"Untitled (Godzilla)," by Robert Longo, charcoal on paper.

Water Sports

Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, is very adept at keeping all the balls in the air. I really don't know how she does it without going stark raving mad, but I admire her for it. With only a skeleton staff at the museum, she practically runs the place single-handedly.

She administers the MCA, oversees employees and creates the programs, which range from exhibitions to educational projects. And she is constantly raising money -- both to keep the doors open and the lights on, and to bring the dream of a shiny new David Adjaye-designed building to fruition. (Just a few weeks ago, John Grant, late of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, agreed to head up efforts to get the new museum built. That, at least, will take some of the burden off of Payton.)

As if all of this weren't enough -- and actually, it is -- Payton is also the principal curator at the MCA. As such, she has put together nearly all of the shows that have been presented at the museum since she came on board in 2000. That means she also gets to endure local critics' slings and arrows, many of which I have shot her way, including the most recent burn-down-the-museum bash of her salute to video titled Truss/Thrust ("What's On?" December 1, 2005). Hated it.


see into liquid

Through May 28, Museum of Contemporary Art/ Denver, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7554

But with the current group show see into liquid, which is centered on images of water, I come not to bury Payton, but to praise her. She has made a beautiful show by selecting beautiful things. There are marvelous drawings and prints, and many elegant photos. Even the three videos she chose for inclusion are fabulous, and that's really saying something, considering that I'm not the medium's greatest supporter.

Payton says she came up with the idea for see into liquid because she noticed that artists from all over the world were using water as a subject for their works. Surely part of the reason Payton noticed this particular trend was because of her travels to art events (another part of her job description): Last summer, she went to Venice to take in the Biennale and then to Miami for Basel/Miami. It's hardly incidental that both Venice and Miami are defined by their relationships to the sea -- unlike, say, landlocked Denver. Payton goes to these kinds of things to keep abreast of current trends in contemporary art and to provide a presence for the MCA among the attendees. With see into liquid, the museum definitely got its money's worth from Payton's travel expenses.

Photos and photo-based or -related pieces are important components of this show, as has been the case at the MCA from even before Payton took over. First up is a pair of untitled monumental C-print photos of surfers by Catherine Opie, done in 2003. Opie, who works on the East and West coasts, has gained a lot of respectability over the past ten years and has emerged as a major contemporary photographer. Her large photos in see into liquid are very similar, with almost the entire frames being filled by the ocean and the overcast sky. A mist partially obscures the landscape and the lone tiny surfer in each of the pieces, making these color shots predominantly gray. These Opies are rather blurry, which gives them a neo-pictorialist quality and makes them very poetic.

Across from the Opies is something completely different: an odd little watercolor by New York artist Ellen Gallagher. The piece is expressionistic, a special interest for Payton, who loves pieces in which the paper puckers and the depictions are sloppy, loose and ambiguous -- as they are in Gallagher's charming rendition of sea life.

The Opies and the Gallagher are hung in the anteroom that connects the entry space to the main central gallery, with its wide expanse and high ceilings. This main gallery has been sparsely hung, mostly given over to Robert Longo's photo-realist views of waves done in charcoal drawings and prints. Longo came to the fore in the late '70s as either the last gasp of pop art or the beginning of neo-pop. His signature was the gigantic, super-realistic figure study in charcoal on paper, and Payton sees the wave drawings in see into liquid, which were done in 2002, as revitalizing Longo's career. But it's important to point out that Longo is by far the most significant artist included in see into liquid. Unlike even the best known of the others in the show, he already has a place in the history of American art.

Longo's two drawings are stunning, in particular "Untitled (Godzilla)," which is the size of a billboard. Longo records his subjects with a photographic accuracy, and his wave drawings look like blown-up snapshots. Amazing, considering his material: charcoal dust. The two Longo pigment prints hang off to the left of the drawings on their own wall.

The only other works that Payton put in the main gallery are those by Italian photographer Massimo Vitali. Hung on the wall opposite the Longo drawings are two of Vitali's aerial C-print photos of beach-goers. The photos are overexposed, with washed-out colors that seem to express the bright sunshine illuminating the scenes. There's a kind of Reginald Marsh quality to the scenes -- but without the homoeroticism.

Payton had a wall removed at the east end of the museum so that the two small galleries that had been there are now one larger space. To the right of the entrance is "Snake Vortex," done on transparent sheets by Rebecca Di Domenico, the only Colorado artist in the show. Di Domenico uses a digitized pigmented print process. For this piece, she stacked up images that include an altered depiction of a snake and what looks like a waterspout. The layered sheets intensify the illusion of depth, giving "Snake" a three-dimensional quality.

Also in this gallery is Richard Misrach's "Untitled (neg #213-03)," from 2003, a chromogenic photographic print of a surfer in the midst of the ocean. Misrach, who hails from California, has a huge reputation and a thirty-year-plus career as a photographer. He is the only other artist in see into liquid whose name could be spoken in the same breath as Longo's. Misrach's photo is remarkable both for its similarities to the Opies as well as its profound differences. Like Opie, Misrach captures a tiny lone figure surrounded by the sea, but instead of delivering a misty and gray view, his scene is crisply detailed and carried out in a gorgeous shade of deep blue-green.

Also in this section of the show is a trio of prints by California artist Don Ed Hardy, which were done in 2005 at Shark's Inc. in Lyons. In them, Hardy paired tattoo designs with traditional Japanese depictions of waves. Finishing out the gallery is Dominican Republic artist Tony Capellan's 1996 found-object installation of blue rubber flip-flops and barbed wire, and Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima's weird fairy-tale look at an imaginary undersea world, from 2002.

Because of the MCA's layout, viewers will need to cross back through the large central space where the Longos are hanging in order to pick up the rest of the show, which is installed beneath and on the mezzanine. In the tight and dark space below is "Electronic Sleep," by New York artist Amy Globus, from 2003-2004. In it, an octopus (or perhaps several, it's hard to say) has been recorded as it squeezes itself through transparent tubes and over machines, all to a hard-driving soundtrack. It works like a kinetic painting, and it's easy to see why this is one of the hottest videos of the last few years.

There are two more videos on the mezzanine: "Swim," from 2001, and "Surf," from 2005, both by Dutch artist Jacco Olivier. For these pieces, Olivier animated actual films of bathers, making them look like examples of figural abstraction. I kept thinking of David Park's signature style, in which representational elements are reduced to dashes of color.

Hanging alone on the back wall is Whitney Bedford's "Untitled (Blue Heaven)," from 2005, an ink and oil on panel that depicts a ship at sea in a highly abstracted and expressionistic way. Adjacent to the Bedford and across from the Oliviers are four photos of water by New Yorker Roni Horn, all from the series "From Some Thames." The photos, each with a different overall tint, are close-ups of the surface of water, presumably the River Thames, which flows through London. Also on the mezzanine and closely related to the Horns is "Waves," from 2005, by Vija Celmins, who works in California and New York.

As I finished up, I still had one nagging question: How are water-inspired pieces relevant to us in Denver? I guess it could be post-modern irony. Denver is, after all, one of the last places on earth that anyone would expect to find art about oceans. Somehow, this geographic disconnect does not negatively effect the show, though when I first heard about it, I wondered why Payton hadn't looked to the landscape instead. Then again, it may be that she wanted to provide local gallery-goers with a seaside vacation -- metaphorically, anyway.

Because everyone's been to the sea, or at least gotten a postcard from someone who has, the topic is familiar. This makes the show, while chock-full of cutting-edge stuff, thoroughly accessible, viewer-friendly and easy for just about anybody to like.


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