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Tsehai Johnson's ceramic and raw clay installation.
Tsehai Johnson's ceramic and raw clay installation.
Heather Link-Bergman, courtesy of Center for Visual Art, MSU Denver

Teach In: Center for Visual Art's Biennial MSU Art Department Show

As the city's largest institution of higher learning, 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.

"One Month (After O'Sullivan)," by Jade Hoyer and Megan Stevens.
"One Month (After O'Sullivan)," by Jade Hoyer and Megan Stevens.
Heather Link-Bergman, courtesy of Center for Visual Art, MSU Denver

Along the main corridor is an installation of fifty disposable paper coffee cups with plastic lids sits on a set of wall-mounted shelves. Created by Jade Hoyer and Megan Stevens, it's called “One Month (After O’Sullivan),” and fragments of an 1874 Timothy O’Sullivan photo are printed in a sepia shade on the side of the cups.

"Perilous Journey (Part 1)," by Carlos Frésquez.
"Perilous Journey (Part 1)," by Carlos Frésquez.
Heather Link-Bergman, courtesy of Center for Visual Art, MSU Denver

Beyond, in the first south gallery, is a multi-panel painting by Carlos Frésquez that also takes on the air of the nineteenth century, at least stylistically, though the topic, immigration from Mexico, is very current. “Perilous Journey (Part 1)” depicts migrants approaching the southern border, which is indicated by a blue line; the bottom panel shows a group of men crossing the Rio Grande, while some of the men in other panels are depicted as encountering cruel border guards. The piece is simultaneously poetic and grotesque. The same can be said of Regan Rosburg’s “Vanities IV,” though her actual subject is harder to pinpoint. Embedded in the center of a cast dome of clear resin is a squirrel’s skull, surrounded by natural materials including bird’s wings, with everything set against a recessive black ground. The work has a funereal quality, as though it were a mourning ornament, and that’s intentional, since Rosburg is interested in exploring the environmental losses all around us.

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.

Charles Livingston's "Breathe" ink drawings.
Charles Livingston's "Breathe" ink drawings.
Heather Link-Bergman, courtesy of Center for Visual Art, MSU Denver

Though somber in appearance, Charles Livingston’s “Breathe” is sort of fun because of how it's made. Livingston has blown black ink through a straw onto fourteen sheets of paper, and the compositions go from light to dark, with different effects depending on how long he blew the ink on the paper. Even without the “process” aspect, though, these “drawings” would be elegant as purely automatist abstractions. Nearby, "Lipstick," a delicate work on paper in letterpress and collage by Heather Link-Bergman, depicts in a photocopy an empty big-box store with a freely drawn expressionist sun in the sky above. On the other side of the center, Link-Bergman displays artist books that were done with her partner, Peter Bergman, a conceptual artist and graphic designer. The books have a conscious, hand-hewn quality that seems so right in the hyper-finished digitized realm of publishing.

Found-object constructions and photographs by Abell + Stewart.
Found-object constructions and photographs by Abell + Stewart.
Heather Link-Bergman, courtesy of Center for Visual Art, MSU Denver

In the large back gallery is a sprawling installation by the artist team of Abell + Stewart, a partnership of Marin Abell and Greg Stewart that really hits the mark, if only by being over the top in so many ways. Abell brought Stewart along on an artist residency in Montana, where work on this piece began. Wrapping around three walls are large digital photos that lay out the story of the natural environment in which the pair intervened and show how they gathered fallen aspen branches off the forest floor and then carved them into elongated tubes with rounded ends. These are purportedly door knockers, and Abell has written that “knocking, of asking permission to enter, is a gesture — art has often been associated with a gesture.” (Still, it's impossible not to notice how phallic these knockers are.) A heavy rope has been threaded into holes carved in the knockers so that they can be hung from standing trees in the same woods where the artists harvested the branches. In several of the photos, one of the artists is seen wearing the knockers over his shoulders as he makes his way through the trees, hanging the knockers here and there.

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.

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