The Denver Art Museum has long been on the cutting edge of exhibition design. Unfortunately, that's not always a good thing, as is evident right now at the DAM and other major museums around the world, where marketing and demographics are displacing connoisseurship and art history as key components in the creation of exhibits.
It's hard to blame them. They need to attract visitors in a world with an ever-increasing number of leisure pursuits, many of which (sports, anyone?) are generally more popular.
For the DAM, cranking up the number of visitors is essential, not just because it relies on ticket sales and membership dues for a part of its revenue, but because many other funding sources, such as the local Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the federal National Endowment for the Arts, calculate their contributions with formulas based on the number of bodies that come through an institution's doors.
Winslow Homer: Facing Nature
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
Through April 29, 720-865-5000
Through May 11
Carson-Masuoka Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive
But even if the DAM is basing everything on quasi-scientific methods such as focus groups and surveys, its premise is all wrong, because it is trying to recast itself to appeal to people who aren't interested while taking for granted those who are. And if the DAM goes too far in its varied attempts to broaden art's appeal to non-art lovers, doesn't it risk driving away its core audience? Plus, there's no guarantee that these bold strategies will work.
The latest and most advanced example of the DAM's still-emergent, lowest-common-denominator approach may be found in, of all places, Winslow Homer: Facing Nature, the mini-blockbuster exhibit filled with the quietly appealing work of one of America's greatest artists.
Blockbusters, even small ones like Facing Nature (which closes next weekend), are themselves a part of the DAM's relentless campaign to attract more visitors; love 'em or hate 'em, these kinds of short-run temporary shows are here to stay. There's nothing inherently wrong with them, and they do seem to be an acceptable way to jack up attendance, but guess what? The crowds have been slightly lighter than expected for Facing Nature, despite an extremely expensive, over-the-top installation design that is so emphatic it all but smothers the tiny and delicate Homers.
The bombastic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink design includes a variety of things that compete with the art for our attention. The most egregious are the immense backlighted photo-murals that are unbelievably distracting. Other inappropriately theatrical features include overwrought didactic panels explicating Homer's life and work, and a large play area, complete with easels, sketch pads and a rowboat that visitors can climb into. In one gallery, there's a full-sized replica of a canoe; in another, a water pump with a bucket full of flowers hanging beneath it. Filling our every moment -- unless we get the audio tour -- are the loops of ambient noises. We hear drums beating in one gallery, the sound of rushing water in another. At the last minute, the idea of using artificial pine scent was nixed. Loaners to the show had refused to give their permission because the untested chemicals might damage the artwork.
These gimmicks, which turn the show into a kind of art amusement park that could be called "Homerland," reveal the approach being developed by Dan Kohl, the DAM's founding director of museum design. This is the first DAM show Kohl's been fully involved with; he came on board at the DAM last summer, having been hired away from Arizona's Larson Company. While still with Larson, Kohl was involved in some well-known local projects, including the design of Colorado's Ocean Journey and the Denver Zoo's Tropical Discovery. Like those displays, Facing Nature features fake rocks -- apparently a preferred material for Kohl.
Not surprisingly, the paintings themselves are the best part of the show, and selecting them was a job that fell not to Kohl, but to associate curator for painting and sculpture Ann Daley.
The show is a beefed-up version of one organized by the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, which has a nice collection of Homer's work. Daley supplemented the Portland selections with pieces from the DAM's own collection, as well as from the local Berger Collection and several other lenders, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Facing Nature is in the spacious Hamilton galleries on the first floor, but the museum had to make these galleries less spacious so that the small- to mid-sized show would be able to fill the too-large rooms. To do this, temporary walls were used, some in the form of fragmented arches. There are also a bunch of freestanding rectangular solids on which the paintings have been hung. In this way, five or six small pieces carry an entire gallery.
The show begins with a section called "American Civil War," which leads off with a historical narrative painting called "Rainy Day in Camp," an oil on canvas from 1871. The painting realistically captures a scene of soldiers during the war a few years after the fact. Homer was an artist-correspondent who covered the war for Harper's Weekly. His illustrations were turned into engravings that were published in the magazine. Bound volumes of the magazine, open to his illustrations, are displayed in showcases. In the first gallery beyond the entry, "Sharpshooter," an oil painting from 1863, is paired with the Harper's engraving that was based on it, "The Army of the Potomac-A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty."
After the Civil War, Homer tired of illustration and began to paint watercolors that depicted people, especially children, in everyday activities. In the next two galleries, which together have been subtitled "Innocence," are several fine examples of this kind of work. "Returning From the Spring" shows a little girl carrying a bucket, and "Young Farmers" depicts two little boys in a field. Both watercolors are from the Berger Collection.
The next section, called "Sea," focuses on the time that Homer lived and worked in Cullercoats, England, as well as on his long relationship with seashores, from his native New England to the Caribbean islands he visited. In this section are some genuine masterpieces, including the very impressionistic "The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog," from 1894, and a pair of magnificent views of crashing waves: "Weatherbeaten," from 1894, and the closely related "Eastern Point, Prout's Neck," from 1900. Both are oil on canvas and both have the same somber palette.
The last section, called "Woodlands," takes up Homer's paintings of the natural environment. There are many worthwhile paintings here -- despite that looming play area. One very interesting work is a self-portrait of sorts, though Homer depicts himself from the rear. The oil painting titled "Artists Sketching in the White Mountains," from 1868, is amazing, because it looks half a century newer than it is.
The show seems to wind down toward the end, but the 1882 oil on canvas "Two Figures by the Sea," displayed in the last room, is extremely fine. (But why isn't it back in the "Sea" section?)
It's a shame those Homers weren't allowed to stand on their own, without all the "extras" at the DAM. They're good enough, and they've been interesting all by themselves for more than a century.
Something else that's enduringly interesting, apparently, is contemporary realism, clearly representing an update on Homer's style. At the swanky Carson-Masuoka Gallery, co-director Mark Masuoka has put together a group show called fig-u-ra-tion that features the work of six artists from the gallery's impressive stable of talent.
The first piece Masuoka selected was "Bridges," by Canadian sculptor David Pellettier, which has been placed in the gallery's window and can be seen from outside. It is an incredible sculptural group comprising a pair of crouching figures of barefooted young men in suits. The piece is constructed of cast epoxy resin and fiberglass, and finished to a dull whiteness with plaster. The figures are mirror images of one another.
Entering the gallery proper, we find ourselves in a forest of small bronze sculptures of male nudes by Denver artist Bill Starke. Many of these are charming, even funny, like "Climbers," in which dozens of small bronze figures are suspended in various ways on a row of seven wires attached to the ceiling.
The work of two painters, Barbara Shark of Lyons and Ricki Klages of Wyoming, surround the Starkes. The most interesting of the Sharks are those depicting construction workers, such as "Building (Dexter)," in which most of the painting is taken up by the blank surface of the wall. Shark obviously uses photographs as models for her paintings, but the results are not photo-realist, they're too painterly for that. The paintings by Klages are quite different, having a magical quality, with a trio showing people falling and one, "Alchemical Picnic," in which the people are floating. Klages also refers to art history but with an expected idiosyncratic slant.
In the next section are the murky photos of figures by Denver artist Randy Brown. The handsome silhouettes of posed nudes are especially nice. Nearby are retro-expressionist paintings, including an elaborate multi-part one by emerging Denver artist Jim White.
Truth be told, abstraction is, and has been, the lingua franca of modernism, post-modernism, and even neo-modernism. But as these two shows underscore, the well-turned-out figure does have its lasting appeal.