Class Act

Vicki and Kent Logan are high-profile art collectors and generous donors. Former residents of the Bay Area, they first made a name for themselves in the art world when they gave a substantial gift of contemporary works to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This happened at roughly the same time that the museum opened its high-style Mario Botta-designed building, and needless to say, the Logans' gesture garnered them widespread attention in the art press. Lucky for us in Colorado, the two maintain residences in Vail and Denver and have thrown around quite a bit of largesse here, too.

Their major charitable gesture in town, so far, has been a fractional and promised gift of over 200 works of art to the Denver Art Museum. "Fractional" because the Logans retain partial ownership of the works, and "promised" because only part of the donation is made each year, for tax reasons. Only a few of the Logan pieces have been exhibited at the DAM, so one of the grand-opening shows for Daniel Libeskind's Hamilton Building next year will feature selections from their gift. The Logans are piggybacking on the publicity the Hamilton Building will generate, just like they did after their donation to the museum in San Francisco. Surely they will be lauded for their generosity -- and they richly deserve all the credit that's going to be heaped on them.

The DAM has had a long association with the University of Denver; museum curator Gwen Chanzit is a permanent faculty member, and several others teach classes from time to time. Chanzit, a curator in the Modern and Contemporary department at the museum, connected the Logans with DU. The first joint Logan/DU endeavor was an exhibit of the work of two of the most important African-American artists in the country, Robert Colescott and Glenn Ligon. DU professor Shannen Hill did that show last year, using mostly Logan pieces from the DAM.

Even then, the idea was to have students, not professors, organize Logan Collection-based shows and present them in DU's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery. The students would work within the guidelines of a groundbreaking class, the Marsico Curatorial Practicum, which is funded as a part of the $10 million Marsico Initiative and is the only class of its kind taught anywhere in the country. It's no surprise that Chanzit was the professor to teach the first of these classes, which was held during the ten-week-long spring quarter of 2004. The result, IN LIMBO, opened just last week, and it is great in every way. The show was done in a thoroughly professional manner -- there's even a catalogue -- despite being the work of neophytes. With Chanzit at the helm, though, I'd have expected nothing less.

Ten weeks isn't much time to curate and lay out a show as ambitious as IN LIMBO, so Chanzit had the fifteen students dive right in. Their initial assignment the first week was to examine the hundreds of digital images of the Logan pieces housed at the DAM and in the Logans' private collection. They then used a computer program to come up with three digital exhibits, each complete with a theme and a checklist. The second week, the students presented their virtual shows to the class. "There were things like Men in Black and Angry Babies," Chanzit says with a chuckle, "and other wonderful titles."

Chanzit thought these early proposals were marvelous, but since it was the students' first crack at putting on shows -- virtual or otherwise -- she had them do it all over again, so that by the end of three weeks, they'd each put together six different exhibits.

After this warmup, Chanzit broke the class into three groups and charged each with creating a single show. Astoundingly, considering the hundreds of things up for consideration, two of the results were very similar, and the ultimate show, IN LIMBO, is the direct heir of these. A piece or two from the third show also wound up in the final exhibit. "I think that was the hardest thing that they did, to come up with one gallery exhibition for the entire class," Chanzit says.

The students had already put together a foam-core scale model of the Myhren and learned to size the artworks, so when the final selections were made, they created a miniature version of their display. But they weren't done yet -- not by a long shot. Next, there were numerous hurdles to clear, including the irascible faculty gallery committee, which okayed the show but vetoed the students' proposed title, Absence and Presence, forcing them to brainstorm in order to come up with IN LIMBO.

With the exception of Cindy Sherman and John Currin, the artists selected by the students were far from household names, and they needed to be researched. Throughout the process, the students had been assembling artist files, so research was being done simultaneously with the rest of the activities. The students also took on the tasks of doing the label copy, creating press kits and writing the captions and essays for the catalogue; by the end of the quarter last June, they pretty much had everything done.

But one small problem arose: After the show's course was set, the Logans sold off the Currin. (Their collection is very fluid, and they buy and sell things constantly.) As a result, when it came time to install the show -- which the class members couldn't have done anyway, because, for insurance reasons, only people certified for handling art could touch the pieces -- Chanzit had to make many changes to the proposed hanging of the exhibit.

What struck me first, bearing in mind that the organizers were in their early twenties, was the show's conservative slant. Many of the works are examples of contemporary realism, including a few examples of hyperrealism. Representational art is as traditional as it gets, though the works here are also credible from a contemporary standpoint. In a sense, this predominance of representational imagery reflects the prevailing character of the Logan-collected pieces. However, Chanzit, who knows the collections like the back of her hand, says the couple simply acquire what they like, with no other ideology informing their selections.

As viewers enter the Myhren, a huge triptych by Singapore-born New York artist Su-en Wong confronts them. It depicts an Asian woman hanging by her arms from a bar. The painting, "Hale Navy," done in 2000, is a self-portrait. Though it is sexually charged -- Wong's naked breasts are at dead center and she's wearing white lacy panties -- the arduous act of hanging adds the idea of struggle, which works against any eroticism. It turns out that deconstructing Westerners' erotic notions of Asian women is what Wong's work is all about.

"Hale Navy" reveals how open-ended the theme "in limbo" is. It seems like anything with any narrative content at all qualified -- in particular if it contained, as this painting does, psychological implications.

This flexible approach to the theme is further expressed by the two mammoth paintings by Bo Bartlett, which, like "Hale Navy," are examples of contemporary realism. The Bartlett paintings are magnificent and utterly painterly, but they only relate to the IN LIMBO theme tangentially. In 1997's "The Wedding Picture," a bride and groom are seen cutting a wedding cake out on the plains; in "The Parabolist," from 1999, a young man is seen from behind, looking at a tornado. Both pieces have extremely active surfaces, which is unexpected considering all the fanatical attention to detail Bartlett also embraces. Chanzit points out that these features made the Bartletts difficult to light properly, and if you get too close to them, the images disappear behind the shadows of the brushwork.

There are several photo-based pieces -- including some photo-realist paintings -- but the clear standouts are the seven collages done in 1999 by Jack Pierson, collectively titled "Seven Shades of Suicide Blond." Pierson has taken color photos of a young man's face, cut them up and reassembled them. Some are made of multiple images of the same feature, such as the young man's eyes, while others are almost entirely abstract, being assembled from the background edges of the photos. "Seven Shades of Suicide Blond" has been imaginatively hung in two rows, one above another. It looks fabulous, even if it represents quite a stylistic leap from the Wong and the Bartletts.

There are only two sculptures in the show: A very creepy and incredibly lifelike "Untitled (Man Under Cardigan)," from 1998, in which British artist Ron Mueck made a troll-like man out of fiberglass, silicon and polyurethane foam, among other materials; and Palestinian-born British artist Mona Hatoum's "Untitled (Wheelchair II)," a non-functional wheelchair from 1999 with spikes on the handles and a tilted seat. It's a minor complaint, but Hatoum's conceptual sculpture could use some context in this show. The Mueck, on the other hand, fits right in because it relates well to the representational paintings all around.

It's often said that too many cooks spoil the broth, and that's usually true, but it's not the case with IN LIMBO. Despite having fifteen budding curators, the show came out looking for all the world like a full-fledged museum show. Quite an accomplishment for a class project, wouldn't you say?

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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