Wouldn't it be great if the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver became one of the great cultural assets of the region in the 21st century? Wouldn't it be great if the powers that be there could get their act together?
Although the museum's current attraction, Western Vernacular: Colorado Installations, is very good, don't think that the festering problems at the institution have been resolved -- they haven't. This show was organized by freelance curator Sean Hughes, who is not connected to MoCA/D.
MoCA/D started out a couple of years ago renting the mezzanine at 1999 Broadway. The space really felt like a museum because the building sports a lot of luxurious materials, which set an appropriately institutional mood. About a year ago, MoCA/D moved to the ground floor of Sakura Square, a 1970s complex that includes a high-rise tower, a retail block and a Buddhist temple. Sakura Square, which is at the edge of LoDo, is also a great spot for a new museum, especially with that lovely outdoor courtyard.
Western Vernacular: Colorado Installations, through October 31, at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7553.
But the museum's current space was formerly a fish market, and sadly, little has been done to change that established character. Unsightly security bars -- carried out in an ersatz Oriental style -- were finally removed for this show. Until recently, these iron grates covered the inviting glass curtain walls (which could still use a good cleaning).
How could MoCA/D have allowed no less than three exhibits to be presented before it made this needed and inexpensive alteration? Again, it is Hughes, and not the MoCA/D staff, who deserves the credit for removing the bars, though acting director Mark Sink and some volunteers lent a hand. Other relatively minor but obvious changes should be made immediately: The automatic door to the main entrance is worn and shabby -- hardly the kind of first impression a museum wants to make; it is also broken and so heavy that you could dislocate your shoulder trying to open it, and the blare of the electronic tone that sounds when you do finally open the door is comparable to a screaming car alarm.
Not jangled yet? Then you're ready to confront the tawdry gift shop, a collection of secondhand showcases filled with a confusing array of objects of no particular interest or merit. Standing there in the lobby of the would-be prestigious MoCA/D, you feel like you are at some kind of going-out-of-business sale. (The idiotic gift shop -- unlike any I've seen at any museum anywhere -- should be off the entry, not in it!) A good gift shop -- well-stocked with desirable merchandise, including books -- could be a big moneymaker for the museum, if only it were properly managed.
These apparent problems are indicative of a less obvious one. The museum has no direction because it has never had, and does not now have, a real director. No, I'm not forgetting about Kenworth Moffett, who served briefly as a highly paid part-time director. Moffett was never really the museum's director, since he was never really in town: He didn't bother to move to Denver from Boston after he got the job.
A museum director not only needs to book good art shows that will bring in visitors, but should also wine and dine wealthy potential local donors. Life not being fair, it is Denver's rich, and not its artists, who will determine the fate of MoCA/D. With their support, it will float; without it, it will sink. The trouble with Moffett was that he didn't have time during his brief visits to even meet with people, let alone pick their pockets. And he wasn't much of a showman, either. His one exhibit, The New New Painting, was viewed by many visitors as a laughingstock.
It's impossible to overstate how bad a decision it was on the part of the MoCA/D board to hire Moffett; in fact, it's amazing that the institution survived his tenure. The board is now looking for a new director, at a much-reduced salary. If they screw up again, they may not be so lucky, and MoCA/D may tragically fail.
Keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime, take in the very smart Western Vernacular, which Hughes put together with a grant from US West.
Well-known on the local art scene, Hughes is an intelligent painter whose works have been exhibited at a variety of local galleries. He has organized shows for other artists at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, where he served as assistant gallery director. He recently left Rule to accept a full-time position at the Denver Art Museum.
The idea for Western Vernacular was hatched about five months ago, during the Moffett era. Favorably placed at Rule, Hughes heard that MoCA/D was looking to present an installation show. He approached Moffett with a concept, which Moffett immediately accepted. "I got out about two sentences describing my intentions, and Ken said, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,'" recalls Hughes. The exhibitions committee had the same reaction. "I'm thrilled they gave me the opportunity."
I guess the one advantage to Moffett's hands-off approach was that it allowed a virtuous curator like Hughes to have free rein.
MoCA/D's only guideline was for Hughes to choose local talent to participate in the show. But Hughes is quick to point out that Western Vernacular should not be seen as a survey of installation art in Colorado. "There are a lot of installation artists around," says Hughes, "so to do a genuine historical survey that is tight and comprehensive would have taken me a year just to do the research. I had only a few months from start to finish, so I went with an aesthetic approach instead."
Hughes began with a working definition of installation art. "It's so big -- that's one of the interesting things about it," Hughes explains. "Installation is about architecture and theater, especially set design. It's about objects and atmosphere. It borrows from sculpture and painting and all the traditional arts. Walking into an installation is like walking into a painting."
The show turned out to be thoroughly eclectic. If it is not technically a survey, it does, nonetheless, provide viewers with exposure to an expansive range of approaches. Although none of the nine invited artists addresses the medium in the same way, Hughes has identified two predominant schools of thought. Some of the installations are sculptural; the only reason they can be called installations rather than simply being related sculptures is that they've been assembled in a particular context in relation to their surroundings. The others create a total, all-encompassing environment.
"Subtended Connection," by the venerated installation master Chuck Parson of Lakewood, is on the sculptural side. It's a monumental site-specific piece in Parson's characteristic industrial style; it sits outside of MoCA/D in the magnificently landscaped forecourt of Sakura Square.
Parson constructed three flat rectangular ramps that rise up from the wall that surrounds the elevated gardens. The steel ramps -- painted primer red -- extend into the brick-paved courtyard and are covered with sod, mimicking the raised gardens. By extending the garden into the air in this way, Parson has deconstructed the landscape. Each ramp is accented by a concrete cylinder topped by heavy nuts and bolts. The cylinders are on the ground and appear to be some kind of partially hidden structural element instead of decoration, making "Subtended Connection" look as though it's been built into the entry plaza instead of just sitting in place.
The first piece inside is "Untitled," by Denver artist Jeffrey Richards. When Hughes first visited Richards's studio, he wasn't sure that his work was installation at all; it looked more like sculpture. "There were these big constructivist forms laying around, and I thought, these are sculptures," says Hughes. But then Richards turned on the lights and revealed his use of directed available light, a key part of his work. Suddenly the piece qualified as an installation. "Untitled," in the first gallery at MoCA/D, comprises three unfinished plywood boxes, one of them hanging dramatically off the wall. All are constructed with light wells, or slits, that move natural and artificial light around and project it onto the floor and walls.
In the next gallery is "Blue Funk in My American Home: Thoughts on Population Control," by Denver's John McEnroe. Using interrelated items, McEnroe sparely accents the room. Some of the objects, like the bug zapper, are ready-made; others, like the oversized doormat, have been custom-fabricated. In between are things like a site-specific electric fence. Surprisingly, McEnroe, whose pieces are cynical and witty, is quite an elegant stylist. Especially nice is the association of the black rubber wedges on the floor with the yellow brackets of the electric fence above, on the wall. The combination perfectly sets off the blue acrylic panel box that hangs from the ceiling nearby.
The large gallery beyond is shared by two artists. To the right is David Brady's "Common Sense," which includes an audio component mounted in the corner, a found sink pedestal topped off by a balloon filled with liquid, and a pair of towels hung under Plexiglas. Opposite and to the left is "1973 Grammy Award Nominees and Winners in the Following Categories," by Burt Payne 3. The Jamestown artist used twigs to spell out the names of pop groups. Visitors to this room also have a great view of Parson's outdoor piece, which is perfectly framed through the window.
The most spectacular piece in the show is "Maximum Location," by Boulder's Linda Herritt. The piece is based on a topographic map of Martin Gulch. Herritt uses heavy steel cables to hang a variety of fabrics -- from thick brocades to wispy laces -- in the classic concentric patterns of a topographic map. She has re-created a cross-section of the map, which abuts a mirror-clad wall, thus doubling the image in its reflection. The colors are perfect, with alternating bands of blue and white. Herritt also uses fans, black lights and strobe lights for added sensory effect. "Maximum Location" is a total environment, as opposed to the assembled objects seen in many of the other pieces in this show.
Denver artist Elizabeth Faulhaber also created a total environment with "celom." She lined a small crawl space under a staircase with plastic, which is laid casually over a pink painted ground. The focal point of the oddly shaped space is a group of vessels suspended in mid-air above vessels on the floor. Saltwater drips down the wax thread that is used to hang the vessels from the ceiling.
Lisa Stanley of Denver uses moving images in a disturbingly pitch-black space for "Genetic Fetish." Facing us as we enter the room through blackout curtains is a projection of an eye. Opposite is a suspended Plexiglas panel holding a mandala made of lingerie. Moving, sperm-like forms are projected onto the panel, and the combined image is reflected onto the wall.
Upstairs is the final piece: Antonette Rosato's "Middle Knowledge," which is more sculptural than environmental. This installation is apparently a self-portrait of Rosato, who lives in Boulder. At opposite sides of the large space -- which is unified by vertical mirrors -- Rosato uses china displayed on an étagère in the shape of a grandfather clock to symbolize her mother, Mary, and an actual grandfather clock to symbolize her father, Albert. The Rosatos collaborated on the piece.
Western Vernacular is an engaging presentation that reflects the sophisticated state of installation art around here -- and it's just one good example of why it's so important for MoCA/D to succeed.
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