MCA Denver's building was constructed with six small or mid-sized galleries (two on the first floor and four on the second), a decision that was dictated by the functional program developed by former director Cydney Payton. She laid out this idea of a multiplicity of discrete spaces instead of large open floors — the current vogue in museum design — even before architect David Adjaye was selected to design the building. Each of these tightly defined spaces was meant to be dedicated to a specific kind of art, mostly distinguishable by medium: video, photography, large works and so on. And they are typically devoted to single-artist displays rather than group shows.
Shark's Ink: The Legend of Bud Shark and his Indelible Ink both follows this predetermined, multi-pronged strategy and tweaks it a bit. Since the exhibit concerns a specific medium — printmaking — it is therefore ensconced in the Joseph Crescenti Family Paper Works Gallery. And though it technically focuses on the accomplishments of a single individual, Bud Shark, it's also a group show. That's because Shark is not an artist, but rather an artisan. He's the master printer and director of the fine-art printmaker Shark's Ink in Lyons, which does its business by pulling prints for others.
Shark's Ink is clearly a Colorado treasure, and it's Shark himself who's responsible for that. He first became aware of the print medium when he was in high school in North Dakota. In the late 1960s, he created his first prints while a student of Jack Damer's at the University of Wisconsin.
Through June 28, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.org.
He then went to Los Angeles to work at the renowned Tamarind Lithography Studio, which had not yet relocated to New Mexico, where it is now. He later entered the University of New Mexico and served as Garo Antreasian's studio assistant. In the early 1970s, he moved to London to work for Editions Alecto and the Petersberg Press, both fine printmakers. But Shark and his wife, Barbara, an artist and part of the team at Shark's Ink, burned out on the high-pressure life in London, and in 1974 they decided to move to Boulder. The choice of Boulder was one of those lucky accidents that the history of art is full of: It was simply predicated by the fact that Barbara's sister lived there, and that's how Shark's Ink came to be a part of Colorado's art heritage.
Two years later, after making his living painting signs and doing other odd jobs, Shark decided to open a small storefront printmaking outfit, and he invited Boulder artist Gordon Mansell to do a print. Tapping his London connections, Shark landed a commission in 1976 from the Waddington Galleries for a suite of prints by Bernard Cohen. Today, Shark's Ink is internationally known and respected based on the quality of the prints produced for dozens of significant artists from all over the world.
There are a number of possible ways the MCA show could have been organized. One would be to have done a straight history, presenting works from each year Shark's Ink has been in business. Another would be to have had each artist who's ever done a piece there be represented by a single work. But Payton, who curated the exhibit, chose to limit her selections to just ten artists, each of whom has had long-term relationships with Shark's; these artists were then given mini-solos. To accommodate the resulting 82 prints, which makes this a fairly large exhibit for the Crescenti, Payton needed to do some imaginative hangings of clusters of works, sometimes stacked several high, and she also had to stretch the display out into the adjacent corridor.
And that's the best place to begin viewing this exhibit. In the corridor, Payton has installed the strange and remarkable pieces by Red Grooms; they are prints that have been precisely cut up and assembled into sculptures and bas-reliefs. These pieces are from editions of miniature corollaries of Grooms's pop-inspired monumental pieces made of painted steel, like "Shoot Out," that's visible on a roof deck at the Denver Art Museum. The funky origami confections at MCA are all very cool, but of particular note are the 3-D hanging portraits of artists, including "Picasso," "Jackson in Action" and "De Kooning Breaks Through," which combines an image of Willem De Kooning with one of his most famous subjects, a dangerous-looking woman.
As you enter the main part of the show, it's impossible to ignore the set of zigzag pedestals placed in the center of the room. On them, Payton has set eight Enrique Chagoya prints, some of which exhibit multiple techniques. The stands were necessary because the prints are on exaggerated horizontal leaves that would be virtually impossible to frame in a conventional way. The prints, covered with striking and idiosyncratic representational images with reference to the artist's Mexican-American roots, look like a cross between ancient Meso-American codex scrolls and underground comix.
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The remaining eight artists who fill out MCA's Shark's Ink are featured with works hanging on the walls in separate groupings. The most striking arrangement is the one dedicated to Montana artist John Buck, whose signature style is both whimsical and edgy, if not unnerving. "The Lamp," for example, depicts a jar of fireflies with the hapless insects having been charmingly rendered. Similar stylistically, since they likewise combine lighthearted and serious moods, are the nearly dozen prints by Don Ed Hardy that look like they're based on old-fashioned tattoos. There's a good reason for that: Hardy started out as a tattoo artist. In addition to doing work in the studio, he designed the symbol for Shark's Ink as — what else? — a leaping shark.
In a very different vein are the abstracts by Betty Woodman, who lived for decades in Boulder but now divides her time between New York and her farmhouse in Italy. Woodman takes similar shapes, colors and patterns that she employs in her more famous ceramics, as shown in "Kimono." Next to the Woodmans is an in-depth look at a group of vaguely geometric abstracts by Bernard Cohen, the artist who first worked with Shark way back in 1976 and helped to launch Shark's Ink.
On the other side of the Woodmans are a group of Robert Kushner's expressionist flower-based abstractions, most of which are dramatically colored. On the wall to the right are magical figurative pieces, including one of an Egyptian sarcophagus, by Jane Hammond. Next to the Hammonds are a cluster of charmingly childlike images by the late Hollis Sigler, whose display wraps around the corner. The last of the artists included is Hung Liu, who's done several figurative works that are rich with references to the artist's birthplace, China, and especially to its Maoist past, which she experienced as a child.
Given space constraints, it's impossible to mention all the fine things in this exhibit. Suffice it to say that Shark's Ink just might be the best show presented at MCA since the new building opened in the fall of 2007.