Seen and Unseen

"Plaster Steps," by Bruce Nauman, plaster, steel and light maquette for a large sculpture.

The modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum has essentially been on a forced retreat for the last year or so. Pushed out of the spacious Stanton rooms on the first floor in order to make room for various traveling blockbusters, the department has had to deal with a skeletal roster of spaces put at its disposal.

Next month, however, the good old days will return, at least for a while, when an Alice Neel retrospective opens in the Stanton rooms. Together with Bruce Nauman: Four Works, which opened in the Close Range a few weeks ago, modern and contemporary art will again occupy most of the first floor -- as it should.

Unfortunately, I don't think Four Works is going to be too popular. The pieces in this riveting if irksome show are not just difficult; at times they're downright antithetical to the visual arts.

Despite its title, the exhibit consists of seven works -- a video, a drawing and two installations in the Close Range, and three videos playing in a constant loop on ceiling-mounted monitors in the cafe. The videos, which feature Nauman, date from the 1960s and show the artist as a skinny hippie. They are basically nonsense and thus are part of the neo-dada craze of the '60s and '70s.

These videos also act as an introduction to the newly hired master teacher for the modern and contemporary department, Adam Lerner, since it was his idea to include them. Thankfully, they are not the usual kind of thing produced by the museum's education department, of which Lerner is a part. That department, long headed by Patterson Williams, has set a national example at the DAM in the field of art education as applied to museums. A lot of those ideas, such as thematic installations and interactive features like dress-up stations ostensibly geared to children, have become well established throughout the country. As regular readers of this column know, I loathe these things and see some of them, notably the non-contextual installations, as an effort to dumb down a particular show. Clearly, by including the Nauman videos as a part of the education component, Lerner is taking a decidedly different approach. Far from dumbing down the exhibit, he has made a valuable contribution to it.

Lerner's thoughts about his role as master teacher are indicative of why he is such a good fit in the well-established atmosphere of the DAM's modern and contemporary department. "I don't make a distinction between the art and the educational aspects of it," he says. "Art is an exploration of ideas, and education is another component of an exploration of ideas. Both are about relating to visitors."

Dianne Vanderlip, chief curator of the department, is delighted to have Lerner on board. "Most of the museum's other departments have had master teachers for years, and I was very, very annoyed that we didn't have one," she says. "It meant we were outside the tent, so to speak, and education is a very important department at this museum, [one] with a lot of money, and we wanted to get involved. But it took us a long time to find the right one."

Philosophically, Lerner is a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist; he points out that he was born in 1966, adding that this was the same year the late French philosopher Michel Foucault's The Order of Things was first published. Foucault is a key figure in the development of postmodern theory, and though his ideas weren't specifically directed at the fine arts, they have, nonetheless, had a mighty impact on them. Nauman, for his part, was an early illustrator of postmodern concepts as applied to the fine arts. Whether he's aware of this is unclear, however, since he doesn't give interviews and rarely writes about his own work. In fact, according to Lerner, Nauman is opposed to self-interpretation. Therefore, Lerner was forced to quote others -- notably the late poet Robert Frost -- in the didactics that accompany the show. Using the words of someone like Frost (who never said anything about Nauman) is quite a stretch, but this innovative tact is also a creative solution to the problem.

Nonetheless, Lerner was able to find a rare Nauman quote or two, and he had one of them painted on the wall at the start of the show. The quote, "My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition," was placed up front because Lerner wanted viewers to cast the entire show within the context of this sentiment. Vanderlip agrees, saying "the exploration of the human condition absolutely summarizes Nauman, absolutely brings his work together."

What Vanderlip is really saying, though, is that Nauman's work needs to be brought together because it has no stylistic unity and because his pieces do not, typically, look anything alike. The stylistic discontinuity is easy to see in the Close Range show, where two of the pieces, the sculpture and its preparatory drawing, though interrelated, seem to have nothing to do with the video or the installation. Nor do any of these pieces have much in common with the videos in the cafe. So unless we link them conceptually as broadly grouped explorations of the human condition, there seems to be no other pattern that connects them.

Vanderlip organized and installed the exhibit, most of which is borrowed from private donors. "This is the first time, as far as I know, that there has ever been a Nauman show in Denver," she says. "And I've wanted to do one for some time. He's right down the road in New Mexico, you know, and that's very, very important." Despite this proximity, Nauman didn't make the half-day drive up from his ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, where he breeds and trains horses, to oversee the installation, nor is he expected to attend the reception to be held at the DAM next month. He's notoriously reclusive, which has apparently -- and surprisingly -- not gotten in the way of his art career.

The first piece in Close Range, installed in the anteroom, is "Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor)," a single-channel video transferred to DVD-R from 1999. The video is displayed in a large format as a projection directed onto the bare wall. Using unnatural computer-altered colors, it records Nauman setting a corner fence post on his ranch on a sunny day. It runs nearly an hour, but I looked at it for only a few minutes, and that was enough to get the idea. The piece is obviously a parable about the struggles of mankind, but at the same time, it's a purely phenomenological real-time record of the act of putting up a fence post. And though it's less arduous to watch the video than it is to actually put up the post yourself, the experience is equally boring -- or, as Lerner would have it, "meditative."

I have a problem with video and with performance art (this piece is an example of both), as these art forms are only marginally related to the fine arts. From my point of view, video is more closely akin to theater than to the visual arts, and the narrative component in "Setting a Good Corner" is only the most apparent reason why. Even more to the point, these types of art forms are, by their very nature, temporal experiences -- that is, they take time. To really look at "Setting a Good Corner" takes an hour -- and I've never spent a continuous hour looking at any painting or sculpture in my life, let alone a conceptual performance on video. I dare say few visitors will watch the video any longer than I did.

The rest of the show brings us away from the performing arts, however, and back to the visual arts with a drawing, a sculpture and an installation.

The 1997 drawing, in graphite, watercolor and pencil on paper, is called "Drawing for Bellingham." It is a fairly finished study for an outdoor sculpture Nauman did for the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. In it, a broad course of steps, straightforwardly and mundanely detailed and conceived, run up a flight, down a flight and up and down again, thus forming a zigzag. Nauman has colored the voids beneath the stairs with bright-yellow watercolor. The drawing is paired with a maquette, which is also a preparatory study for the sculpture. "Plaster Steps," from 1997-98, is constructed of cast-plaster stair treads attached to a steel frame. Underneath, Nauman has mounted sodium lights that cast a strong and eerie yellow-colored glow, corresponding to the watercolor passage in the drawing.

Vanderlip points out that although our eyes are drawn first to the top to the stairs, by lighting the grungy and unfinished underside, Nauman urges the viewer to look underneath the piece as well. As expected of an outdoor sculpture, "Plaster Steps" conveys a sense of monumentality -- it's almost cenotaphic or memorial-like in character -- which is in stark contrast to the anti-monumentality of "Setting a Good Corner."

The last piece, "Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," from 1990, is the most impressive thing in the show. Hung from the ceiling are five paired heads; in each pair, one is mounted upright; the other is placed upside down above it. The heads are cast from colored waxes, which create beautiful surfaces. The castings are crude, and the wires that hold them up are carelessly tied. I was thinking that if Nauman had cast the heads more meticulously, there'd be an unnecessary visceral content. As it is, the piece can even been seen as whimsical, if the viewer wants, or according to any number of other interpretations, such as those about communication or the lack of it. If, on the other hand, the heads had been realistically rendered, we might all think of Auschwitz or the World Trade Center disaster, as Lerner does.

As I was reflecting on Nauman's work (and I'm not a big fan of postmodernism, or of Nauman in particular), I thought of the pieces as being something like empty vessels: so vague, so abstract, so conceptual, and so dichotomous that viewers could imbue them with any idea they wanted to.

For more conservative viewers, the upcoming Alice Neel retrospective will be just the ticket; her tradition-based representational art will be an antidote to the kind of thing Nauman is about. It will be interesting to see the two opposing points of view side by side, or at least to consider them, because seeing Nauman and Neel together is something only the strongest among us could stand.

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