Wide Open

"Hon," ceramic wall sculpture.

A new day has very apparently dawned at the still-nascent Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which is housed in a former fish market in Sakura Square. And the many changes are obvious from the moment visitors hit the brand-new front doors.

Some may recall that I have relentlessly criticized MoCAD for not fixing its broken mechanical front doors. I saw the doors as an actual impediment to entering the place, as well as a symbol of the other obvious problems in the building and in the museum's programming that were not being addressed by the emerging institution's powers that be.

Mark Sink, the former interim director of the museum, reacted to my complaints about the doors by denying, in writing, that they were broken. According to him, it was my motor skills and not the doors that were out of whack. The new permanent director, Mark Masuoka, who has been on board since the first of the year, doesn't have the time for such things -- he's been too busy replacing the doors and making a million other urgent repairs.

"I tell the board of trustees, MoCAD is less like a fish market and more like a museum every day," Masuoka says. "I knew immediately the things that needed to be done -- including the doors and the reformulation of the museum's formal entry -- but we needed to get funding first." The doors were purchased with donated money and installed gratis by Vortex Doors. Don't get me wrong: There's nothing special about them; they're typical shop doors. It's just that, unlike their predecessors, they're functional as portals -- and that's good enough.

Inside, with just a couple of well-placed walls, Masuoka has created a small entry lobby where there was once a formless corridor cluttered with junk and office equipment. In front of us is a plain and handsome information desk, behind which is a wall painted a vivid blue. To our right, also defined by a blue wall, is the tidy, if still uninteresting, gift shop. (At least we no longer trip over it when we walk through the doors.)

"We played the Post-it game every morning," Masuoka recalls. "I would come in and put a Post-it note where there was a crack or a dent or some other problem. I went through a thousand of them."

Masuoka credits much of his quick success to the support of the board and his staff. "The museum has always had visionaries, but their ideas needed legs; they needed someone who would just do it, and that's where I come in." The accomplishment so far is impressive, but he's just gotten started. "There's still ten times as much work to do, and there are things that really bug me, but we've come a really long way," he says.

Another change is the creation of two smaller galleries and the footprint for a larger one. By doing this, Masuoka has opened up the scheduling. "Previously, the museum presented three shows a year," he explains. "In between, the museum was closed for weeks while one show was taken down and the next one was put up. Well, you can't run a business that way. You can't be closed for weeks at a time."

In the near future, each gallery will be given over to separate shows that will be staggered in the schedule so that the museum will always be open with something to see. Masuoka plans to devote the sharp-looking upstairs gallery to solo shows by regional artists. The small gallery downstairs, off the new cafe (another Masuoka innovation), will be specifically for works on paper and photography. The main space will continue to house the museum's major exhibitions.

Masuoka has already begun to lay out an exhibition schedule for the rest of the year, including a group show featuring vanguard art by ethnically diverse artists that is set to open this summer. In the fall, he plans to have a biennial invitational of Colorado artists. This show, which will be organized by Masuoka and the exhibitions committee, promises to set the state's art world on fire, with nearly every local artist vying to get in. If it's a success, or, better yet, a knockout, it could go a long way toward enhancing the prestige of the fledgling museum and establishing it as one of the dominant forces in the regional cultural scene. With Masuoka behind the wheel, there's real cause for optimism.

In addition to serving as director, Masuoka is also the curator of exhibitions, and in this role, he supervised the installation of the fabulous exhibit that now fills the entire museum, Scott Chamberlin 12 Years: Drawing and Sculpture. But Masuoka did not organize the show. It was conceived by Sink and boardmember Dale Chisman; Chamberlin selected the pieces himself. "Mark [Sink] had become aware of the NCECA conference, and he was looking for something to do with ceramics," Chamberlin explains, referring to the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts meetings to be held in Denver next week, a powwow attracting more than 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers. Sink and Chisman, who are both old friends of Chamberlin's, approached him with the idea last year.  

Despite their long friendships, Sink and Chisman must have had some trepidation about approaching Chamberlin with anything having to do with MoCAD. You see, Chamberlin had been a part of the core group of people who envisioned the place some years ago, but he'd left -- even before the institution was named -- because of some serious ideological differences with some of the others involved.

Nevertheless, he enthusiastically agreed to do the show. Hopefully, he's the first of many people alienated by MoCAD in the past who will return now that things are substantially different.

Chamberlin was an obvious choice for Sink and Chisman, not just because he's a friend, but because his fine work in the medium has rarely been exhibited since the early 1990s. And although he's occasionally been a part of group shows, such as last fall's Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center, he hasn't had the opportunity to present his work in as large and important an exhibition as this one in his entire career.

Born in 1948, Chamberlin grew up in Sunset Beach, California. At the age of twelve, he was inspired by a "wonderful teacher" named John Thomas. "Here I was, in Orange County, California -- Nixon country -- and my art teacher is a flamboyant gay man!" Chamberlin says. "He was independently wealthy, he drove a yellow Rolls Royce to school, and he loved to teach." Thomas instilled in Chamberlin a lifelong commitment to the fine arts.

After studying painting at a couple of community colleges in the 1960s, Chamberlin completed his undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University. There he studied with several prominent ceramic artists, notably the world-famous Stephen DeStaebler. In the 1970s, Chamberlin established himself in the Bay Area, an important center for contemporary ceramics then and now. But "if you saw the pieces I was doing at that time," he muses, "you'd think they were by a different artist."

Chamberlin later moved to New York, where he earned his master of fine arts in 1976 at Alfred University. He chose Alfred, which is near Syracuse, as a place where he could get away from the hectic pace of the California art scene and market. "I was doing a lot, showing a lot," he says. But Alfred's no backwater. Like San Francisco, it's a hothouse for contemporary ceramics and only a few hours' drive from New York City, the main art market in the world.

At Alfred, Chamberlin worked with distinguished teachers Robert Turner and Ted Randall. "They were mentors in their attitudes toward life and art, but I was not influenced by their work," Chamberlin explains. Of the two, Turner, who is nearly ninety years old and still working, is especially important to Chamberlin's development. "He had been at Black Mountain College with the abstract expressionists, and he had been very influenced by them," he says. "He is a man of few words, but when he uses them, he has a lot to say. He's very important to American ceramics."

After graduation, Chamberlin spent ten years teaching at a variety of schools back in the Bay Area and in England, at London's Camberwell School of Art. It was at Camberwell that Chamberlin worked with Ian Auld, a vanguard ceramics artist who opposed the Anglo-Japanese current in British ceramics that was dominant in the 1970s. Auld died a few weeks ago, and Chamberlin has dedicated the show at MoCAD to him.

In 1985, after years of part-time teaching supplemented by a full-time job as a waiter in San Francisco, Chamberlin moved to Colorado to work at the University of Colorado at Boulder as a full-time ceramics teacher, a job he still holds. At the time, Betty Woodman was also teaching at CU, and Chamberlin was struck by her example. Asked if being a colleague of Woodman's had an effect on his work, he simply responds, "Of course."

Not that Chamberlin's work looks anything like Woodman's -- or like that of any of the other older artists he cites. When pressed to list artistic sources, he mentions sculptors, not ceramic artists. "Brancusi is obvious," he says, referring to the early-twentieth-century master of the abstract, Constantin Brancusi. "Another would be [abstract surrealist] Jean Arp." Both Brancusi and Arp used soft organic shapes that were simplifications and conventionalizations based on objects from nature and the human figure. And that's also what Chamberlin does.  

Scott Chamberlin 12 Years begins with one of the artist's signature sculptural groups, "Blue Bellis," a 1988 piece that was lent to MoCAD by the Denver Art Museum. In the center is a stacked form finished in a rich matte-blue glaze. "I prefer flat finishes because they suck the light, and that makes the surfaces more pronounced," he explains. The stacked form sits on an integral pedestal out of which a black, pierced-arrow shape emerges. To the left is a completely separate element, a bowl finished in yellow with chartreuse smears. On the right, also separate, is a naturalistic cone in a blue glaze matching the stacked form. Like the main element, the two subsidiary pieces are on the floor.

As we wind our way through the several spaces that make up the main gallery, many of these large sculptural groups have been assembled. All are wonderful, and all are remarkably similar in concept. Chamberlin explores the same shapes over and over, bringing them together in different ways, sometimes very subtly.

Around the corner from "Blue Bellis" is "Tsara," a similar sculptural group done in 1990. In this piece, Chamberlin uses gold leaf on a spire made of stacked flattened spheres that has been put together with a dark-blue spiked form and a dark-blue bowl shape.

"Alba," from 1993, and the similar "Cupra" are two of his last sculptural groups, and they show how he was changing his palette and using earth-tone glazes before abandoning the multi-part format.

In the early to mid-1990s, Chamberlin radically changed the direction of his work and began making disturbing wall-hung sculptures. The oldest of these are upstairs, and it makes sense to go up and see these first before returning to the first floor to take in his latest pieces.

In addition to the intriguing wall reliefs is the informal installation at the end of the room that puts together photocopies of pages from Chamberlin's sketchbook with color reproductions of topiary and, on transparent glass shelves, an assortment of cheap dime-store vases from mid-century. Chamberlin's goal with this display is to reveal his creative process but it's hard to believe those ugly vases could lead to his beautiful sculptures.

Back downstairs are more of his wall reliefs, including the erotic "Hon" from 1999, one of the newest works in the show. "Hon" has a central element that looks phallic (phallic images are seen throughout the show), but Chamberlin asks rhetorically, "Is that all people see?" Well, maybe, but the topiary forms and purely ceramic forms are also notable.

The sculptures are accented by Chamberlin's mixed-media drawings, in which shapes similar to those seen in his sculptures are employed. The many untitled drawings, all of which are lyrical, display an artistic progression from the older, sketchier ones to the denser, later ones.

This impressive show at the vastly improved MoCAD is one of the more than fifty shows in the area devoted to ceramics right now. And you know what? It just might be the best of the lot.

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