The RiNo neighborhood's Ice Cube Gallery has emerged as a leader in presenting installation art — in part, I'm sure, because of the incredible soaring spaces in the converted dry-ice factory, something that encourages artists to think big. The facilities at Ice Cube are more like a museum than a co-op — which is what it is — with exhibition spaces more reminiscent of those at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art than at Pirate.
But in one key way, Ice Cube is a true co-op: Its membership is peppered with accomplished and established artists who use it to display their most experimental pieces. A prime example is Oxytocin: Katie Caron and Martha Russo, an installation that comes directly out of another piece, "Apoptosis," which was shown at the Denver Art Museum last summer in the exhibit Overthrown. Come to think of it, this fact muddies the waters even more, making Ice Cube seem like an alternative space masquerading as a museum.
Both Caron and Russo teach at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and each does her own distinctive work. The idea to work cooperatively was a fairly recent development; interestingly, they still work separately in their individual studios, coming together to share ideas and blend what they've each made.
Ice Cube Gallery
Through January 28, at Ice Cube Gallery, 3320 Walnut Street, 303-292-1822, http://icecubegallery.com.
Caron is interested in conceptual work that often includes or refers to ceramics, but she's also known for what she calls her "drawings," which are actually more like paintings. There's an assortment of these displayed up front at Ice Cube and in the small gallery in the back (that awkward afterthought of a space looks good for a change). The works are composed of linear, blobby forms; some are roughly circular, while others take on more elaborate gourd shapes. These have been juxtaposed with lines that can look like tails. They are clearly related to the "Oxytocin" piece.
Also in the back space is an installation by Russo that runs along a wall and winds up in a corner in which multi-colored shapes evocative of sea creatures are attached to the wall and assembled into a trail of parts. It's very akin to the piece she showed in Energy Effects at MCA Denver during the ill-fated Denver Biennial a couple of years ago. Like Caron's pieces, this Russo installation and the small, wall-mounted sculpture up front have their direct expressions in the "Oxytocin" sculptural group.
Caron explained to me that oxytocin is the name of a hormone that's present at childbirth and is believed to encourage the bonding instinct between a mother and child. Caron is concerned with the topic because she had a baby around the time that the piece at the DAM went up and is suddenly seeing connections everywhere.
The sculptures that make up "Oxytocin" are similar to one another in overall shape and conception. Light-colored and partly illuminated inside, the pieces comprise clusters of soft forms, like accretions of some kind. The lighted parts resemble tiny light fixtures affixed to the other, similar forms. There's also the generous use of black wire — a necessity for the lighted bits, but more than necessary has been used, and some has no functional purpose other than to underscore the theme of bonding.
The perfect companion to Caron and Russo's duet is Pendent Tendencies: Jerry Morris, which demonstrates another characteristic of a true co-op that applies to Ice Cube: having emerging artists among its members. This time it's Morris, who's based in Colorado Springs and is making his Denver debut. With this show, he's hit it out of the park on his first time at bat. It's nothing short of spectacular.
Morris is right out of the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he's no kid; rather, he's a successful businessman who decided on a midlife change of course. He told me that he wanted to find something that he would love to do, and for Morris, a bar owner, studio art was the choice. He began specializing in sculpture at CU and then moved on to ceramics, a nationally known specialty of the department in Boulder.
Interestingly, given the arc of his studies, the two monumental installations that make up Pendent Tendencies are as much sculpture as they are ceramics — and not just in terms of the forms Morris uses, but even down to the materials, with only some of the various elements being made of clay.
First is the show-stopping "Can't We All Just Get Along?," a huge installation that takes on politics. The piece features an obelisk used as a central spine; it's a replica of the Washington Monument, complete with a crack. Centered above the obelisk is a metal ring from which sculptural elements have been hung. When taken together, these elements resolve into the shape of a floating globe that wraps around the obelisk. The suspended shapes, all in white-cast ceramic, refer to current events. There are tea bags standing in for the Tea Party, the number "99%" for the Occupy movement, crosses, and many other charged symbols. Each shape occupies its own horizontal plane, with all the tea bags, for instance, mounted at the same level from the floor.
The evenhandedness of the artist's choices — equating the tea-baggers and the occupiers, for example — doesn't reveal the artist's own political view; Morris says he leaves it to viewers to come away with whatever message they will. As a political statement, then, the piece is a little wishy-washy, but as a work of art, it's an eye-dazzler.
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The other Morris piece, "Balance and Harmony, Truth and Wisdom," in the center of the Ice Cube space, is both related to and different from "Can't We All Just Get Along?," though it's the older of the two pieces, having been shown at the CU Art Museum some months ago. Both works are suspension pieces with central forms, but they are formally very different, with the shapes used for "Balance and Harmony" mostly abstract rather than representational, like those used for "Can't We All Get Along." The topic of the piece is the pearl of wisdom being protected by a dragon and a phoenix; as is apparent, Morris is interested in Asian religion and philosophy.
On the floor is an arrangement of cymbal-like forms in the shape of a footed pedestal made of brown-glazed ceramics that balance on small stands so that they subtly move and shimmer. As a group, they sort of reminded me of roof tiles. Hanging from the ceiling are suspended shapes of cut transparent polycarbonate sheets that hang down to within a few feet of the floor. These razor-thin plastic sheets, some clear and others with a green tint, are hard to see and are thus actually dangerous, since I'm sure viewers could get hurt if they ran into the piece. But taking it all in from a safe distance, it's an apparent success as a visual statement, being monumental and ethereal at the same time, a difficult assignment for anything.
I've never been disappointed by any show I've ever seen at Ice Cube, but right now, with Caron, Russo and Morris doing their best, it's never looked better — as good as any museum around here.