Rangi Kipa's "Whare Whakairo," detail, carved and painted wood.
Rangi Kipa's "Whare Whakairo," detail, carved and painted wood.
Mike Egan

Starting Now

The Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver opened its brand-new David Adjaye-designed building at the corner of 15th and Delgany streets less than two months ago. I love the building and the fact that the upstart institution managed to construct a high-style facility by an internationally famous architect, and I focused on those ideas in an enthusiastic column at the time ("Smart and Sassy," October 25, 2007).

This meant, however, that the permanent works installed in and around the museum, as well as seven solo shows collectively titled Star Power: Museum as Body Electric, receded into the background. But now that the dust has begun to settle over there, it's time to take a look at the art.

We'll start outside, with two permanent works that aren't part of the show. The most obvious, because it's so large and visually bombastic, is "Toxic Schizophrenia," by British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster. This is the couple's first commission for a site-specific piece in this country. I like the sculpture by itself, but not its location against the Delgany side of the building. Its goofiness detracts from the cool elegance of Adjaye's smoked-glass wall, which serves as its immediate backdrop. Installed on the top of a tall steel pole, in the manner of a motel sign, and illuminated, "Toxic Schizophrenia" is a cartoonish version of a bleeding heart being pierced by a dagger. This motif, reminiscent of old-time tattoos, is a popular image for Noble and Webster and has become their signature. "Toxic Schizophrenia" is the largest example they've done to date.

Right around the corner is the other permanent work, and it's as subtle a visual experience as Noble and Webster's is emphatic. "Riemiannian Tangencies," by renowned Denver painter Clark Richert, is essentially a gigantic painting on the surface of the fire lane south of the building. Richert has laid out a non-repeating pattern of his own invention made up of alternating finished-concrete sections with acid-etched ones. On top is a meandering acid-green line that's very easy to notice. I've already attended an event in the fire lane, and, weather permitting, it functions as a patio, albeit a tilted one.

Inside the museum are the seven solos in seven separate spaces, although I had a hard time seeing what connected them, because they are so diverse. MCA director Cydney Payton, a one-woman show who was responsible for seeing the building through, is also the institution's only curator at this point, and can be credited with the art selections as well. Clearly, though, she huddled with architect Adjaye for some of the picks, as his friends and former clients are among them.

The first presentation you notice — because you can hear it — is Legend, by Candice Breitz, a white South African woman. The installation, hanging on the lower level in a multi-purpose space called The Whole Room, uses thirty flat-screen TVs to show color video images of thirty central-casting Jamaicans singing Bob Marley songs a cappella. The title refers to a famous Marley album, and the piece records the amateur singers doing every single cut. Though Legend, which is highly Lorna Simpson-esque, is somewhat engaging for a minute or two, I can't imagine watching the whole thing. And the soundtrack has been cranked up so high that it intrudes into every nook and cranny. Standing in front of it, the incredible volume is hard to stand.

On the ground floor is another video installation, Faces, by Mexico's Carlos Amorales. This piece is made up of a photo-based still and two video projections, one showing an animated spider, the other with animated abstractions based on skulls. It is ensconced in the Lu & Chris Law New Media Gallery, an intimate space cordoned off by a heavy black curtain that needs to be closed in order to see the Amorales piece fully. It's so Day of the Dead — but I found it to be fairly limited in its appeal. Payton has said she's going to make it her life's work to convince me of the value of fine-art videos like this one, but I'm afraid neither of us is going to live that long.

More to my taste is Collier Schorr's Jens F., in the Laura & David Merage Foundation Photography Gallery. Schorr is the only artist in Star Power who's from the United States. This exhibit is dominated by photo montages, notebooks and other photo-based pieces depicting a teenage boy and referencing Andrew Wyeth's paintings of nude women — in particular, those of his would-be lover, "Helga." It's definitely gender-bending to have Jens, often shirtless, play the coquette. The solo is a standout.

The rest of Star Power is on the third floor, and one of the strongest elements is Radiare, featuring Rangi Kipa in his American debut in the Mary Caulkins and Karl Kister Project Gallery. Kipa is Maori, an indigenous New Zealander. He melds traditional folk art with contemporary issues in an installation that's a fragment of a traditional religious building called a "Whare Whakairo." It's marvelous, and has the political goal of rescuing Tiki imagery from its denigration for commercial purposes in the West.

In the Joseph Crescenti Family Paper Works Gallery is Chris Ofili, with nearly two dozen watercolors by the Nigerian-born British artist who now lives in Trinidad. Done in what look like poster paints on newsprint, the untitled pieces are similar paintings of the artist's African muses. The identically sized depictions of nude black women have been outlined using iridescent colors. They are impressive in their totality, but less so when examined individually. Ofili, one of the so-called YBAs — Young British Artists — was catapulted to fame some years ago when he incorporated elephant dung and pornography into a portrait of the Madonna, raising the ire of then-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Becoming a bête noire of the right was Ofili's breakout moment.

In the Vicki and Kent Logan Promenade is an installation by Wangechi Mutu called Will Honey Flavoured Milk Soften That Pig Fed Rage? Mutu is from Kenya but lives in New York. This piece, which includes bottles of milk hanging from the ceiling, acrylic high-heeled shoes covering the window and strapping tape attached to a wall decorated with photo-transfers of slaughtered pigs, is a total mess. It reminded me of nothing other than a student show that would have earned its creator a C-plus.

The final Star Power solo, David Altmejd, is the one that has received the most word-of-mouth raving. Altmejd has lined the walls of the Family of Natasha Cong-don Large Works Gallery with mirrors and placed a group of mirror-clad sculptures inside. In doing so, he has fabricated an entire world that's both primordial (owing to the anthropomorphic imagery) and swank (owing to all the mirrors). Altmejd, of Canada, is that country's representative in this year's Venice Biennale.

Interestingly, Altmejd has just been named one of Out magazine's top one hundred gay men, meaning he is the only part of Star Power that directly relates to its subtitle, Museum as Body Electric. This phrase was inspired by Walt Whitman's poem "I Sing the Body Electric," an account of the poet's enthusiasm for picking up guys. For Payton, however, it represents the broader meaning of being subversive in general, and by that definition, everything in Star Power qualifies.

In addition to Star Power, the work of two Colorado artists is on display on the third floor. In the MCA Cafe are a series of abstract ceramics by Boulder's Kim Dickey, called "Museum as Theater as Garden." Dickey's sculptures are conventionalized depictions of bushes that line shelves surrounding the seating area. As could be expected from this gifted postmodernist, they're tremendous. On the roof deck, in the June S. Gates Garden, is a landscape installation by Karla Dakin, also from Boulder. "Sky Trapeziums" includes big metal planters that rise off the decking.

Payton should be lauded for the ambitiousness of the whole endeavor — though I do wish she had opened the new MCA with an all-Colorado cast instead of taking the Peace Corps approach.


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