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Spring Flings

"Rabbit Head," by Deborah Masuoka, ceramic sculpture.

Spring is the traditional season opener for yardwork, since it's the best time for planting trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and, of course, grass. But not this year, at least not in Denver. The drought and that unbelievable March blizzard has left most landscape enthusiasts not planting -- not yet -- but busy removing the damaged and dead things that succumbed to the weather.

Considering this sorry state of natural affairs, it's a good thing that Mark Masuoka, director of the Carson-Masuoka Gallery on Santa Fe Drive, thought to present the extremely seasonal and thereby uplifting Avant-Garden. He converted the gallery's two main front spaces into an imaginary garden, creating an inside stand-in for the missing flora outside. But instead of living plants, he filled the garden with ceramic rabbit-head sculptures by his wife, Deborah Masuoka, and acrylic flower paintings by Las Vegas artist Mary Warner.

Ceramics artist Masuoka is nationally known, and her signature work for the past fifteen years has been monumental sculptures based on the form of huge rabbit heads, all of which share the straightforward title "Rabbit Head." Masuoka suggests in her artist's statement that the unnatural size of the heads make the sculptures menacing, but if that was her aim, she failed. The gigantic pieces do not look like severed Land of the Giants rabbit heads, but rather like nothing other than what they are: contemporary sculptures.

The most impressive of the "Rabbit Head" series are the two that are more than seven feet tall and feature scabrous surfaces of lumps and hollows along with a rich palette of glazes and metallic oxides. The only sculpture in the show that is not from Masuoka's series is "Tree of Life," a work that is indicative of her new direction. Unlike the other sculptures, which are done in one piece, the nine-foot-tall tree topped with a huge bird head was made in three parts and put together after being fired. It was done in Masuoka's Littleton studio, and the kiln there is not big enough to fire monumental pieces in one shot.

Masuoka earned her MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987, studying under Jun Kaneko, whose interest in oversized ceramics surely influenced his student to go in the same direction. Since leaving Cranbrook, Masuoka has had a distinguished career, working as an artist-in-residence at such big-time ceramics centers as the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Nebraska. This year, she's off to Israel to serve as a visiting artist at the legendary Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

Avant-Garden marks the first time Masuoka's work has been exhibited in Denver, despite the fact that her husband is a partner in one of the city's premier galleries. "I know it looks like nepotism," says director Masuoka apologetically. But the truth is that artist Masuoka's sculptures, like those of her mentor, Kaneko, are beyond any question in terms of their quality of craft.

That's also true of the large photo-realist paintings of flowers by Warner, which are arrayed on the many walls that surround the Masuoka sculptures. The scale of these paintings -- done on black velvet with concave and convex surfaces -- suggests billboards, which helps make them strangely compelling. And the very neo-Rat Pack character of both the subject (theatrical versions of flowers) and the tacky material (black velvet) seems just perfect considering Warner's work as the head of the painting and drawing department at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

The pairing of Masuoka and Warner -- old friends, as it turns out -- was an inspired one, and the show's exactly the thing to get a little spring color while keeping your fingers crossed for more rain.


Spring, even in a drought, is a time when things sprout out of the ground. It's too early to say for sure if a new building for Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art will be sprouting up on a plot in the Platte Valley, but the seed for it has definitely been planted. Now the question is, will it germinate?

Last week, hard on the heels of the ceremony celebrating the soon-to-be-constructed Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, the MCA had its own more modest celebration. At the annual meeting, the little-museum-that-could announced that Mark Falcone and his development firm, Continuum Partners, planned to offer the MCA a gift of a lot at 15th and Delgany streets that's worth about $800,000. Raising the money for the construction of a new building will be left to the MCA's board of trustees and director Cydney Payton, but no exact figure has been set as a capital campaign goal. Although a $3 million- to $4 million-dollar price tag is being kicked around, a more realistic figure is probably closer to $10 million. A feasibility study will begin in June. Falcone says there's no deadline on the fundraising but adds that "if, in three years, there's no plan, the offer of the land might be withdrawn."

 

In no way overshadowed by this news was the presentation that same night of the Sue Cannon Award to beloved arts advocate and donor Nancy Tieken, who has spread her fortune around to art groups coast to coast and has, in recent years, given a lot of money to the DAM.

The ever-charming Tieken told the story of how she was able to do the things she does, laying it all at the feet of her grandfather, the fabulously wealthy Henry Babson, a one-time partner of Thomas Alva Edison. "When I was a little girl, he gave me a dime and asked me to use it to call him from a pay phone," Tieken said. "He wanted to find out if I was responsible enough to be trusted with it -- so it all started with a dime." Eventually, as is obvious, she got a lot more than a dime from her grandfather.

While Tieken has not been a major player at or contributor to the MCA, she did say that there was something about it -- a museum with a staff of six -- that really appealed to her. So maybe this situation is about to change. Let's hope it does, because Tieken could really help the MCA get a much-needed new building.

This is a great opportunity for the MCA, but fundraising, even if they're lucky enough to get Tieken on board, is going to be an uphill battle. For now, though, it's exciting news for those of us who love art and believe in the MCA's mission to promote contemporary art. Maybe, just maybe, they'll be doing it in what Falcone calls "a museum building of our own time."


And what a strange time our own time is, especially for art. Museums may be expanding in Denver, but they're being destroyed in Baghdad.

The invasion of Baghdad by coalition forces a few weeks ago led to the dissolution of civil government in Iraq. One consequence was that there were no longer any police. This is not a good thing to happen to a city of 5 million people, and it triggered a series of unimaginable crimes against humanity. I'm referring, of course, to the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage through looting.

On Friday, April 11, and continuing into the following day, the National Museum in Baghdad was stripped. What was described as "thousands" of people ran through the museum removing -- or in many cases, breaking --countless objects, some of them priceless treasures from antiquity.

In an unbelievable irony, the lawless horde may have carried off tablets inscribed with Hammurabi's Code, one of the oldest known listings of laws in the world. The tablets were in the museum's collection, but it's unclear whether they were in the building during the horrible two days that it was being stripped. In fact, it will be a long time before the extent of the losses are fully known and we learn exactly what is missing, because many pieces from the National Museum's collection were displayed in Iraqi public buildings and in Saddam Hussein's palaces -- and those places were looted, too!

Television coverage showed the museum's interior in a totally wrecked condition, with the floors of the galleries a foot or two deep in jagged shards, evidence that art objects had been destroyed in the melee. The sacking of the National Museum was followed on April 15 by the looting and subsequent burning of the National Library and many other repositories of the artifacts and documents that illuminate Iraq's very long history.

It's a tremendous loss for the country, comparable to Poland's in the Second World War, when the Nazis removed everything of artistic value and shipped it back to Germany. Interestingly, this is the same thing the Iraqis themselves did when they invaded Kuwait in 1991. Armed units accompanied by a complement of archaeologists, curators, conservators and other experts went to museums and major collections in Kuwait and took what they wanted. Presumably, some of this former Kuwaiti material wound up in Iraq's now-destroyed National Museum.

Surely, the thieves of Baghdad carry their share of the responsibility for these events, but isn't it really the United States-led coalition forces who are to blame? Didn't they displace the Baghdad police without providing an alternative security force to protect these sites? Again, there's an apt comparison to events in World War II, but this time it's a contrasting one. When the Allies invaded Italy, there were art scholars on the front lines, and properties of cultural value, fully enumerated in U.S. Army manuals, were immediately secured and protected, even while battles raged only miles away. It's astounding how much attitudes have changed in this country since then, because, as we now know, no such thing happened in Baghdad.

 

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared on NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday, April 13, and scoffed at the idea that the U.S. had any responsibility at all regarding the destruction of Baghdad's National Museum. He even guffawed at one point. I guess we shouldn't be surprised by this attitude, since Rumsfeld and his boss, President George W. Bush, are Republicans, and that party has gone to great lengths during the past twenty years to prove how very little they care for American art. Just imagine then, how much regard they have for Iraqi art. But the Bush gang does value some things, as made clear by this telling example: Coalition troops did protect Iraq's Oil Ministry building.


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