The spring offerings at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver cover a lot of ground, with four impressive solos on view right now.
Occupying the spaces on the main floor is Arnie Svenson: The Neighbors, a body of color photos depicting the New York artist’s neighbors as seen through their windows. All of Svenson’s subjects lived in a glass-clad high-rise across the street from his place and were unaware that they were being photographed.
Svenson has a sensitive eye for elegant compositions, and with the help of sometimes rain-spotted windows, he perfectly captures the quiet, gray-scale palette of Manhattan. The photos are incredibly beautiful, recalling interior views by the Dutch masters, as curator Nora Burnett Abrams pointed out to me.
Svenson first presented this work in a 2012 exhibit that ultimately resulted in a lawsuit concerning privacy rights. Abrams addresses this hot-button issue head on, with an entire gallery near the end of the show that lays out the situation with magazine and newspaper covers, along with the photo that started the controversy, “Neighbors #12,” depicting a little girl in a woman’s arm. Svenson took all the photos, including this one, in such a way that the building’s structural elements, shades or even the positions that the people are in allow everyone to be anonymous. In “#12,” the window’s horizontal rail blocks the child’s face, and the woman’s face is cropped out.
Svenson triumphed in the lawsuit, with a ruling essentially based on his First Amendment right to freedom of expression as an artist; as Abrams notes, these photos would have been impossible to do if Svenson had needed to first get permission from his subjects. She also points out that the issue is nothing new: The situation is essentially the same in street photography, when people do not know that they are being photographed. But it strikes me that it would be equally easy to argue that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw privacy lawsuits.
Up on the second floor are two more shows curated by Abrams. The first, Laura Shill: Phantom Touch, is an ambitious exhibit dedicated to the work of an emerging Denver artist, including an all-encompassing installation and a range of photo-based digital work. All of it subtly deals with sexuality and the human body.
For the installation, “A Tall Room,” which occupies its own gallery, Shill and a team of volunteers created some 900 cloth-covered foam rods, which hang from the ceiling to the floor. Viewers must push them aside to enter the space, which the artist has changed from a rectangle to an oval with the rods. In the center, a circular ring of rods defines an inner room dimly illuminated by a cluster of hanging lights. The soft fabrics that cover the rods are in various shades of pink, and these colors, combined with the curvilinear chambers, invariably suggest female anatomy, with that inner sanctum evocative of a womb.
The rest of the show features Shill’s other preferred approach, digitally manipulating found imagery.
Beyond “A Tall Room,” on the bridge in the atrium, she has created wallpaper. At first the pattern looks like an old-fashioned floral one, just right for the powder room or den — but when you look more closely, you see what those floral elements actually are: hands fondling cactuses. To create them, Shill scanned vintage porn pictures and digitally isolated hands gripping erect penises, then removed the penises and replaced them with phallic-shaped cactuses. The approach is smart and funny.
The final phase of the Shill exhibit brings together three separate series that continue her examination of sexuality. In “Hands of Glory,” a set of pigment prints, Shill has again isolated hands from pornographic imagery — in this case, various issues of Hustler from the ’70s. But instead of replacing the explicit parts with something else, they’re simply gone, and the hands — all with beautifully manicured nails — float against the blank white ground of the papers on which they’ve been printed. These pieces are very elegant, as are the “Veil” images done in tri-color gum prints that Shill has staged, with isolated draperies suggesting the body. Finally, there’s a series of cyanotypes based on altered romance-novel covers. Shill has removed either the man or the woman from the cover illustrations and put the remaining partner against the blank paper.
The rest of the second floor — the corridor spaces, the anteroom up front and the large main gallery — is devoted to the extremely odd Brian Bress: Make Your Own Friends, which comprises videos (some very unique in character) and the costumes and masks that were employed by this Los Angeles artist in the production of said videos. Some are moving portraits, hung with frames like paintings; Bress, dressed up in costumes, moves ever so slightly, reinforcing the painting reference. In others, he “cuts” video images with power saws so that another video, running behind the first one, is gradually revealed. Bress’s most famous videos involve elaborate costumes: “Whitewalker,” for example, records a figure walking toward the camera while completely covered in a suit of hanging white bamboo beads; “Bead Man” is similar, though the beads are multi-colored. The costumes used in both videos are also on display.
Some of Bress’s work, like “Whitewalker,” is reminiscent of Nick Cave’s performances — but there’s a lot more going on. Bress seems to be simultaneously riffing on any number of historic sources in art, film and television, from Bauhaus performances to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. His whole enterprise is engaging — and so strange that it’s unforgettable, too.
The quartet of impressive solos finishes up with Critical Focus: Lanny DeVuono, displayed on MCA’s lower level. This show was curated by Zoe Larkins and focuses on some large-scale drawings that the Denver-based DeVuono has created over the past few years. The subject is the same for the eight large-format drawings on unstretched canvas and the grid of formal studies on paper: extraterrestrial landscapes. DeVuono has imagined how the surfaces of distant planets might appear, and then has carried out these imaginary views in gesso, graphite and gouache; the materials result in a simple palette of gray against white and a handful of light-colored shades. Some of the pieces, like “cracked earth” or “gases,” could be vistas from here on Earth, but others, like “marscape” and “new moon,” are clearly out in space.
In some ways, DeVuono’s style is unexpectedly traditional, and she has obviously sketched out her chosen depictions freehand, in a classic realist way. The resulting depictions capture the appearance of some kind of external reality — imaginary or not — and yet the drawings are not fanatically detailed. Despite the time-honored technique of her drawing style, the often dramatic way she crops her depictions gives her work a very contemporary feel.
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MCA Denver’s best use may be gigantic surveys, as evidenced by last year’s Marilyn Minter extravaganza. However, putting on multiple shows simultaneously was the original intention of the building, as laid out in the floor plans. There is very little to link the Svenson show to the Shill to the Bress to the DeVuono, aside from the fact that all four artists have created credible, visually engaging and thoughtful bodies of work — and that is reason enough to take in these solos.
Arne Svenson and Lanny DeVuono through June 3, Laura Shill and Brian Bress through July 5, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. For more information, call 303-298-7554 or go to mcadenver.org.