Through the Lens
Some major changes are being wrought at the Denver Art Museum. No, I'm not referring to the new wing that's set to go up sometime in the near future. Rather, I'm talking about the shifting staff in the Modern and Contemporary department. In this game of curatorial musical chairs, there's good news and bad news.
First, the good: Nancy Tieken is back. A gifted curator and art historian and one of the greatest benefactors in the history of the DAM, Tieken had been an adjunct curator before leaving town a couple of years ago. At the time, she told me she'd return if the museum expanded. True to her word, with the expansion in the bag, she's rejoined the DAM staff, this time with the title of associate curator.
Since the position is a new one, created specifically for Tieken, she's not replacing anyone. This is an important detail because Tieken's return has nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- to do with the bad news: the departure of Jane Fudge, the department's longtime assistant curator, who in recent years has been in charge of the DAM's photography collection, an interdepartmental entity. Fudge, who was set to retire on June 15, was forced out of her office last month and is completing her work from home.
It's unclear why Fudge, the consummate company gal and loyal DAM foot soldier, has been treated in this shabby way, especially since her much-anticipated swan song, Colorado Masters of Photography, is set to open at the beginning of June. But if Fudge was hurriedly given the bum's rush out the door, Michael Johnson, who has long been standing in the wings, was just as hurriedly put in her place. Queries concerning Selections From the Michael and Judy Ovitz Collection, a photo show about which little is known and for which there was not much prior notice (I learned on May 1 that the show had opened on April 29), are already being directed to Johnson. The Ovitz show is on the seventh floor, which used to be partly devoted to the Wolf Collection of turn-of-the-century photographs. The seventh-floor photo gallery was one of two areas Fudge was formerly charged with administering; the other was the Merage Gallery in the Stanton rooms.
Certainly, there is no one, and especially not me, who would expect an official museum explanation for Fudge's hasty retreat -- at least not one I'd believe. Public-relations people claim (convincingly) that they learned about it after members of the media did, and that they have no idea why it happened. Fudge isn't talking, either. As for whoever was behind the clumsy affair, there is one lingering question: Would it have harmed anyone to let Fudge quietly retire on her own schedule? Six weeks isn't much to ask after so many years of distinguished service.
Other questions include whether Johnson will administer the photo collection at all. And if so, will he oversee both the historic photos, like those in the Wolf Collection, and the modern and contemporary photos, as Fudge did, or will the collection be split up? If the historic photos are separated from the modern and contemporary ones, where will they wind up? Surely, by definition, they don't belong in the painting and sculpture department, the only other DAM division that is even remotely relevant.
We'll have to wait and see.
If the photographic horizons at the DAM are presently clouded, a tiny, if intense, ray of light has appeared in a newish place devoted to the medium, the modest Aperture Gallery, which opened without fanfare last fall. Launched by transplanted Midwesterner Matthew Ryan, Aperture didn't pop up on the city's art radar at first. With more than a hundred shows being presented simultaneously somewhere in the greater Denver area, it's hard to rise above the crowd, especially as the new kid on the block -- and one hawking material by unknown artists.
Ryan obviously recognized this fact and decided to do something about it. Instead of obscure talents, he booked a show by a known quantity, a name people would recognize. The result is the densely installed and visually rich John Bonath: selected images 1970-2000. And you know what? It worked. People are starting to notice Aperture.
The gallery, in northwest Denver, is the product of Ryan's lifelong dream. Born in Chicago and raised in Wheaton, Illinois, Ryan attended New York's Columbia University, where he studied photography for six years. "I took every photo course they taught," he says. After graduating, he returned to Illinois, working nights as a photojournalist and days as a bike messenger. He moved to Denver last year and, with his savings and a lot of physical labor, converted an abandoned building near 32nd Avenue and Tejon Street into Aperture.
Bonath, the subject of Ryan's show, also relocated from the Midwest. Born in Ohio in 1951, Bonath began his art training in the 1970s at the distinguished Cleveland Institute of Art. Later, he earned an MFA at Western Michigan University and in 1978 was hired to teach photography at the Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he eventually earned tenure. "I built the program, I taught many classes and had many students under my direction," he says.
The settled life of an art professor wasn't right for him, though. So in 1987, he chucked his academic career and went to Japan, where he stayed for the next four years. "I had a midlife crisis -- I needed to find myself," he says. But times change, and so do ambitions. Bonath missed his home. "After being in Japan for so long, memories of America were like a dream to me," he says, adding that he didn't really fit into Japanese society. "Japan is not a place where spontaneity flourishes. It's completely nonconfrontational. Plus, Japan doesn't have Michael Jackson, they don't have Madonna. America is one of the most exciting places to be, so I came back in 1991."
Since then, he has lived in Denver, frequently exhibiting his work and establishing a respectable reputation -- the one Ryan used to get people to notice Aperture.
Ryan approached Bonath, but he left the thematic and only casually chronological installation to Jack Curfman, a well-known interior designer. Bonath himself chose the slightly more than one hundred inclusions -- a staggeringly large number of pieces to be found in a solo, especially considering how tight the Aperture's three exhibition spaces are.
Since Curfman has filled the entryway with many of Bonath's earliest photos -- dating back to his student days -- together with some newer photos, the show is somewhat confusing and only really makes sense on the second viewing.
On the wall facing us as we enter Aperture are four pieces that trace Bonath's trek from drawing -- which is what he was originally interested in -- to photography. The appropriately titled silver print, "First Photograph," from 1971, is hard to distinguish from the very similar airbrush and charcoal drawings, which were done at the same time as the photo and are now hung with it. For "First Photograph," Bonath used three negatives -- one of a turkey bone, one of smoke and one of the rays of a pen flashlight in darkness.
"I was inspired by those photos of Picasso drawing with light," he says. "I sandwiched the three negatives into the enlarger and printed it. I was trying to match what I was doing in my drawings."
Pleased with the result, Bonath committed to photography, but he didn't give up on drawing. Instead, he combined the two, marking his photos with drawn elements for the next few years. Experimental methods like this have been a continuing interest for Bonath. Over the years, he has invented a number of techniques, both in traditional photo printing and in computerized manipulations and digital printing, in which he has been a local pioneer.
Also up front are three portraits, one from each of the decades during which Bonath has worked in the field. These portraits are meant to give us a shorthand view of his career.
The oldest, "D Is for Dinosaur," a silver print from 1973, reveals Bonath as a naked hippie in an animistic headdress. He has placed himself against a montage of other images, including an animal head upon which he appears to perch.
In "Self-Portrait With Honeycomb," from 1984, Bonath is seen in a straightforward portrait, but he's still a hippie, as is evident by the ridiculous hat he's wearing.
The most recent is "View From the Right Palm, Zen Koan #751 (self-portrait)," a silver print from 1998, which was part of his renowned "Portraits From the New Age" series, in which the subjects have been coated with mud. In it, he has a shaved head and depicts himself as a Buddhist monk in a kimono; his hands strike a pose suggestive of a blessing.
As we proceed to the middle space, it becomes apparent that any semblance of chronology in this show has been abandoned. Instead of being arranged according to date, the photos from the '70s, '80s and '90s have been assembled by theme. Since the space is so intimate, however, we can easily zig-zag back and forth and come away with our own understanding of Bonath's artistic development. The oldest pieces include several abstract photo-serigraphs that include 25 colors and look like altered maps. One of these is "Mass to Space Displacement," a unique print in which two small rectangles, each emblazoned with an "X," have been placed over a larger rectangle.
In the 1980 photogram, "Traces #19," a group of vaguely visceral shapes in a sickly pink are set against a rich light-gray background. This piece anticipates Bonath's later experiments with layering cutup images to create three-dimensionality, as well as shots in which he photographed clay models. The images in these pieces look computer-generated, but they were done before digital was in use.
That's also the case with the "American Fruit" series of dye-transfer prints from 1982, in which newspaper-wrapped fruit is set against a field of wrinkled newspaper. Bonath intends to re-address fruit as a subject matter in a planned but not-yet-started series.
Bonath has also pursued traditional photography, more or less, as in the "Aides" series, in which a nude black man -- a favorite model of Bonath's -- is posed with skulls and bones. In "Passage," a silver print from 1995, one of the photos from this series, the man is contained within an open-ended rectangle, on top of which are skeleton parts that he seems to hold up. As suggested by the series title, the topic of these photos is the AIDS plague.
This middle room at Aperture also features a group of digital prints from the last five years. More than anything else, these are the kind of works we associate with Bonath.
Some may be surprised, as I was, that Bonath doesn't use a digital camera. "The technology just isn't there, but they have been improving a lot lately," he explains. Until they are perfected according to his exacting standards, he prefers to use an old-fashioned three-by-five camera. He prints the photos traditionally and then scans them into a computer. Because he likes to make work that is content-rich, these digital prints are crammed with images. Many of the symbols he uses, like hands or newborn babies, are redolent of multiple messages; others, like butterflies or flowers, have more obscure meanings.
For obvious reasons, exhibition designer Curfman has installed the most disturbing and shocking of Bonath's images in the small back gallery. "Anna #2" is a silver print done this year from the series "Mastectomy, Lyrical Studies of Two Women," in which a woman looks directly at the viewer while revealing her mastectomy scar. More lighthearted, but also jarring, is "Sid With Dildoes," a silver print from 1992 that shows a young man cradling a clutch of enormous dildoes. Then there's the queasiness brought on by the 1983 portrait of a shameless neo-Nazi -- a former student of Bonath's -- complete with swastika flag, a piece innocently titled "Eric #13."
John Bonath, though not a genuine career survey or retrospective, does come close, and it gives everyone a chance to see a large body of good work. It shows off Bonath's ability to combine a pair of presumed opposites -- his relentlessly varied yet somehow thoroughly consistent art.
On a completely different note, with all the talk about nepotism in city hiring -- which has been illuminated by the Paul Torres scandal at the Civil Service Commission -- many have perhaps forgotten that Mayor Wellington Webb himself likes to help out his family. Although his wife, Wilma, doesn't receive a salary for her work on the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film, unlike Torres's teenage dependents, she has wielded a lot of power.
In the past, when she was the head of the commission, she made executive decisions in the field of publicly funded art. For example, she once enacted by fiat a moratorium on new public art.
Now, as part of the City Selection Committee, she will help pick the architect for the Denver Art Museum's new wing. But the First Lady lacks the credentials -- and the credibility -- to make these kinds of decisions, and it's only through her family ties that she finds herself holding these important positions.
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