According to Museum of Contemporary Art director Cydney Payton, her current show, TRUSS THRUST: THE ARTIFICE OF SPACE, is the first large exhibit in the area dedicated exclusively to video art. I think she's right, because while there have been any number of videos in group shows or solos, I can't think of any other thematic video-only shows that have been presented around here.
A year and a half ago, Payton came up with the idea to mount a video show, but she wanted it centered on a theme. She began by free-associating on the topic of visual perception, which, it goes without saying, is something that's basic to all of the visual arts. She thought about the biological process of how visual information goes from the eye to the brain. She considered the roles of social and cultural conditioning in determining how things are seen. She was interested in the physical and psychological perceptions of movement and space. Not only that, but she compared and contrasted each of these topics to the others. TRUSS THRUST addresses all of these issues, though it was surely not inevitable that they would lead Payton to curate an exhibit of video installations exploring dance and architecture. Really, she could just as easily have used these ideas to come up with a show about I Love Lucy.
I don't bring up the topic of I Love Lucy to be flippant -- well, not only for that reason -- but to make a point about what I think about art videos: When put to a comparative analysis with television (or theater or film, for that matter), videos fall short. I've frequently said that I've never seen a fine-art video that's 10 percent as good as Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory. After taking in TRUSS THRUST, my observation still holds true.
This is not to dismiss videos out of hand, but to point out that there are real limitations to the medium -- in particular, that it generates little interest outside its fervent core audience. It reminds me of coins or stamps, which are legitimate spheres of interest among their own enthusiasts, but not all that interesting to most of the rest of us.
Another problem with video is its classification -- because, really, isn't it just a performing art? Narrative films, like those in TRUSS THRUST, are essentially digital recordings, and it's hard to distinguish them from plays, films or television programs. Even non-narrative videos made up of flashing patterns or mutable forms (a type not included in this show, by the way) unfold over time, like a performance. However, there is one way in which fine-art video differs from most of the other performing arts: Videos are typically excruciatingly boring.
Fortunately, that's not really true of the handful included in TRUSS THRUST.
Payton began building the show by selecting Peter Welz, a Berlin-based artist known for his exploration of movement in videos, drawings and installations. As soon as visitors turn the corner into the main galleries, they confront "airdrawing / forsythe / above right-hand movement" and "airdrawing II / front / hand in study," both of which represent Welz's collaboration with choreographer William Forsythe. Welz and Forsythe zeroed in on text by Samuel Beckett, a pioneer of the theater of the absurd. (You see my point about videos being indistinguishable from the performing arts?) In these pieces, Forsythe aimlessly twirls around, roughly following the lines of a scribbled drawing that's pinned to the wall on which the video is being projected. "airdrawing" is small and placed near the floor, while "airdrawing II" is large and features a split screen with different images running at the same time. As I walked through the show with Payton, she remarked about how beautiful she thought these Welz video installations were. I guess the old saw about beauty being in the eye of the beholder is definitely true.
Behind and to the left is "the fall," a plywood wall that juts out from one of the museum's permanent walls. Two floor-mounted projectors sit at the base, filling the walls with images of dancers running toward the viewer and then stopping short, as if blocked by a transparent barrier. Of the three Welz works in TRUSS THRUST, this one is the most impressive owing to its monumentality.
There's no particular way to go through the show; in order to take in either of the other two presenters, viewers must pass through the Welz section. Since "Little Men," by the Blue Noses Group from Russia, is installed under the mezzanine opposite Welz's "the fall," it makes sense to pick up the show there.
The Blue Noses Group is a partnership of Viacheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov. The two began working together in 1999, when they locked themselves into a bomb shelter "without high technologies, women or alcohol" so that they could create art for the new millennium while being protected from Y2K. More recently, they've turned to short, humorous films based on traditional Russian forms of comedy.
For "Little Men," sheets of recycled cardboard were arranged in a circle on the floor. On the ceiling above are white boxes hiding video projectors. The saturated color images depict nude women and partially nude men cavorting on the floor. This piece, along with the other things that Mizin and Shaburov have done, strike me as being a little about neo-dada -- and a lot about Benny Hill.
On the topic of Benny Hill, there are two small rooms set up like little theaters on the other side of the Welz section. In one of them is "Cowboy Inertia Creeps," a video projection by Spanish artist Sergio Prego featuring a man lying on the ground or sometimes on top of a concrete road divider. The film was shot in stop action, so that the man appears to be traveling through the countryside. His progress stops and starts to a hard-driving soundtrack. This exact kind of thing was done ad infinitum on Benny Hill and in lots of Richard Lester-style comedies beginning in the 1960s. But the Prego isn't funny, because the man's pose is something we've all seen in Denver and everywhere else around the world: a homeless man asleep on the ground. Unfortunately, the video doesn't resonate the way a real-life encounter does.
In the other video projection, "ANTI," on view in the second little theater, a man is tethered to a rod that runs around the four sides of a building's interior. He walks along the route across the floor, up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other. This is intriguing, and I looked at it carefully enough to realize that there's a person walking behind him and in front of him holding cameras, even though great pains were taken to keep them hidden from the audience.
I know I've been hard on TRUSS THRUST, but I really didn't hate it, and it's surely worth the few minutes it takes to get through the show. I do think it was misguided to present such an obscurantist show at this time, however. The Denver Art Museum has presented the MCA with an opportunity, but the institution is not taking advantage of it. At the DAM, only a few works of contemporary and modern art are on display until the new Hamilton Building is finished. The MCA has a chance to fill the void and attract attention by mounting an important show that would bring in the crowds -- something that is especially essential now that the MCA needs only a few million dollars more to start construction on its own new building (see Artbeat, page 47).
I suggested a couple of weeks ago that a show like the Andy Warhol exhibit now at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center would have been a good choice for the MCA. I guarantee that attendance numbers would have blown those for TRUSS THRUST right out of the water. (If Warhol is too historic for the MCA, how about Fred Tomaselli or Damien Hirst?) A star solo, even one done on the cheap with multiples, as the Warhol is, would have guaranteed more people coming through the doors. The summer schedule hasn't been set yet, so it's not too late for the MCA to hit a home run, but come fall, the DAM will have the Logan Collection on view and this particular window of opportunity will be closed tight.
Another way the MCA could inspire more public interest is to again do shows devoted to local artists. Done right, such efforts could even compete with the Logan Collection. Payton has been one of the greatest supporters of Colorado art over the past twenty years, but she's fallen off that particular wagon lately. The knife in the heart was last summer's Colorado biennial, in which four of the ten artists were from out of state, as though sufficient talent couldn't be found right here.
Count me among the MCA's -- and Payton's -- most loyal advocates. TRUSS THRUST and the other missteps in recent times notwithstanding, I think Denver needs the place to succeed, and Payton is the one who can pull it off. The only thing left to do is convince the MCA that it needs Denver just as much.
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