In 2001, Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art launched what became the first in a series of biennial exhibits. It was such a good idea, it's a wonder the Denver Art Museum didn't think of it first.
Having a regular exhibition devoted to local art is compelling because it's about living here right now -- which, last I checked, is what we're all doing. This focus on our own community, combined with the status of the MCA, guarantees that these biennials will always be among the most talked-about events in the local art world.
That's certainly been as true in the past as it is with the current exhibit, 2005 BIENNIAL BLOW OUT, which has been talked about for months -- even though it just opened last weekend.
2005 BIENNIAL BLOW OUT
Through September 25. Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7554
There are some differences in how this show was organized compared to the past. For the first one, then-director Mark Masuoka took the traditional approach associated with biennials: He invited artists, picking fifteen to showcase. For the second year, Cydney Payton, the MCA's current director, turned the biennial into a juried show in which she chose ten artists and asked each of them to invite another, for a grand total of twenty. This time, Payton invited London-based critic, dealer and artist Kenny Schachter to be the juror, asking him to select ten artists from the 780 who entered. Those are some seriously tough odds.
Bringing in an out-of-country juror to shape the current biennial is not the key difference, however: It's the fact that artists from Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming were eligible for inclusion. In past years, the show had been limited to those living in Colorado. As a product of this change, only six of the ten in the show are Colorado artists, and nearly all of them are from Denver.
Less irksome but still annoying is that Schachter is not coming to Denver to explain what he did; he just left behind a bare-bones juror's statement. Thank goodness one picture is worth a thousand words, because we can intuit what logic Schachter used simply by looking at his choices.
First, Schachter's clearly interested in photo-based and photo-derived works, and many of his choices fall into one of those two categories; second, he likes alternative media, with four of the ten artists doing installations; third, he prefers art with a representational quality to it, since even the figural abstractions lean that way; finally, Schachter apparently doesn't like painting, because there isn't even one in the show. Sculpture fares only slightly better: One artist working in the medium was accepted.
The 2005 BIENNIAL BLOW OUT begins with three digital drawings by Denver artist Louisa Armbrust, whose works are the closest thing to paintings in the show. They're also the closest things to abstracts because they are covered with stick figures. All three have a dove-gray ground on which Armbrust placed reductive aerial views of school playgrounds, with the children done in bright colors. This shared color scheme lends the pieces a retro quality that makes them reminiscent of barkcloth drapes from the 1940s.
Around the corner are four conceptual self-portraits by Denver artist Jason Patz, digital inkjet prints based on photos. As is usual for Patz, these deceptively simple photos are fabulous. Patz took these photos of himself from an arm's length, thus allowing the viewer into his personal space. He has an unerring sense for perfectly balanced compositions, as is prominently displayed in "#3-116," one of the four on view. This skill with arranging forms must come naturally to Patz, especially when you consider that he took these masterfully composed photos without being able to look through the viewfinder. Another strength of the Patz self-portraits is the narrative content suggested by his impassive facial expressions. Not only that, Patz cropped his eyes out of each picture, suggesting a symbolic blindness.
At this point, viewers will need to turn around and go down the opposite hallway. First is an oddball if charming installation made of hand-embroidered paper napkins thumbtacked to the wall. The napkins, by Angela Ellsworth from Arizona, hold small portraits of her friends and family done in black thread.
A more substantial installation, "nude-topia," is ensconced in its own small gallery across from the wall of napkins. For this difficult-to-understand piece, Denver artist Susan Meyer stacked plywood planks in organic shapes one over another and mounted the pile on wooden legs. She then placed ready-made figures on the plywood, including a little travel trailer that presumably expresses the nude tourists suggested by the title. Around the edge is a shiny stamped metal runway, and in the front, a chair and a small table.
In the other small gallery and extending into the hallway is a group of David Sharpe's sublime pinhole photos in silver prints that depict the Western landscape. Unlike most of the stuff in the show, these Sharpe photos have a regional quality, since his chosen subject matter is the eastern plains of Colorado. The Denver photographer employs an elaborate method to enlarge his tiny originals into heroically sized images. The blurry details are the product of the pinhole method; the central arch present in all the pictures comes from the cylindrical shape of his homemade cameras.
At this point, viewers need to double back by the Ellsworth and the Meyer to get back to the main gallery, where the Patzes are. On the opposite wall are a group of gorgeous lenticular photos from New Mexico artist Sherlock Terry's "At Home" series. In these photos, shots of residential interiors are taken at different times and combined in the same piece, so that the images change from one to another as viewers walk by.
Almost the entire floor space in the main gallery is given over to Jeff Starr's ceramic sculptures, which are displayed in vitrines on stands. Starr, who is a well-known Denver artist, made the grade for the last biennial, too, which is a unique distinction for him. Like last time, Starr is represented by ceramic sculptures instead of the paintings he was first known for. These figural sculptures are quirky, appearing to come out of kitsch bric-a-brac. By far the edgiest is "David," a portrait of artist David Brady's head that looks like a cartoon character cookie jar. The stylization of the head really reminded me of Starr's surrealistic paintings, an impression that's also bolstered by his use of paint instead of glaze as a finish.
Around the corner to the left are a group of photos by Patti Hallock, a former Denver artist who is now in graduate school at the Parsons School of Design in New York. The Hallock photos are C-prints that look overexposed and depict a young man in a red suit and red cowboy hat. His Western dress and the local settings give these images a connection to the area, just like the Sharpes.
Another artist's work that has Denver content is Denis Gillingwater's "Divisions/Divides/ Distances," which is installed in the space under the mezzanine. The local resonance may seem ironic considering that the artist is from Arizona, but Gillingwater ordinarily explores new cities for his sophisticated installations. He shows reproductions of city photos on small monitors through closed-circuit video cameras. This play on video surveillance in our anxiety-ridden age is perfect in this claustrophobic space.
Back over to the bottom of the stairs is the last piece in the biennial, Jessica James Lansdon's wall installation "Superstition Mountain/the War Between the States." It's sort of neat, though I'm unclear as to why, exactly, Lansdon paired the flora of Arizona with dead Civil War soldiers.
The show definitely has some problems -- like that no-paintings thing -- but it's undeniably interesting, even if it doesn't provide a snapshot of the current state of art in the area.
Without casting any aspersions on the four out-of-state artists who made the cut for this year's 2005 BIENNIAL BLOW OUT, I want to say clearly that I think it was a very bad idea to expand the geographic reach of the show beyond Colorado's borders. The reason has nothing to do with the quality of the show, which is quite high, but instead it has to do with the bad feelings it's engendered.
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The biennial series at the MCA was founded on a need to showcase local artists in a museum setting. It could be argued that putting Colorado artists on the map was, in large part, the impetus for the founding of the museum itself.
Don't misunderstand me, I think the MCA should also focus on international art currents; I just think the one bone the place throws to the art world around here should not be taken away. I'm not alone on this issue; I've been struck by how many people have bitched to me about it. For a while, that's all anyone wanted to talk about.
By enlarging the scope of the show, the MCA may have garnered a few dollars from sponsors such as ArtistsRegister.com and in-kind income from the Utah Arts Council, along with similar entities in Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Wyoming, but the decision to take the focus off the local scene for this year's biennial has cost the institution many tens of thousands of dollars' worth of goodwill.
My advice to MCA director Payton would be to gather together the people who advised her to make this change, and then to have a security guard escort them off the premises. Oh, and she should return the biennial back to its original role: a place to see some of the best art being made right under our noses.