We've all heard the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words, but what about pictures of words? Are they worth a thousand words -- and then some? Or are they worth less than a depiction of something else?
I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know one thing: There's quite a bit of contemporary art that incorporates words on display right now.
Around here, it's impossible to talk about words and pictures without turning to Roland Bernier, a Denver artist who's been doing this kind of thing for more than forty years. Bernier is the best known of a trio of artists featured in NOT YOUR TYPE, an unusual outing currently at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. As is almost always the case at the Singer, director Simon Zalkind organized the exhibit, and as usual, it's well worth seeing.
Zalkind had Bernier in mind when he came up with the idea for NOT YOUR TYPE. "Roland was a centerpiece for me," he says. Zalkind needed a show that would tie in with the Mizel's annual Leah Cohen Festival of Books & Authors, which he organized as well, and Bernier's word works made him a perfect fit. Zalkind also decided to include Martin Mendelsberg and Rick Griffith, two graphic designers who cross over into the fine arts, because, like Bernier, they use words in their pieces. "My hope for the show was that it would look like three distinct mini-exhibits," he explains. And it does.
The first of the three minis, installed to the right of the entrance, belongs to Bernier -- as it should. The pieces indicate a considerable change in Bernier's work; they're unlike anything I've seen by him before. Whereas Bernier's signature pieces are all-over abstracts completely made up of words, in these latest efforts he uses only a single word, which is then expressed literally with the help of found and ready-made objects.
The works here all take essentially the same form: Wooden letters spelling out the word have been mounted on a vertically oriented box, with the whole thing painted over in a monochrome; the ready-mades are attached. Sometimes, as with the hot-pink "Shoed," they're painted to match the boxes. Each construction is marked on the front with a trophy-style brass-plate label that identifies it. These Bernier constructions are great -- very neo-pop, and pretty funky, too.
The second exhibit-within-an-exhibit, hung on the angled walls that run down the center of the Singer, is given over to Mendelsberg, who teaches graphic design and interactive media at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Like Bernier, Mendelsberg uses text, but his work is coming from a very different place in just about every way possible. There are no plays on words here. The somberly toned and densely composed digital prints from Mendelsberg's "Holocaust Series" explore the Holocaust using sacred Hebrew texts (some in a Hebrew font that Mendelsberg designed) and historic and contemporary photographs. In several, Hebrew letters surround swastikas, which is unbelievably eye-catching, not to mention heavy with narrative.
The stylistic unity of these gorgeous prints, as well as the way they completely occupy the walls on which they've been hung, creates the mental equivalent of a reverential space in which to view them -- something that doesn't actually exist in the cramped quarters of the gallery. This psychological state allows viewers to take in the Mendelsbergs apart from the raucous mood touched off by the Berniers on one side and the similarly boisterous atmosphere of the Griffiths on the other.
"I always responded to his designs," says Zalkind of Griffith, "because he incorporated recognizable references to art history -- to dada, to fluxus, to pop." This characteristic is amply demonstrated in the works included here. Zalkind met Griffith a few years ago, when the designer, whose studio is called Matter, was working on the debut issue of Eye Level, a Denver arts journal that may or may not be defunct right now, depending on whom you talk to about it.
On the wall to the left is an installation of Griffith posters done over the past ten years promoting local events at such cultural venues as the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bug Theater; on the adjacent wall are his fine-art pieces. With both, it's easy to see what Zalkind's talking about, because references to various phases of modernism seem to be everywhere. There's the very constructivist "Press Type Prints Series," the very Bauhaus-style "AIGA Program" poster and the very pop-y "Augmented Signs." In this last effort, a collaboration with Jason Otero and Paco, common signs were reprinted in altered forms. "No Hunting" became "No Hurting," for example, and "Beware of Dog" was transformed into "Beware of God." The piece is extremely clever, with sharp content and an elegant composition.
The thought-provoking NOT YOUR TYPE has only a week left in its run, so you should get over there as soon as you can.
Words also play a major role in Better Times at + Gallery, a chic-looking and intelligently conceived exhibit in the front space that's devoted to some recent pieces by Evan Colbert, one of the most interesting artists in the state. The paintings in this knockout show are the latest in Colbert's decade-long progression of works that combine the influence of minimalism and pop in the service of conceptual art.
In his classic pieces, based on sample house-paint chips found in hardware stores, Colbert adorns a rectangle panel with a single color. The paint is applied evenly, resulting in a hyper-smooth surface; on a white bar across the bottom, each painting is labeled with a descriptive word. The typical presentation of these paintings is in large grids, with the individual panels hung close together. Opposite the entrance to Better Times is one such group. The combination of color and word are sometimes funny and always smart, like the sickly grayish green that's called "glum" or the vibrant lavender next to it that's "icy-hot," like the ointment.
I love these paintings, which never seem to get old -- they're so post-Warhol -- but I have to say that "Fear Factor" and "Wall of Global Warming" are even better. Like the paint-chip pieces, they have lots of neo-minimalist and neo-pop content wrapped in a conceptual format, but they also have a political angle. In "Fear Factor," Colbert takes on the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded terrorist-threat watch with a horizontal bar made of five panels based on a primary-color spectrum that goes from blue at one end to red at the other. The blue panel is labeled "Low," the green "Guarded," the yellow "High," the orange "Severe" and the red "Extreme." In "Wall of Global Warming," Colbert examines oil consumption's effect on weather. A central panel, the largest in a group of seven, shows a projection map of the world with El Niño's route indicated by a line and arrow. To either side of this panel are three square panels of varying sizes, arranged in descending order from large to small; each carries the logo of a big oil company.
Back in + Gallery's second space, Nocturnal Suburbia offers more commentary on sociopolitical issues -- in this case, not international politics and commerce, but ordinary environments. Patti Hallock's extraordinary photos record the evening life of the suburbs with depictions of homes rather than the people who live in them. The absence of people lends a feeling of alienation and loneliness that feeds into my own prejudices about the suburbs. Many of the images, such as "Nighthawk," a shot of a house with the lights on, have an abstract, constructivist quality. Others are more narrative and representational, like "Doorway," a picture of the view beyond a screen door. Unlike most of the Hallocks, though, which are dominated by blacks and grays, "Doorway" has a lot of rich, dark color, with the blue light of a TV set reflected on a wall being especially nice.
The layout of + Gallery, which is essentially one large room with a divider in the center, makes it ideal for a duo, but it's a stretch for a threesome. If Cremasteric Reflex Corset, an installation by Ira Sherman, seems crammed into the corner, that's because it is. It's a shame that the small room behind the offices, currently a storage/display area, wasn't drafted into duty as ad hoc exhibition space so that the Sherman would have some breathing room.
Sherman, a Denver artist with a national reputation, specializes in meticulously constructed kinetic sculptures made of finely finished brass, stainless steel and flexible plastic tubes. Although people are meant to wear these sculptures, I hope no one actually does. The potentially wearable art is dangerous and has a sadistic quality. "Cremasteric Reflex Corset" is a perfect illustration of this: The unlucky man who tries it on would have his penis automatically cut off by pneumatically activated surgical-steel blades were he to get an erection. (Gee, better not let the sexual-abstinence advocates hear about this one.)
You could call Sherman's work the sculpture of cruelty, but please don't say it's cutting-edge. I'm not sure I get his point -- and for that I'm grateful -- but Sherman's undeniably a genuine visionary who, unlike most others of the sort, also possesses the necessary skills to realize his disturbing ideas in exquisitely executed sculptures.
Better Times, Nocturnal Suburbia and Cremasteric Reflex Corset are scheduled to run through the first week in January, but the gallery's hours are limited because of the holidays. Normal hours resume on Tuesday, December 28.
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