Entering the first of the galleries off the main entrance of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, viewers are surrounded by white-on-white color-field paintings by German-born Udo Nger, one of three artists in WHITE OUT: Lighting Into Beauty.
As I looked around at the dazzling lack of color, it occurred to me that the show must have originally been meant for a wintertime slot as opposed to the late-spring one it occupies. It turns out that is the case: The show's dates were shifted because of the conflicting master scheduling of the traveling exhibit Will Boys Be Boys?.
At first this unseasonable quality struck me as being strange, even unfortunate. But it also occurred to me that presenting such a chilly aesthetic experience makes WHITE OUT the art-world version of a Popsicle -- and that may be exactly what's in order, as hot as it can get this time of year.
Nger lives in Hawaii, but in the early '90s, he lived in the Denver suburbs, which is how MCA director Cydney Payton, who curated this show, first met him. As I recall, Nger was up to his neck in neo-expressionism -- a far cry stylistically from what he's been doing for the past several years -- and his early paintings were crammed with images. The first time I saw the kind of color-field painting he's doing now was a few years ago at Robischon Gallery, which was Nger's Denver representative at the time.
The paintings at MCA, from his "Light as Material" series, are done in a range of off-white tones. Some have a hint of green, others pink or lilac, but mostly the paintings are covered in a warm cream. For WHITE OUT, the walls of the MCA were painted white -- what else? -- and the Ngers are spaced widely apart, which makes the beginning of the show look very austere.
As is made explicit by the title of the series, these works are about light -- in particular, light reflected off the paintings themselves. Though a credibly contemporary conceptual framework, it's also a truly old-timey pursuit for a painter. However, Nger achieves his richly luminous surfaces using an innovative technique: sandwiching three translucent sheets of canvas. He sometimes paints on all three layers, but not in every case. The different painted layers add literal depth to the picture plane as well as catch the light projected on them from the spots in the ceiling and the sunlight coming through the windows.
The pictorial elements are mostly simple organic forms, especially egg shapes. In "Arena Sleeping," Nger uses a single egg in a grayish white that's placed in the center of the composition and surrounded by wide concentric bands of white. In others, the artist lined up the eggs so that they run across the center of horizontally oriented canvases.
Though all of the Ngers are of a single piece, there's some variation in the compositions, including lines that can be serpentine or more or less straight. These linear compositions are less striking but more elegant than the others. In "Gleichfliessend," a meandering line cuts across a divided color field, with one side done in a darker shade of white than the other. Also very nice -- and distinctly different -- is "Inner Light II," a vertically stacked diptych on which Nger painted expressively drawn horizontal lines. It looks very impressive hanging in the MCA's central gallery.
The Ngers provide the perfect setup for "The Big Flake," the single, monumental piece by the second artist in WHITE OUT, Jaeha Yoo, who lives in Colorado. For this piece, Yoo used a lighted fabric-over-wood installation maze that was inspired by a snowflake. Using thin boards, Yoo built vertical frames and covered them in gauzy, translucent fabric. Groups of these frames are hinged together and arranged to create narrow, zigzagging aisles. The entire thing has a six-sided shape, which is also true of snowflakes.
If there's one problem with the piece, it's the space in which it is displayed. The room is too tight, so viewers can't see the whole thing at once. And because the installation is in a single-story space under the mezzanine, it's impossible to see the overall snowflake configuration from above -- and that's really too bad.
The last artist in the show, the hot New York photo girl du jour, has her work displayed on the mezzanine. Tanyth Berkeley was one of a number of breakout talents launched in P.S.1's Greater New York 2005, a kids-only show presented earlier this year. Her posed photos of strange-looking women are from her "Orchidaceae" series, which refers to the orchid family. The photos have a decidedly Diane Arbus-y quality to them, which makes them deeply touching -- and a little troubling.
Berkeley begins by contacting potential models she sees on the subway. She gives them her business card, and if they're interested enough to call her, she sets up appointments with them. Then, using a park as a backdrop, she has the women look away from the camera, capturing them as they stare off into space.
The accompanying explanatory handout says that Berkeley is "subverting mainstream notions of beauty as generic" -- and, boy, is that an understatement. The women are not just unconventionally beautiful; they're downright hard to look at. And because they're staring out into space, they appear to be mentally challenged.
The photos are ultimately depressing, because you wind up feeling sorry for the women -- at least I did. It also made me wonder what Berkeley's aim was, because the overexposed photos make her seem unsympathetic to her various sitters. As even an amateur photographer knows, everyone looks bad when they appear in overexposed images.
In addition to the portraits of the young women, Berkeley is also represented at the MCA by a DVD, titled Serenade, that records a series of male subway musicians singing love songs. The marginal characters who perform in the subway are the perfect companions for the women in the photos, kicking up the poignancy level of the entire Berkeley section.
It's hard to understand how the Berkeleys, which are so bleak and discouraging, relate to the luminous and uplifting works of the Ngers and the Yoo. That's probably why Payton completely separated them from the other pieces, even going so far as to put a floor between them. Instead, I wish she had simply given the Berkeley section a different title and marketed it as a separate show.
Speaking of separate shows, there are two others at the MCA: The Mirror of Reason, by Paola Ochoa, her second installation as part of the museum's "NEW PIC" series highlighting young artists; and Photographs From the Hank Cato Estate, which includes a choice selection of black-and-white images by famous photographers, including Diane Arbus, Lisette Model and Joel-Peter Witkin. Interestingly, one of the standouts is by local guy Christopher James.
WHITE OUT is flawed, as are the other two exhibits, but these missteps are not fatal. And given that pervasive winter mood, viewers can expect to be provided with a periodic chill as they work their way through the attractions -- and with the weather heating up, that's not such a bad thing.
Easily as cool in mood as the show at the MCA is the new sculpture "Wheel," which is going up on the lawn of the Denver Art Museum, on the Civic Center side. The piece is an installation by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, an internationally known American Indian artist whose sculptures have been installed in New York, Seattle, Santa Fe and now Denver.
Work on the sculpture got under way a few weeks ago, and it will be completed by the middle of June; the 14th Avenue Parkway will be closed during its erection. "Wheel" is a circular installation 48 feet in diameter; evenly spaced around the perimeter of the circle are ten Y-shaped forms that are each twelve feet tall and whose placement was determined by the sunlight cast during the summer solstice. Though completely contemporary in appearance, the piece's relationship to the sun links it to the ancient medicine wheels of the Indians and to other Neolithic ceremonial sites such as Stonehenge.
The forms have a steel armature that will eventually be clad with red porcelain-enameled panels screen-printed with symbols and statements related to the Native American experience. In addition, text that reads "Nah-kev-ho-eyea-zim," which is Cheyenne for "We are always returning home again," will be put onto the concave curved wall at the base of the Gio Ponti tower. I'm not crazy about appending metal letters to the DAM's walls, but this particular wall is a special case. It's long been used as a foil for signage advertising the shows inside, so the Heap of Birds text is an improvement.
On Tuesday, June 21, at 10:30 a.m., the piece will be dedicated in a ceremony overseen by Arapaho and Cheyenne elders, some of whom had consecrated the ground back in March, before "Wheel" went up.
I think "Wheel" promises to be great, its red color connecting wonderfully with nearby sculptures: Donald Lipski's "The Yearling," the life-sized horse on a giant chair across Acoma Plaza from "Wheel," uses a similar shade of red; and Mark di Suvero's "Lao Tzu," which is also close by, is painted a complementary haz-mat orange.
Even better, "Wheel" succeeds in terms of political correctness, not only because Heap of Birds is a Native American, but also because the piece tweaks the cowboys-and-Indians theme seen in so many of the other sculptures and artworks on, and in, the greater Civic Center area. I can't wait to see it completed.
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