Center for Visual Art Explores the Hive Mind of Art Collectives

The Secret Love Collective invites gallery-goers to take selfies and play.
The Secret Love Collective invites gallery-goers to take selfies and play. Courtesy of the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art
There are plenty of ways for artists work together — by running a small gallery business as a cooperative, holding forums like Tilt West, or producing onetime collaborations and grand themed projects like Regan Rosberg’s Axis Mundi, a multi-artist companion to the 2017 Biennial of the Americas, or last year’s Pink Progression exhibition series headed by Anna Kaye, in which women artists made feminist statements inspired by the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. (Pink Progression will be back in 2020 at the Arvada Center.) But what happens when a group of artists plugs into the hive mind to create in a kind of gestalt mindset?

That's a question answered by Collectivism, the new fall exhibition at Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Center for Visual Art co-curated by CVA director Cecily Cullen, ceramics artist and MSU faculty member Tsehai Johnson, and MSU art department chair Deanne Pytlinski, who form their own sort of collective. The trio selected thirteen official artist collectives from the metro area and beyond to spotlight outfits that express themselves in myriad ways.

click to enlarge Distill exhibits collaborative mixed-media drawings that members send to one another via mail. - COURTESY OF THE MSU DENVER CENTER FOR VISUAL ART
Distill exhibits collaborative mixed-media drawings that members send to one another via mail.
Courtesy of the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art
“The way things work in collectives is different from individual art practice,” says Johnson, whose own work with the collaborational mail-art collective Distill is included in the show. “Many artists in collectives are activists, who are raising dialogue on contemporary issues and want to discuss what’s happening in both subtle and direct ways.”

In addition to that activist stance, art collectives working in any medium can be bound together by a sense of humor and elements of live performance, Cullen and Johnson agree. A subversive streak runs through the shared work — some groups act anonymously, while others might collaborate by mail and the Internet in an elaborate round robin, or act in the present by inviting public participation.

Oh Joy! from Allness on Vimeo.

The show begins with in the front room with a large video screen streaming the work of Kut, a Latvian collective so secret that no one knows the members’ names or how to find them. Kut is concerned with how the natural world is lost in an urban environment, a concern darkly expressed through a gritty lens. Notes Cullen: “They’re trying to get people to stop and be conscious of surrounding nature in the city.”

Cullen learned of Kut through the online international contemporary art platform This Is Colossal; she never had direct contact with the group, and instead communicated with them through a curator who knew the collective. “There’s no loan form — we just had permission by curator,” she explains.

Other featured groups are more accessible, including Boulder’s Women’s Art League, a distinctly feminist group founded by artists Julie Maren and Joy Alice Eisenhauer. But while their project, Vagina China, a natural progression from the Famous Women Dinner Service of the 1930s and Judy Chicago’s iconic 1970s installation The Dinner Party, raised a few eyebrows along the Front Range, plenty of women answered the call to cast their privates for inclusion in a whole new brand of dinner-party plates. But there’s more to this explicit project than meets the eye.

“They are talking about blue-and-white, referencing the historical ceramics that spread into Europe from China in the early fifteenth century,” says Johnson, who focused on bringing ceramic collectives into the mix. "China globalized the concept, influencing the European economy." Placing the cast genitals on dinner plates crosses over into the modern-day example of sex trafficking as a driver of the global economy.

Courtesy of the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art
The long-lived collective subRosa, which has been running with a feminist subtext for more than twenty years, deals with issues of gentrification and economies where, Cullen notes, “big corporations reap the benefits,” while the artists on the fringe get little relief. SubRosa will connect with Denver directly by mapping gentrified areas of Denver for its piece of the exhibit and a resulting talk and performance on September 6.

Other groups, including Denver's yarn-bombing Ladies Fancywork Society and the local queer-friendly Secret Love Collective, offer interactive spectacle and process-intensive eye candy from a DIY perspective. LFS is creating a site-specific yarn installation in the back part of the gallery, and SLC will invite viewers to let their inhibitions fade away as they play dress-up with handcrafted avocado suits and monster heads for selfies against a wild backdrop.

The group wants to encourage an open-minded “exploration of identity,” says SLC member and fiber artist Katy Batsel. “We want to allow people to express the weird parts of their selves, without shame or self-consciousness," she notes.

“Protest is at the core of what we’re doing,” adds fellow collective member Lares Feliciano. “It’s a community experiment, and a model for the world you want to live in. It’s a yes space: Who do you want to become? You can be anything.”

click to enlarge Katy Batsel, Piper Rose and Lares Feliciano of the Secret Love Collective dress up for a selfie. - SUSAN FROYD
Katy Batsel, Piper Rose and Lares Feliciano of the Secret Love Collective dress up for a selfie.
Susan Froyd
To prove it, the collective will have a presence throughout the show’s run, beginning at CVA’s First Friday Party in the Lot on the evening of Friday, August 2, when members will lead an anything-goes costumed Parade of Selves, a safe and alcohol-free In Bed by Ten dance party with DJ L.A. Zwicky, a collective member. SLC will also participate in a Collectivism Artist Panel at the gallery on September 18, and will present the participatory Collect This! Secret Love Collective Game Show on October 10.

That’s only a sampling of the collectives you’ll encounter throughout the show, but every one brings something timely to the table in visual, political and positive ways. Even the facility's student-curated Gallery 965 will host Synergistically Speaking, a separate showcase of two collectives: Denver’s Black Bar Collective and Seattle’s Electric Coffin Collective. From front to back, Collectivism offers a new view of how to share a creative spark and make a difference at the same time.

Collectivism opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, August 1, at CVA, 965 Santa Fe Drive, and runs through October 19. Visit the CVA website for information about related events and to learn more about each participating collective.
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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd