Seeing Thinks

"Accent Base," by John McEnroe, mixed media.

Although its roots go back almost a century, to the World War I-era work of Marcel Duchamp, only in the past thirty or so years has conceptual art become a common approach. Today the Denver area has many proponents of conceptualism; key among them is John McEnroe, currently the subject of a solo show at + Gallery. The impressive John McEnroe: Upshot continues the artist's longstanding, ongoing exploration of the possibilities of plastic as an art material.

Born in Independence, Missouri, in 1968, McEnroe grew up in Topeka and became, by his own account, a "local art superstar." He earned his BFA at the University of Kansas in 1989, and his MFA at Ohio State University in 1993. It was in Ohio that he first became interested in international art trends, specifically minimalism.

Early on, McEnroe distinguished himself as a studio potter; he was enough of a clay artist to be awarded a residency at the famous Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania. (He still often describes himself as a tile-setter and remains into ceramics, though now more as a commercial interest -- he owns Tesserah Tile, a custom-design and installation outfit -- than as an artistic one.) Soon after leaving Ohio State, McEnroe moved to Denver. For a while he taught sculpture at Metro State, and he also began to exhibit his deadpan though witty takes on the nature of art -- and sometimes what constitutes an artist's statement -- in distinctive sculptures and remarkable installations. McEnroe's work was so different from anything else going on here, he quickly became well-known.

I won't claim to have seen every McEnroe exhibit since his debut at Pirate in 1996, but I've seen most and have invariably found them both thought-provoking and visually successful. In fact, as I was thinking about McEnroe, I was amazed by how many of his exhibits I recalled. I see an awful lot of art shows -- and a lot of awful art shows -- but his efforts have often been so great that they're unforgettable. And the same is true of the Upshot exhibit.

When I walked into the back gallery at +, I immediately recalled a McEnroe solo presented at the now-defunct ILK@Pirate back in 1999. In that show, Plastique, McEnroe created a wall installation, called "Passion Fruit," of plastic casts of his tools, done in a rainbow of gumball colors. Those plastic tools were essentially the same as the tool-elements in the sculptures shown here -- although the earlier ones were presented as they came out of the molds, and these newer ones have been distorted by heat into crazy shapes. The cast tools on the wall at ILK read like a bas-relief, anticipating McEnroe's best-known work, "Model State: A Local Cosmology," the three-panel wall relief unveiled at the Colorado Convention Center last year. In that piece, McEnroe substitutes Western icons for the tools to create related bas-reliefs.

For that same ILK exhibit, McEnroe produced what he described as "a painting of sorts," a huge, red-latex curtain called "Red Hot." It was conceived as a color-field abstraction made only with paint, without any canvas or board behind it: McEnroe simply poured twenty gallons of latex onto his studio's floor, then peeled it up after the plastic had set. This brilliant work obviously was the prototype for a series of wall pieces now at +.

Upshot includes three walls' worth of "Red Hot"-type paintings and, in the middle of the floor and in niches across the back, sculptures made of distorted plastic-cast tools. In overall impact, the show recalls the drop-dead elegance of classic modern abstraction -- an important clue concerning the place of conceptual art in the theoretical firmament. Oddly enough, conceptualism falls within the tradition of modernism. This is true even though post-modernism has attempted to annex conceptualism; in some cases, as with the work of modern master Marcel Duchamp, post-modernists have gone so far as to make the claim retroactively.

With the poured-latex paintings, McEnroe takes on a range of pictorial approaches. Two of them, hanging side by side, are closely related to the minimalism of "Red Hot"; like that piece, "Red Painting" and "Blue Painting" are monochromes. The sheets of red and blue latex have been hung like drapes, or maybe shower curtains. It's amazing how much visual interest McEnroe can get out of a couple of solid-colored sheets of plastic.

McEnroe has also done several post-abstract-expressionist-style pieces in which he's poured different-colored latex to form compositions made up of blobs of color. Where the monochromes have even edges, so that their shape is rectangular even if the draping effect hides that, in these blobby pieces the margins are uneven, in some places echoing the shape of the puddle made by the pouring of the latex. Since they follow the laws of physics, the puddle shapes add an unexpected organic element. As a result, these pieces could be described as nature-based abstractions -- outrageous as that may seem, considering that they're made of shiny, bright-colored plastic. Though all the McEnroes in Upshot are pretty cool, these polychromed abstractions are my favorites.

The last type of painting in Upshot incorporates three-dimensional elements into and off of the poured latex sheets. If the monochrome paintings refer back to minimalism and the multi-colored ones to abstract expressionism, these are plays on pop art, and they bear more than a passing relationship to Robert Rauschenberg's legendary combine-paintings.

"Accent Base" is the most out-there of this group. A black sheet that looks like a contractor-sized trash bag has been adorned with attachments. There's a circular form hanging from the bottom right of the sheet, made of fused pieces of found plastic, including toys and packaging; the distortions resulting from the fusing directly relate this element to the sculptures. McEnroe pushes the three-dimensional aspect of "Accent Base" further by appending unaltered found objects, as well, such as an orange braided rope and an empty can of paint. There's even a non-contiguous component -- a tiny version of the fused plastic circle hung a little way down the wall, which also serves to balance the paint can that hangs off the bottom.

Essentially a McEnroe combine-painting, "Accent Base" provides an easy segue to the handful of small sculptures that finish off Upshot. "Passion Fruit Condensed" comes right out of 1999's "Passion Fruit" -- literally, since McEnroe's apparently recycled part of the earlier work to make this one. That gives me a pang of sadness. Taking pieces apart or even throwing them away is something many artists do, especially sculptors, but in the case of a talent like McEnroe, it's a real loss when old pieces are cannibalized to make new ones.

The balancing act between thinking and seeing is the essential challenge for artists wanting to do conceptual work. To be successful, conceptual pieces need to be simultaneously thoughtful and aesthetically interesting -- a not-so-easy trick to pull off. But McEnroe almost always succeeds in creating just the right mix of ideas and visual appeal, which is why he stands out as one of the region's preeminent conceptualists.

A different, but equally successful, mix of thinking and seeing is on display in the color channel, an intriguing solo at Capsule@Pod featuring recent work by Steven Read. The show is an installation made up of television sets, old-style antennae, software and found UHF signals.

Read has placed a variety of vintage television sets at even intervals on the floor at the bottom of three of the walls in this small space. The old television sets are interesting on their own, but they're just the beginning of color channel's appeal. High on the three walls, Read has mounted tabletop antennae. These are pretty interesting as objects, too, functional and meant to gather the UHF waves by which some of Denver's television stations are broadcast and transmit them to the television sets. But Read mediates the signals that translate the UHF waves so that instead of communicating television shows, they convey ever-changing geometric compositions that are derived from a software program the artist created. The resulting images, one type for each of the three walls of TVs, refer back to constructivism with pictures made up of squares, rectangles and lines.

Sometimes the ghostly images of such programs as Judge Judy or Jerry Springer are barely visible underneath the geometric compositions, but usually there's no trace of the shows being broadcast. There's even an interactive element to the color channel, because as viewers enter the gallery and walk around, their presence alters the reception of the waves, changing the software-driven imagery on the television sets.

Capturing UHF waves to make what Read terms "paintings" is quite a bright idea, and he carries it off with a great deal of style. There's tons of content dealing with the subversion of corporate-controlled media, and Read calls his use of UHF a kind of "hijacking." And it is, though a passive one, since the signals are all around us, even passing through us as they do the walls of Capsule.

This is an amazingly strong solo for an emerging artist and shouldn't be missed.

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