"VB 39, US Navy SEALS," by Vanessa Beecroft, photo enlargement.
"VB 39, US Navy SEALS," by Vanessa Beecroft, photo enlargement.

Risky Business

Contemporary art is dangerous territory to map. There are so many different aesthetic and intellectual paths to follow, half of them leading in opposite directions. There's a confusing array of named and unnamed stylistic tendencies vying for attention and comment -- some concerned with championing the object, others with destroying it; some that tell a story and some that don't. Modernism, post-modernism and what's whimsically called post-post-modernism are all happening simultaneously. Just about anything goes.

This complex and inherently contradictory situation makes it impossible to know which stylistic routes will lead to the art of the future versus those that will dead-end just over the horizon. But there are always some dreaming the impossible dream, attempting to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. Surely it is with this goal in mind that the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center presents the astounding Lateral Thinking: Art of the 1990s, a traveling show highlighting selections from the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

The MCASD was founded in 1941 -- an extremely early date for a museum devoted to contemporary art, but it is on the West Coast, after all -- and eventually wound up in an oceanside building in La Jolla. By the 1990s, a downtown branch designed by neo-modernist standard-bearer Helmut Jahn was added, and the old building was greatly expanded according to post-modern guru Robert Venturi's design. During this time, the museum also actively collected recent art, amassing more than 250 major works by internationally, nationally and regionally significant artists. This effort reflects an attempt "to serve as both a repository for the art of our time and as a catalyst for the creation of new art," as director Hugh M. Davies wrote in the essential show catalogue.


Lateral Thinking: Art of the 1990s

Through January 5
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 West Dale Street, Colorado Springs

MCASD curator Toby Kamps organized and oversaw Lateral Thinking, and the exhibit reveals that he is clearly interested in post-modernism above all else. Kamps has only a little interest in neo-modernism and prefers narrative over non-narrative art and conceptual over formal -- going gaga, for example, over process-oriented installation while remaining indifferent to abstract painting.

Thus Lateral Thinking is not simply a snapshot of the 1990s, as Kamps and the title would have us believe, but one taken through a lens bent to the curator's personally peculiar predilections. Another curator could have, and probably would have, made different choices when looking at the last decade of the twentieth century. In fact, one did: To some extent, Dianne Vanderlip, head of the Denver Art Museum's modern and contemporary department, is also looking at the art of the recent past in the current DAM exhibit Retrospectacle. The coincidence of two major contemporary shows being presented at the same time in the area is a lucky break, providing one and all the opportunity to take a painless short course on the subject.

A comparison of the two is inevitable, and I must conclude that Vanderlip's selections are more routinely on the mark than are Kamps's picks. (But, I guess, only time will tell which styles will endure.) Vanderlip obviously had more money to work with than Kamps did, but the credit for that goes to her, too, since she raised all of it herself. (Interestingly, some of the same donors paid for pieces in both shows, including Ted and Joyce Strauss and Nancy Tieken.)

Lateral Thinking may be a close second to Vanderlip's clear winner, but Kamps should be lauded for his unblinking courage in presenting the show. It takes guts to build such a collection in a politically conservative place like San Diego -- not to mention the guts it took for the CSFAC to bring this over-the-top show to Colorado Springs, a center for Christian conservatives who have little tolerance for the excesses of contemporary art. Doubtless, many conservatives will be offended by Lateral Thinking, but to be honest, you don't need to be a fundamentalist Christian to find some things in the exhibit offensive. I know I did, and I'm not a fundamentalist. I'm more of a pagan.

Then again, that's absolutely the point. This stuff was created to disturb and rile viewers and be noticed by them -- not embraced by them. Some pieces are very successful at this, so much so that I didn't even want to look at them. Fortunately, there are enough broadly engaging displays that visitors can lurch from one of those to the next to get through the mammoth show.

Lateral Thinking fills three CSFAC galleries to their limits. It begins in the Garden Gallery off the grand entry lobby, and the thick irony in this room sets the tone for the rest of the show. Consider Vernon Fisher's mixed-media piece, "Faya," done in 1998. One of the first things we see is a weathered formalist abstraction with four meticulously crafted flies made of painted plastic and wire attached to the canvas and the wall. Fisher's message is clear: Abstraction is rotting, and it's starting to attract flies. I think he's wrong about that, but "Faya" works anyway.

Fisher is doing post-formalist formalism since color-field abstraction is the predominant feature of "Faya," linking it nicely to another eye-catching painting hanging across the room, "Synecdoche," a 1994 oil and wax on panel by Byron Kim. At first glance, the Kim, a grid of 25 mostly tan- and beige-painted rectangles arranged in five rows of five, looks like the ultimate formalist manifestation: minimalism. But the colors he used were determined not aesthetically, but by the skin tones of the MCASD board of directors, introducing issues of diversity, ethnicity and other political content. Thus the piece becomes post-minimal in style, thanks to these anti-minimalist elements.

Between the Fisher and the Kim are some nominally post-modern representational paintings that strike me as being simply old-fashioned. The most reactionary of these is John Currin's "The Hobo," a lighthearted, naughty oil on canvas depicting a scantily clad young woman. Currin's style is so backward-looking that "The Hobo" could have been painted in 1899 instead of 1999 -- only back then, it wouldn't have gotten into an art show. I don't get why Currin is so popular with the cutting-edge crowd -- do they hate modernism that much? I think they must.

That pesky modernist ethos persists with two marvelous sculptures: "Yang," by Kenneth Price, and "Fred," by Charles Long. Each is displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the Garden Gallery. Price's "Yang," done in 2000, is made of ceramic painted with an unbelievable shade of metallic-blue acrylic pigment. Long's "Fred," from 1999, is carried out in rubber that is outdoor-extension-cord orange in color. Though the two sculptures are thoroughly distinct, they have more in common than just monosyllabic titles: Both are organically derived abstract forms that recall primitive animals; both are done in brightly colored monochrome finishes; and both are clearly modern.

The second section of Lateral Thinking is installed in the large North Gallery, and it includes the few genuinely monumental pieces in the show. First among these is "Learning Curve," a 1993 installation by Gary Hill that is placed in the middle of the room. The form is based on a plywood school desk with integral chair. The connected desktop extends out to a point where a five-inch TV screen is mounted, and on the screen is a video of a breaking wave. "Learning Curve" is beautifully crafted, and the lightweight message -- Hill daydreaming in school about surfing -- doesn't get in the way of appreciating it.

Another narrative installation, placed along the wall and in the corner of the North Gallery behind "Learning Curve," is Josiah McElheny's "The Controversy Surrounding the Veronese Vase," from 1996. This piece, which includes documents, shelves and glass vases, re-creates Luigi Zecchin's experiments in the 1920s to replicate a vase seen in the background of a Veronese painting. McElheny is a master glassblower, and the vases he's made are gorgeous, though somewhat hidden on the shelves.

Adjacent to "Controversy" is a gigantic three-panel color photo enlargement from 1999, "VB 39, US Navy SEALS, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego," which shows a group of seventeen SEALS in dress whites standing in formation in one of the MCASD galleries. "VB 39" documents a performance arranged by artist Vanessa Beecroft, who created this piece and two others with this same group of SEALS. The uniformed men are statuesque, with Beecroft referring back to the tradition of depicting the male hero in Western sculpture.

The last part of Lateral Thinking is in the East Gallery, where most of the potentially upsetting elements are displayed. Sensitive viewers are forewarned to enter at their own risk. I don't get the fascination some have with blood and gore, so I'd hardly be able to understand the appeal of that opportunistic autopsy by Damien Hirst or, for that matter, those idiotic raw-meat photos by Zhang Huan.

In front of the lurid and sensational (in the negative sense of that word) Huan is a neo-modernist sculpture by Loren Madsen. The 2000 piece, a beautifully carved arch of laminated ash wood, has the unnerving title of "2nd Corpse." The sculpture is derived from the shape of a line graph that charts homicides between 1976 and 1998. See -- it is possible to be beautiful and brainy.

The dichotomy between form and content (beauty and brains) is right on the surface in this show, and curator Kamps is firmly in the content camp. That's why there are several things in the exhibit that cannot be appreciated without explanations. As for me, I think that if something needs to be explained, then something else -- visual appeal would be my first guess -- is lacking. Nonetheless, warts and all, Lateral Thinking is a major event of the current art season. It absolutely should be seen, though many will disagree with the moral of the show, as I do. But I defy anyone to see what Kamps has done and then forget about it.

This just in: David Turner, director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center since 1995, has announced that February 2, 2003, will be his last day at the institution's helm. Turner is taking on a similar job at the Oregon Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. I'd say that one immediate result of this move is that the CSFAC's expansion plans are now indefinitely on hold -- good news, I think. More ominous is the appointment of Jon Stepleton, formerly of the Colorado Springs Gazette, as interim director. Now I don't know anything at all about Stepleton, but I am familiar with the Gazette, which is the city's daily. Today the paper has a moderate tone, but when Stepleton worked there in the '80s and '90s, the attitude ranged from hard right wing to ultra-hard right wing. I get the feeling it's going to be a very long time before the likes of Lateral Thinking will be shown again at the CSFAC. And that's simply one more reason to go see it.


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