying out a show, and she doesn't disappoint us this time. There was no need to insert a chronological organization, as this part of the exhibit spans just a single decade, from 1985 to 1995, so Payton loosely associated objects according to certain non-parallel themes. Really, though, Payton just did what she always does: arrange things so that they look good in relation to each other. As usual, the formula works.
The exhibit starts off with a bang in the form of "City Blues," from 1989, an enormous Carlos Frésquez mural triptych in acrylic on panel. The painting has a tough-looking guy in the foreground and is set in a mythic Denver environment, with symbols of ancient and modern aspects of his life floating around his head. It's classic '80s Chicano art, but with the immigration debate simmering, the old painting has gained new relevance --though Frésquez has since turned to the post-Chicano sensibility.
The same is true with the striking "Requiem," from 1991, by the late Wes Kennedy. In "Requiem," Kennedy staged a male/male Pieta, assembled from cut-up black-and-white photos. Kennedy's work was about the nexus of sex and death, which was put into sharp focus when he died of AIDS in 1993.
Across from the Kennedy is "Seeds," one of those oddball Kay Miller paintings done in oil and mixed materials. In it, Miller, an American Indian, juxtaposes an ear of corn with a cross. Her surfaces are unbelievably lively, with the cross "painted" with tiny plastic baby dolls that have been glued to the canvas.
Also in this initial section are a group of ceramics by Betty Woodman, the most famous contemporary artist to have ever worked in Colorado and who is currently the subject of a solo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Around the corner is the main gallery, which has been doglegged with partitions. Here are three of George Woodman's multiple exposures of antique sculpture and historic architecture, and a gorgeous construction of metal, wire and photos by John Hallin. Though the Stephen Batura is a painting, it's based on a photo, so it resonates with the Woodman and the Hallin that hang next to it. Across the room and around the corner is a group of groundbreaking Ruth Thorne-Thompsen photos, the kind of thing that influenced a generation of Colorado photographers to embrace the pinhole craze.
In between is a marvelous cast-paper installation by Myron Melnick, made up of white organic shapes, that provides the perfect marker for the sea of ceramics done by some of the biggest names in the entire show, including Nan and Jim McKinnell, Richard DeVore and Rodger Lang. Beyond the ceramics is a wonderful neo-transcendentalist abstraction of the landscape, "Watermusic," by Sushe Felix, that provides the ideal backdrop for the pots. Behind the Felix in its own separate space is a non-narrative DVD projection by Phil Solomon.
On the other end of the dogleg is an incredible passage in Decades of Influence. Here Payton has hung a great Homare Ikeda abstract that relates back to the Miller, which is around the corner, next to a group of Robert Adams's famous ecology photos that chart sprawl in the landscape. Opposite is a spectacularly luminous work by Charles "Bill" Hayes called "Summer Sketch," created from smears of paint and glaze. Adjacent is a wall-hung installation of draperies and suitcases by Linda Herritt that is reminiscent of a proscenium. As if all of this weren't enough, Payton also included a monumental ceramic sculptural group by Scott Chamberlin that's about the relationship of eccentric if organically derived shapes.
To the right is a large gallery down a short corridor, and this space will make just about anyone stop in their tracks. Anchoring the room is John DeAndrea's "American Icon," a hyper-realistic polyvinyl figural group inspired by the Kent State tragedy and partly based on a black-and-white photo of the incident. Also realistic -- and disturbing -- is "Night Into Morning" by the late John Fudge, which depicts a woman in bed adrift in dreams that fill the room. Fudge influenced many artists, including Jeff Starr, whose realistic painting of an abstract form highlights his longstanding bad-boy status.
Striking a completely different chord is the big, elegant Dale Chisman abstract painting, which has nothing to do with the politics or the aesthetics of the DeAndrea, Fudge or Starr. The Chisman, "Savage Grace," from 1990, is a great example of the artist's work, with its black-dominated ground accented by gestures in white and red. Striking an ideological compromise between the realist works and the abstraction of the Chisman are the two untitled expressionist torsos in ceramics by Martha Daniels.
There are quite a few photos in this section, including a series by Chuck Forsman, who's better known as a painter. These black-and-whites of the Western landscape were taken from Forsman's car, and the windshield and side windows provide frames for the scenery. There are also two remarkably poetic and dreamy photos by the late Francesca Woodman that are clearly autobiographical -- not to mention somewhat unsettling. The same could be said for Albert Chong's surrealist multiple exposures that are hung nearby.
This first section of the show concludes up on the mezzanine, where Payton has assembled work that relates to pop art, or at least to pop culture. There's an installation of what look like comic strips by Joe Clower; there's a Gary Sweeney that looks like a sign; and there's an actual sign, listing the record-setting prices of famous paintings, by Burt Payne3. Opposite is a photocopy installation by Jim Johnson that covers the wall with words, and adjacent are Mark Sink's Polaroids of his friends and art acquaintances.
Were Decades of Influence only made up of this first part at the MCA, it would be among the top shows presented anywhere in town in years. But of course there's lots more involved than just this one fabulously successful section, so I haven't even started to shower Payton with the praise she deserves.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.