Review: Monumental Brings Rack and Ruin to RedLine's "R/Evolution"

Dmitri Obergfell’s “Untitled,” in cast plaster, and “Statues Also Die,” in cast graphite.
Dmitri Obergfell’s “Untitled,” in cast plaster, and “Statues Also Die,” in cast graphite.

Every year, RedLine gallery and studios establishes a theme that it carries out with its shows and through its educational and social-services components. This year’s theme is “R/Evolution” — a simultaneity of revolution and evolution — and the current show, located in the capacious exhibition rooms, is Monumental. Dedicated to the artists who occupy the aforementioned studios, the exhibit features work by both the established mid-career talents who serve as mentors to the resident artists and pieces by the emerging talents themselves, a much larger group.

And although Monumental’s key mandate is to showcase these artists, it must also fit the “R/Evolution” theme. This strikes me as being a difficult challenge for curator Marisa Lerer. Think about it: She’s presented with a pre-selected cast of individuals whose aesthetic approaches have nothing to do with one another, yet she needs to corral their efforts under the umbrella of a unifying theme. When I shared this thought with Lerer, she noted that although there are some inherent difficulties, having a theme helped to avoid the randomness that’s typical of member exhibits.

"Timeline," by Stephen Batura, oil on canvas.
"Timeline," by Stephen Batura, oil on canvas.

Lerer teaches art history at Manhattan College in New York and formerly taught at the University of Denver. She has a special interest in the political and social aspects of monuments, which informed her curatorial vision for Monumental. Recent examples of these ideas include “the Black Lives Matter movement demanding the removal of Confederate memorials, or in the Ukraine, with the Russian monuments,” she says, adding that politics can reform “these permanent forms of memory.”

For the exhibit, Lerer asked the participating artists to “contemplate the continuity of memories, to consider who is being commemorated and why, and what gets commemorated, and to think about what we want out of our markers of memory.”

So the charge from Lerer to the artists was to propose projects that were at the nexus of monumentality and a deconstructed anti-monumentality.

The most obvious example of that appears right at the start of the show, in the small entry gallery, where Dmitri Obergfell is represented by two characteristic pieces, “Statues Also Die” and “Untitled.” Each is a cast bust based on a Roman original, with “Statues Also Die” done in graphite and “Untitled” in plaster; each is mounted on a tall black steel pole. But Obergfell subverts the antique beauty of the busts in two ways. For the graphite one, he created an automatist drawing that is displayed on the wall behind it, using the bust itself as the marker, so that the top of the head has been worn down flat. In the case of the plaster bust, he attacked it with a hammer, leaving pockmarks on it and a pile of shards on the floor below.
Unfortunately for his goals — but ultimately to his credit — Obergfell is unable to thoroughly undermine his unerring eye for monumentality and beauty.

"Her Earthly Grains," by Suchitra Mattai, embroidered panel and pixelated print.
"Her Earthly Grains," by Suchitra Mattai, embroidered panel and pixelated print.

Other artists in the show set up similar dynamics, juxtaposing monumentality with some kind of antithesis to it. One of the pieces that really knocked me out is “The Future Is Meow,” by Ramón Bonilla (though, admittedly, I am a longstanding fan of arte povera, so that could explain it). Bonilla’s idea was unbelievably simple: He covered one of RedLine’s structural supports, thus employing a ready-made form, and then created a stop-you-in-your-tracks installation that’s humble and epic at the same time. He began by gathering up discarded materials, including cardboard and wood. Using adhesives such as duct tape, he then applied the repurposed trash so that there is a slap-dash constructivism in his arrangement of the shapes. In places, there is nearly hidden lighting. The colors of the materials he chose — white, cream, brown, tan — are perfect for his anti-monumental monument, since they recall the colors of materials typically used to build significant structures: marble, granite and limestone.

Nearby is another great take on the same issue, “Allée or Alley or Whatever,” by George Perez. It’s made of a block of white Colorado marble stabilized by a wooden base, with a meticulous pile of thousands of individually created photocopies stacked on top of the stone. Like Bonilla, Perez uses the form of a spire or obelisk, carried out in humble materials. But there is also a key difference: He didn’t simply find the sheets of paper that make up his tower’s shaft; rather, they are the product of hundreds of hours of research and field work. Perez conducted an exhaustive survey of trees in Five Points, with a separate sheet filled out for each tree. So both his process and the resulting object represent monumental expressions.

Suchitra Mattai is one of the artists who took Lerer’s charge to mean the reconciliation between highbrow and lowbrow art. She begins with a cheesy thrift-store needlepoint depicting an eighteenth-century scene; this has been placed in the center of a ten-foot-long pixelated print of the same scene. Mattai links the needlepoint to the computer print with embroidered lines that delineate three-dimensional geometric shapes.

"Drawn Lines," by Sandra Fettingis (from left); "The Future Is Meow," by Ramon Bonilla; and "Allée or Alley or Whatever, by George Perez.
"Drawn Lines," by Sandra Fettingis (from left); "The Future Is Meow," by Ramon Bonilla; and "Allée or Alley or Whatever, by George Perez.

In a similar mash-up of high ideals and low culture, Libby Barbee conveys Arizona’s Monument Valley through an ersatz advertising campaign. I’ve always liked Barbee’s torn-paper collages of the landscape, and this piece breaks from that tradition, having a decidedly neo-pop feel to it. It’s a great direction for her.

Subtly different from the high/low dialectic is the idea of recasting ordinary objects as ceremonial items. This includes Tracy Tomko’s unassuming pile of sand bags and John McEnroe’s “Nature Mural.” The McEnroe is an installation anchored by a ratty vintage photo enlargement of the Rockies; a rusted and battered wheelbarrow filled with animal bones sits in front of it. Strangely, given the base materials, both the Tomko and the McEnroe pieces wind up being dignified — which I guess is the point of the show, to some extent.

Jennifer Ghormley is probably the most subtle in her subversion of monumentality, because it’s hard to discern what this feature is. In “Verge,” a rendering of a nude is seen from the rear set against a sumptuous drapery. The sexually ambiguous figure is conveyed through separate drawings done on individual glassine sheets, with the image only resolving when the sheets are stacked.

Close-up of "Drawn Lines," by Sandra Fettingis.
Close-up of "Drawn Lines," by Sandra Fettingis.

Several artists addressed Lerer’s theme in only the most superficial ways, which I think is fine, because they still came through with pieces worth talking about. I’d put the marvelous black-on-white wall painting by Sandra Fettingis in this category. As a result of its simplicity and boldness, it commands the entire space. It’s a vector pattern determined by software, and, as it is characteristic of her style, readily recognizable as a Fettingis. Also represented by the kinds of works for which they are known are Collin Parson and Stephen Batura; as with the Fettingis, their respective pieces have little to do with the exhibit’s theme, but they are great anyway. Parson contributed a mirrored panel with a map of pulsars like the one sent out into space on Voyager. Batura presents a lineup of small paintings of figure studies based on old photos.

Other resident RedLine artists who participated in Monumental include Theresa Anderson, Homare Ikeda, Daisy Patton, Sarah Fukami, Andy Rising, Jodi Stuart, Ashley Williams, Sarah Rockett, Chris Ulrich, Tara Rynders and Frankie Toan.

One of the reasons I look forward to this annual show is because it includes not only artists who are already notable in the contemporary Denver scene, but many others who are not but soon might be.

Monumental, through April 25 at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448, redlineart.org.

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