Risk Management

"The Leper's Kiss," by Quintin Gonzalez, digital print.

One of the most hotly discussed contemporary shows of the year is the 2003 Colorado Biennial: 10 + 10, at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. The controversial show is undeniably important, which is not unexpected. After all, it's the state's official biennial and the lone summer attraction at Denver's official contemporary art museum.

This is the MCA's second biennial, but when you think back, it's strange that the little-museum-that-could is the one that had the opportunity to lay claim to presenting this kind of show. Until 2001, when the MCA offered its first biennial, no other art venue, including the Denver Art Museum, had snagged the idea. So the MCA was able to step up to the plate and begin presenting a local show guaranteed to generate interest and visitors -- and, therefore, revenue -- like clockwork every two years!

Launching the series was a brilliant move on the part of Mark Masuoka, who was then director of the museum and is now a private art dealer. And it was gallant of current MCA director Cydney Payton to carry it on, since she has led the museum in a pointedly different direction than Masuoka. Come to think of it, she even put together a distinctly different biennial, focusing on mostly unknown artists. (Masuoka's preference was for more established talents.)

Payton's biennial started out in an unorthodox way, with her putting out a call for entries, making 10 + 10 a juried show. Though not unheard of, this is far from standard practice for biennials, which are typically invitational events, as Masuoka's was. But if Payton was unorthodox at the start, she was later downright iconoclastic, handing over responsibility for choosing half of the show's participants to others. She selected ten artists and then let each of them choose another.

This hybrid selection process makes the way the show was put together an artwork in and of itself. Payton's 10 + 10 concept clearly exemplifies her attempt to change the traditional role of the curator into that of a participating artist. It's courageous, ambitious, innovative and, in this case, not completely successful.

Payton experimented with a similar idea in last year's Archipelago, which failed utterly as an aesthetic experience. (But then again, being experimental means that Payton risks failure every time.) In that show, a New York artist used the work of others as found objects in an all-over installation based on sky, land and sea that left the museum looking like it had been vandalized. The exhibit failed because Payton put it in the hands of someone who couldn't pull it off; however, she proves better able to carry out being a curator-artist -- though not completely so -- with her intriguing yet troublesome biennial.

There's no denying it; there are troubles with 10 + 10. The show does not capture the current spirit of contemporary art in Colorado, nor is everyone featured an artist worth noting. But these shortcomings aside -- and they are serious -- there's one thing I can say about the 2003 Colorado Biennial without any hesitation: It's not butt-ugly, which is how I very accurately described Archipelago.

Far from being butt-ugly, the biennial is actually quite beautiful -- at times, at least. One of these instances is the pairing of Jeff Starr's ceramics (Payton's choice) with Colin Livingston's paintings (Starr's pick). They are installed together in the first niche visitors come to after paying admission. Though Starr is well known as a painter, it's his sculptures that are included here. The pieces are inspired by a classic Italian-centerpiece form of a bowl filled with fruit. But instead of fruit, Starr fills his bowls with abstracted figures. The surfaces also have an Italian feel, especially the creeping metallic-luster glazes. These ceramics, which have a lot in common with the work of Martha Daniels, seem to be a major departure for Starr, and they work wonderfully sitting adjacent to Livingston's fabulous neo-pop paintings, which combine geometric abstraction with words.

If the rest of the show worked as well as this opening shot, it would have been the best thing that the MCA's ever done. But, alas, that's not how it unfolds, and only a couple more times does a pairing work out as well.

I know it's a cliche to say it, but the show literally goes from the sublime to the ridiculous as we enter the main space. Hanging from the ceiling is an idiotic installation by Justin Cooper that involves a length of garden hose, a psychedelically painted beam and a pineapple. This piece is an all but fatal flaw, especially since Payton perversely decided to hang it at the entrance to the main gallery. And everyone who wasn't accepted into the show will surely obsess on the fact that this Cooper monstrosity did. Also really annoying is the fact that Cooper is off to grad school out of state, and thus won't even be a Colorado artist by the time the show comes down.  

Cooper was chosen by Chris Lavery, whose installation "It's Good to Get Out" was Payton's selection. The '70s-ish piece is displayed in a separate small gallery specially created to house the bound pine trees suspended overhead, the fluorescent light panel on the wall and the sound system on the floor. Unfortunately, the sound system plays a continuous loop of frantically barking dogs that invades the entire rest of museum, negatively affecting the other pieces.

Next to the Lavery, in another specially constructed space, is the ILK cooperative's installation, an empty room that other artists will be able to rent out. Payton put in ILK's piece, and the future tenants will collectively represent their choice of an invited artist. ILK's aim is to raise issues about art exhibitions, and it reflects the interests of Jason Musgrave, surely the creative force behind this piece. Renting out the space is a clever idea, but I wonder: Is being clever enough? (Conceptually, Payton's 10 + 10 idea, which also deconstructs the nature of an exhibit, is closely related to this piece.)

In the corridor connecting the Lavery and ILK installations is a video projection by Kwabena Slaughter -- a Payton selection -- and, next to it, Slaughter's choice, Blair Brown's more conventional installation in paint, glass and wood. Slaughter's piece is mesmerizing and has a lot of visual appeal as a result of its shape and the caftan the artist is wearing in the video. Brown's piece is related to neo-minimalism. She's painted the wall a gorgeous monochrome and mounted a pair of wood-framed mirrors at a ninety-degree angle, so that they face one another.

To proceed, viewers must pass back by that dreadful Cooper in order to come to another truly successful pairing -- the first since the Starr/Livingston passage at the opening. I'm referring to Quintin Gonzalez's digital photo-based pieces and John Hull's neo-traditional paintings. Payton chose Gonzalez, he invited Hull, and their disparate pieces really look wonderful together. In fact, if it weren't for the Cooper, this pair would be directly aligned with the Starr/Livingston combination -- and wouldn't that have been great?

Back in the space under the mezzanine is the work of Daniel Raffin, chosen by Payton, and Raffin's selection, Monica Escalante. Raffin has done an ambitious installation, with electric ceiling fans dangerously mounted at floor level, a video projection, a soundtrack, and hundreds of plastic nail covers. Like Lavery's barking dogs, the electronic sounds emanating from the piece fill every part of the museum. (The combination of the two is deafening at times.) Escalante's self-portraits in black-and-white photographs are not nearly as accomplished as similar ones shown in town recently -- in particular, those by Jason Patz displayed at Andenken in March.

The last pair on the first floor is an installation by Payton's selection, Patricia Tinajero-Baker, and her choice, paintings by Bob Koons. Tinajero-Baker combines a number of different sensibilities that uncannily reflect some of the predominant trends in art around here. There's post-minimal wall and floor painting, constructivist sculpture and organic soft sculpture. Koons's paintings are very smart: He makes hand-done renderings of computer-altered images of landscapes by the old masters. The pairing of Tinajero-Baker and Koons might have worked better if the space they shared were more defined and contained. As it is, the two seem unconnected to one another.

Upstairs on the mezzanine are two groupings and a single piece that connects to a work installed outside. This part of the show is the third place that really looks good and works well. I'd even go as far as to say the mezzanine is magical, hinting at how good this show could have been.

The hypothetical underwear installations by Michelle Gonzalez, picked by Payton, are displayed at the top of the steps. Using various materials, including hardware, Gonzalez mounted wall sculptures that evoke lingerie. Hanging opposite are installations of organic shapes reminiscent of internal organs done by Martha Russo, Gonzalez's mentor, whom she invited.

With all of these installations nearly everywhere, it's wonderful to come upon a pair of modernist painters, Wilma Fiori (Payton's choice), and Fiori's pick, Emilio Lobato. Fiori is represented by elegant color-field pieces, Lobato by a pair of his signature constructivist compositions. The entire show could have been given over to the first-rate painters in Colorado who work with straight lines and big areas of color.

The piece that's marooned all alone, apart from its corollary, is Phil Bender's "Christmas Ornaments in a Bathtub," an installation of an old bathtub filled with lots of old Christmas balls. It just may be the best thing Bender's ever done; it's gorgeous. Bender was selected by David Brady, who was chosen by Payton. Although Brady, like Bender, often uses found materials, for this piece, he installed speakers on the outside of the building to amplify conversations taking place inside, which are picked up by hidden microphones (better watch what you say).  

The show starts on a high note and ends on one, even if some of the things in between fall way short. But regardless of the variable quality of the choices, it is the 2003 Colorado Biennial at the MCA, and the show's lots more than simply something worth seeing. It's something that really must be seen -- if you're interested at all in the topic, that is.

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