Metropolitan State University of Denver has the biggest art department around, with dozens of creatives on the payroll. Also, unlike other colleges and universities in the area, Metro has a large off-campus gallery, the Center for Visual Art, and the potential to create many homegrown shows, including the 10th Biennial MSU Denver Art Department Exhibition on view now.
Metro offers instruction in a variety of art fields, and the works in this show, by around thirty artists (there are a few artist pairs), are just as wide-ranging in style and medium. This makes putting together a coherent exhibit tough, but CVA director Cecily Cullen somehow pulls it off, as she usually does. CVA's large size and smart layout helps, giving all of the pieces a lot of breathing room — maybe even a touch too much.
This sparseness in the exhibition design is clear from the start, where Sandy Lane’s miniature installation, “Periphery From the Inside Out,” is placed front and center in the window space. A long horizontal box is mounted on a plexiglass stand; the box is papered with reproductions of 1940s-era photos depicting people in period dress, including uniformed soldiers, lined up under a bird-filled sky. There are openings in the box so that viewers can look inside at rooms decorated with doll furniture. According to Lane, the evocative imagery in the found photos and the referential quality of the toy furniture are intended to strike a balance between a story and the truth.
The Lane works perfectly with a floor-bound installation in ceramic and raw clay by Tsehai Johnson immediately next to it. Johnson has cast very Russel Wright-esque, peapod-like serving vessels, glazed in a very retro ’50s soft yellow. The low bowls, done in varied lengths, have one, two or three depressions; in some of the indentations are raw-clay apples. They were made not by Johnson, but by volunteers recruited at the opening, who made apples and then placed their creations instinctually; more visitor-made apples will be added during the run of the show. Nobody in town has so consistently mashed up ceramics and conceptualism as Johnson. On the other side of the window space is an eye-catching super-graphic on linen: “Rash #3,” by Kelly Monico. The abstraction of colored organic shapes was inspired by the patterns Monico observed in a rash on her child, but if you didn’t know that, you’d think the inspiration might have been a piece of op-y ’60s wallpaper.
Lightening up the mood substantially is “Helen Frankenthaler: Radial Glow,” by Matthew Jenkins, which combines a found video of the color-field pioneer talking. Frankenthaler is placed in a screen within a screen; the larger image is a swirling animated background, but what makes the piece bounce is the soundtrack, accessed by headphones. It’s the ’80s hit “Somebody’s Watching Me,” by pop singer Rockwell.
The photos depict Montana, but the actual knockers are used to refer to Denver. In the middle of the space are enormous constructions that incorporate the knockers but are mostly composed of discarded junk found on the city’s streets: Gathering the debris here is parallel to gathering the aspen twigs there. These constructions have an almost figural character, like heroic monuments of some kind, but they are also clearly just piles of junk and landfill, with flashes of bright colors made by the plastics in the discarded signs, pipes, sections of fencing and other bits of trash they found. As finishing touches, they've been generously draped with those Montana-made knockers. On a certain level, the Abell + Stewart installation makes no sense at all, yet that doesn’t undermine its visual interest.
While this version of the faculty biennial is more modest than past iterations, the show is still pretty strong. Then again, that’s to be expected from the regional powerhouse of Metro’s art department.
10th Biennial MSU Denver Art Department Exhibition, through July 20 at the MSUD Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, msudenver.edu/cva.