Art of Identity

In the 1970s, contemporary art fractured into a riot of diverse styles. The anything-goes situation in which we find ourselves today is the inevitable product of this explosion. Now that artists have had decades to work out the various logical extensions of this cornucopia of ideas, contemporary art encompasses a mind-numbing array of aesthetic philosophies, all of which enjoy some level of acceptance -- even when some are clearly antithetical to one another.

What made me think about this interesting situation is a pair of current shows that feature diametrically opposing points of view: the social versus the psychological. The first is a group show of feminist artists, mostly women, who examine sexism in their work; the second is a solo by a young man who is a modernist artist exploring personal power in his pieces.

Here's a funny conclusion I came to: The feminists are pointedly political and intellectual, and the modernist guy is romantic and emotive. Talk about reversing roles!

"Political" and "intellectual" are good descriptive terms for the traveling show H2O at the University of Denver's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery. The smartly installed exhibit, which takes up the topic of water, was organized by Jo Anna Isaak, a professor at Hobart College and its sister school, William Smith College, both in upstate New York.

Isaak is a strident curator, infusing H2O with a hefty dose of politics, which she uses to justify including several pieces that are unpleasant or even vulgar. Surely, "vulgar" is an apt description of Sally Mann's gelatin silver print "The Three Graces," in which the famous photographer and her two teenage daughters are captured urinating. Mann has outraged many with her work over the years and is as notorious as the late Robert "S&M" Mapplethorpe or Andres "Piss Christ" Serrano, but as demonstrated by "The Three Graces," she's not in their league as a photographer.

According to Isaak's doctrinaire feminist essay in the accompanying catalogue, Mann's photo critiques the prurient interests of the old masters. The idea is that the traditional female nude in European art is actually erotic and thus degrading to women. Those dirty old masters would dress up their tawdry sexual urges by giving their paintings or sculptures pretentious titles such as "The Three Graces." (Did I just hear Canova rolling over in his grave?)

Deconstructing the classic female nude is also what Laura Aguilar's photos are about -- at least according to Isaak. In the two here, Aguilar, who is way beyond what could politely be called Rubenesque, has taken black-and-white shots of herself posing by water.

Also on this old-master-bashing train is "Ebb," by Amy Jenkins. The video, which is projected onto a miniature bathtub, depicts a woman bathing and releasing her menstrual blood into the water. However, the video runs in reverse so that the blood appears to flow back into her. By depicting menstruation, Jenkins -- again, according to Isaak -- skewers those period-piece paintings of female bathers done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As I took in the Mann, the Aguilars and the Jenkins, it suddenly occurred to me that Isaak's ideas about the old masters, a favorite topic for feminist art studies, really misses the mark. That's because the vast majority of viewers of contemporary shows such as H2O know little or nothing about art history. They don't need these "antidotes," because they never consumed the "poison" in the first place.

Other pieces in H2O are mercifully less self-conscious, such as Dorothy Cross's "Tea Cup," a DVD of a teacup that's filled not with tea, but with moving images of the roiling sea. The realized view of a tempest in a teacup brings up the topic of domesticity and the troubles contained within that life. There's an interest in beauty in Cross's piece, and the teacup and saucer, a fussy affair with gilded rims, are exquisitely lit. This interest in beauty sets Cross apart from most of the artists in H20, who are more interested in narratives than in the visual.

But Cross is not alone: There are other good-looking standouts, such as Susan Unterberg's altered photo "Fish," which looks like a landscape from the old school except for the fish swimming through it. Even better are two sculptures by Christy Rupp, which use steel rods to create skeletal seashells that Rupp has filled with plastic bottles. The steel and plastic catch the light and make the pieces seem as though they're internally lit.

I didn't really like H2O too much, because it seemed to be more about thinking than seeing. But this hardly means that I didn't find the show intriguing; I did. And that, as far as I'm concerned, means it's absolutely worth seeing.

Also worth seeing is The Legend of the Seven Calendar Diner, at Cordell Taylor Gallery, a solo devoted to the recent work of Denver sculptor Bryan Andrews. Legend is as different from H2O as night is from day. There's no sociological content at all in this show; instead, the subject is highly personal, springing not from cultural critiques, but from Andrews letting his mind wander while driving alone in his pickup truck out in the boondocks. In fact, as viewers enter Cordell Taylor, the image of the countryside, with dozens of Andrews's sculptures standing in for trees, is undeniable.

The show's title refers to the culture found on the roads less traveled. "It's part of a mythic rating system among truckers for diners on the road, with a ŒSeven Calendar Diner' being the best," Andrews says. "You know how in small towns, the businesses -- the repair shop, the dry cleaners -- put out calendars? The more calendars a diner had on the wall, the better the food was, and having seven would be a lot."

But there's more to these Andrews sculptures than a rural legend, which, to be honest, is hard to see in the pieces themselves. They are the most recent examples of the works in Andrews's long-running "Fetem" series, which are pagan or tribal in appearance and really don't seem to be inspired by the sights found along the roadside. The term "fetem," which Andrews invented by combining the words "totem" and "fetish," underscores the basic primitive theme of the pieces.

As might be inferred from the invented word, Andrews is highly imaginative. He not only coins words, but he has also created his own unique belief system, one akin to a religion, in order to provide a context in which to view his pieces. The "Fetem" sculptures are the icons of this unique one-man faith, and they have their own symbolic language of simple forms, but their complete meaning is something only Andrews knows.

The archetypal fetem is composed of a base, a vertical shaft and a finial. The shaft is the totem part of the word, and the finial is the fetish part. In this sculptural group, the chief material is found wood (as is the usual practice for Andrews), mostly fragments of large wooden beams. These segments stand on end on square wooden plinths that sit on the floor. At the very top of this combination is a carved wooden element that Andrews painted blue.

Not every fetem adheres strictly to this formula of base, shaft and finial -- "The Meeting" looks like a candelabra, and "Sunchasers" looks like a cart -- but nearly all of the great ones are in the archetypal form. "Censoring the Prophet," one of the best pieces in this show, is a classic fetem, with the finial resembling a crown and thus lending the piece a heraldic character. Most of the others also have a regal look, at least in a primitive sense.

"Trying to Hug the Sun" is another orthodox fetem, with the same winning combination of simplicity and sophistication as "Prophet." The fetems' simple monolithic form links them to minimalism, which is flawlessly melded with the predominating primitivism.

Every aspect of the fetems contains an intended meaning, right down to the color. The blue used on the carved finials is very nice and goes beautifully with the rich golden tones of the old wood, which has been left in its natural state. The deep shade is also a clue to the meaning of the fetems. "You know about the blue, don't you?" asks Andrews. "It's the color of my eyes."

The generous use of this shade of blue, which Andrews has anointed as his personal symbol throughout the "Fetem" series, indicates that the artist has cast himself in a very prominent role in his imaginary religion. I guess if you're going to go to the trouble of creating a belief system and making a complement of devotional items to go with it, you might as well put yourself in the center of it.

To be honest, not all of the fetems are successful, and the whole Legend show is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, a couple of them are pretty bad, particularly "Where the Forgotten Wait," which incorporates a little house. Luckily, these few false notes don't bring down the show, and the best hold up the rest. Andrews pulled this off by giving all of the fetems -- good and bad alike -- a lot of shared characteristics so that they blend together seamlessly and look great in a group.

It's funny, but even though Andrews made up the whole spiritual angle, which is pretty ridiculous on its face, Legend somehow succeeds in communicating the idea of religious devotion and worship. The fetems create the ambience of a chapel inside Cordell Taylor, which is an amazing accomplishment -- especially when you consider that Andrews did it with a couple of old beams and a quart of blue paint.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia