Off Beat

"Falling" (from left), "Hanging" and "Shooting," by Andy Miller, patinated aluminum and neon.

Not since the 1960s has there been so much aesthetic interest in popular culture. It all began a decade ago, when many contemporary artists grew tired of formalism and expressionism and began picking up on the pop-related styles of a previous generation. Some of these new-pop artists revived the original style, while others, informed by post-modern theories, championed conceptual art with lots of pop references.

This conceptual variant is what's being featured in Andy Miller: A Deconstruction of Life, an important solo at Pirate: A Contemporary Art Oasis. I was surprised at how good this show is because, to be polite, Pirate hasn't really been cooking lately. But the incredible Miller show has the old place sizzling again.

The exhibit is installed in the main gallery, a spot normally reserved for full-time co-op members. Associate members such as Miller are ordinarily consigned to the awkward back space under the loft. But there was an open slot, and Miller grabbed it. So Pirate's sloppy organization paid off for a change.

Although Andy Miller is made up of only four sculptures, they're so large, they fill the gallery to capacity. And not only that -- they also firmly establish Miller as one of the most significant young sculptors around.

The four sculptures share the same unappealing theme: suicide. When I first heard about the show, I felt like telling Miller to cheer up. But apparently he's not exploring his own dark feelings; he's attempting to address social issues in a political way. "The sculptures are not about suicide, specifically," he explains. "I'm not suicidal, and no one close to me has ever committed suicide. They're about how our culture treats violence, how it's always the headline of a news story -- the whole thing seems like a big machine to me."

Miller was born here in 1971, and he received a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in 1998. At the time, he was one of a group of promising young sculptors at UCD that also included Russell Beardsley and Emmett Culligan. Miller's mentor was Andrew Connelly, a conceptual installation artist who taught at the school. But he also rounds up the likely suspects of '90s art stars -- notably, Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney -- as influences.

After graduating, Miller traveled around the world, leading him to the ideas on which the sculptures at Pirate are based. Each of the suicide sculptures takes the form of an international male symbol. The symbol -- familiar to all as the character on men's room doors -- is little more than a fleshed-out stick figure with two lozenges for legs, two similarly conceived arms, a box for a torso and a circle for a head. Miller was intrigued by the communication conveyed by these representational symbols, which are free of any association to language.

For his sculptures, Miller took the symbol, which is usually very small, and blew it up until it was twelve feet tall. He then cut two mirror images out of aluminum and set them back-to-back, about a foot apart, and filled the space in between with aluminum sheeting to create a freestanding, three-dimensional form.

"They're made just like outdoor signs," Miller points out.

This concept is one of the things that provides a key link between his work and popular culture, as is something else Miller uses: neon. "It was interesting to me to combine this kind of imagery with the materials of a sign, aluminum and neon."

Let's not forget that the male symbol itself is a sign, so these sculptures are signs about signs that are made like signs. Wow! Talk about post-modern hermeneutics.

Some may recall that Miller previously exhibited sculptural renditions of standardized, conventionalized figures for an installation that was on display outside Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. For this two-piece group, called "Bathroom People," Miller created a male and a corresponding female figure out of sheets of metal that he partially covered with pigskin. The four suicide sculptures at Pirate are clearly a direct outgrowth of the thoughts Miller first expressed in "Bathroom People," which, by a happy coincidence, is currently on display at Englewood's Museum of Outdoor Arts.

As the Pirate show unfolds, the first of the monumental Miller sculptures that viewers will encounter is "Shooting," in which the male symbol is aiming a gun at his head and red neon stands in for the resulting blood spatter. Ahead is "Poison," where the male symbol is drinking a glass of poison that is indicated by a teardrop of white neon. Hanging from the ceiling to the right is the male symbol leaping to his death with blue neon bars suggesting movement in "Falling." Lastly, hung from the ceiling near the back wall is "Hanging," in which the male figure dangles from a yellow neon noose.  

The four sculptures are the first of a series that Miller is planning, which will address crime and violence. That means the suicide content of these particular pieces is somewhat misleading in relation to his ultimate goal, but he did them first because they are the simplest, with only a single figure in each. Future pieces will have multiple figures that convey situations in which there will be both a victim and a victimizer. The most ambitious of these will capture a riot, include many figures and measure some forty feet long.

I'm not sure why Miller chose to do sculptures about crime and violence generally, or about suicide particularly -- it's surely an anti-commercial move -- but the pieces he's done thus far are fabulous. If you haven't seen Andy Miller: A Deconstruction of Life at Pirate yet, my advice is to get over there before it closes on Sunday.

Another show in which pop-inspired conceptualism takes the floor -- or, in this case, the walls -- is Evan, which features paintings by Evan Colbert. It is the first show to be presented at the just-opened Capsule on Santa Fe Drive. Capsule is technically a commercial gallery, but it seems more like an alternative space. In fact, it does a dead-on impersonation of the old ILK on Santa Fe. But that's to be expected: This was the old ILK on Santa Fe!

Capsule only occupies half of the former ILK space; in the other half is Pod, a funky boutique specializing in even funkier artifacts. Everything at Pod is handmade, affordable work by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, Jason Needham, Ray Young Chu and a host of others. Both Capsule and Pod are owned by artist Murphy in partnership with her art-friendly friend, Barbara Pooler. Murphy organized Evan, and the connection between Capsule and ILK was an important factor in her selection of Colbert. Like Murphy, he was among the founders of ILK. He even maintained his studio in the back of the space, and as it turns out, some of the paintings in this show were done right on the premises. The pieces in the show were created over the past five years, but despite this time span, everything still looks amazingly fresh.

"I really wanted Evan for Capsule's first show, for many reasons," Murphy says. "There's the ILK connection. He hadn't shown in quite a while. And since I had pushed up the date of the gallery's opening by a couple of months, he was one of the only artists I knew who could pull together a show on such short notice." Colbert appears at Capsule courtesy of his representative, + Zeile/Judish.

Born in 1970 in Seattle, Colbert currently lives in Boulder. In 1996, he got a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Metropolitan State College of Denver, with a major in printmaking. Though best known as a painter, Colbert still keeps his printmaking skills sharp by getting a lot of practice at his day job as a studio assistant at Shark's Inc. in Lyons, a renowned fine-print shop.

Colbert is locally famous for his "paint chip" paintings in which a monochromatic color field is paired with a word. These paintings are exceptionally striking when hung in groups so that the individual words on the separate panels come together to form ad hoc paragraphs. There are none of these paint chip pieces in the Capsule show, but the paintings that are included are closely related to them conceptually, if not in appearance.

"A Few of My Favorite Things," in which nine monochrome tondos in earth tones are lined up horizontally, is the closest in concept to the paint chip compositions. On each tondo, Colbert has stenciled a word, such as "adventure," "shopping" or "food," which adds narrative elements to this otherwise non-objective work of art -- especially in light of the title.

In many of the other Colberts in this show, narrative abstractions are done without the use of words. "Target Targets" is four vertically stacked tondos painted with Target's logo. In a wry twist, Colbert has painted them expressively, with visual brushwork -- antithetical to the way the real image is done. Another piece where Colbert inserts a story without using words is "El Mundo," a large mixed media on panel of a world map. The thick, hard-edged application of the pigment apes the look of a paint-by-numbers picture. On closer examination, viewers will notice that the countries haven't been painted in; the world's religions have.

The Colbert show is fairly modest, with only eight works in all. And Capsule is pretty modest, too, just a small, timeworn room. But that hardly means that the smart little solo at this informal little place should be passed up -- because it really shouldn't.  

Smart and informal are also good descriptions of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art -- as are innovative, provocative and, of course, relentlessly up-and-coming. A crowd of about a hundred people gathered on Monday, April 12, to witness the latest triumph for the scrappy little institution-that-could: the selection of the museum's new building designer.

It's hard to believe that it's been less than a year since the idea of pursuing a permanent home for the museum was first announced. The possibility for a building that MCA could call its own had raised its head when developer Mark Falcone and graphic designer Ellen Bruss offered a gift of land, worth upwards of $800,000, located near the intersection of 15th and Delgany streets. And the real estate mantra of "location, location, location" couldn't be more apt, because the lot is right where the burgeoning LoDo neighborhood gives way to the newly developing Platte Valley -- the hottest place imaginable to build a museum.

Since that announcement, the MCA has established a breakneck pace in terms of events. This past fall, the museum sent out more than eighty Requests for Qualifications to architects and firms around the world. The MCA received 37 responses and then selected six finalists. In February and March, the six -- Snhetta AS, Adjaye Associates, Gluckman Mayner, TEN Arquitectos, Rick Joy Architects and Predock_Frane Architects -- each made a public presentation in Denver. The public response was so tremendous that the presentations had to be moved to the Temple Events Center from the original venue, the auditorium at the Botanic Gardens.

Finally, on Monday, MCA director Cydney Payton -- after teasing the moment with anecdotes -- announced that the winner is Adjaye Associates of London.

The critically acclaimed architectural firm is headed up by David Adjaye, who has been nicknamed the "it" architect of the moment because of his mega-fashionable designs; he is also called "Prince Charming," a reflection of his ready success and do-no-wrong track record. Adjaye Associates has quickly gained international fame since it was founded in 2000, but Adjaye, who is only in his late thirties, was famous even before that as a partner with William Russell in the highly successful firm of Adjaye & Russell.

Adjaye & Russell was acclaimed for its widely published interiors and residential commissions for several well-known arts figures in Britain, including actor Ewan McGregor, fashion designer Alexander McQueen and painter Chris Ofili, a former classmate of Adjaye's at the Royal College of Art. Like Ofili, Adjaye became associated with the YBA group -- the Young British Artists -- who emerged in the 1990s and created an international sensation. (Interestingly -- or would that be ironically? -- the Denver Art Museum has a fair amount of YBA material.)

Adjaye has a special interest in fine art and even calls himself a "conceptual" architect, making him a perfect fit for Denver's MCA, which could be called a "conceptual" museum. Adjaye's understanding of what Payton calls "the theory and practice of contemporary art" is probably what cinched the job for him.

Though Adjaye was not present for the announcement, he issued a statement that read, in part, "This project is an opportunity of a lifetime...(and) it is with deepest gratitude, I accept this challenge." Adjaye will be introduced at the MCA's annual meeting on Tuesday, April 20.

The next step for the MCA and board president Karl Kister is to launch a capital campaign to raise $10 million. Fundraising will begin at the end of the year, with a hoped-for completion date of the building set for 2006. I can hardly wait.

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