Continental Drift brings a sense of place to the MCA

After the word went out more than a year ago that MCA Denver and the Aspen Art Museum were planning a collaborative show highlighting Colorado artists, the response was astounding. More than 300 artists submitted their work for review by MCA curator Nora Burnett Abrams and AAM curator Jacob Proctor. Most people in the arts community were expecting a large survey similar to Cydney Payton's multi-venue show, Decades, from 2006. That show, part of which was presented in the MCA's old Sakura Square location, featured the work of nearly 100 contemporary artists in Colorado who'd been active since 1985. It was followed up in 2007 by Payton's Remix, which added another couple of dozen artists to the list and was the last show presented in Sakura Square.

But this fantasy was dashed when a who's-who list of local talent began to receive polite rejection letters from Abrams and Proctor, who chose to visit a mere twenty artists from the hundreds who had submitted work. Only seven of those twenty were selected for Continental Drift, with the theme of "place" emerging as the tissue that connects the diverse work of each.

See also: Photos of the MCA's Continental Drift

The exhibit, now on view, has been installed in several spaces at the MCA, with one of the galleries quite far from the others (it will need to be substantially reconfigured and compacted for its run this fall at the much smaller AAM). This gives Continental Drift the character of a set of shows as opposed to a singular endeavor, something that's reinforced by the fact that the work of the various artists is so disparate and disconnected. There are two solos (Jeanne Liotta and Christina Battle); a duet (Adam Milner and Yumi Janairo Roth); and a trio (Edie Winograde, Scott Johnson and Sarah McKenzie).

I was lucky enough to tour the show with Abrams and assistant curator Tricia Robson. We began on the lower level, where the work of Liotta, an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is ensconced. Her section is anchored by "Observando El Cielo," a 16-millimeter color film (converted to DVD) that looks something like an animation. It's actually made from footage of the night sky, much of it taken from observatories. Liotta stacks layers of the found films and introduces movement; the result is hallucinogenic and captivating. Liotta is also represented by collages based on photos from the science pages of the New York Times and by a suite of pinhole photos.

The rest of Continental Drift is on the second floor, and just to the right of the elevators is the other ad hoc solo, this one dedicated to Christina Battle, a colleague of Liotta's at CU's film school. The section is also anchored by a projection, though this one was originally a DVD and never a film. The installation, "Deerfield, Colorado," poetically depicts in a densely composed wall projection, accompanied by an audio loop, the lost African-American agrarian community. The projection is flanked by sheets of aluminum; another aluminum sheet covers the floor, inviting viewers to step onto it to better observe the images of crumbling buildings and fields grown wild. The piece is very beautiful and perfectly meshes with the rising interest in contemporary art with a Western theme. It also resonates better than most of the work in the show because of the regional implication of the title, Continental Drift, a play on the Continental Divide.

Back out in the promenade space, across from the elevator, are dozens of small automatic drawings by Milner, one half of my perceived duet. Mounted in frames lining the screens that cover the window wall, these "Bed Drawings" were done as Milner was falling asleep, pen in hand. They're pretty cool. Milner is also represented by a group of digital photos of beds that he slept in the night before. These were originally digital images to be seen on a monitor, but they were converted to prints for the show. A thoughtful conceptualist, Milner, who lives in Denver, is clearly the breakout emerging artist of the summer, and his work is seemingly on view everywhere.

The other part of this twosome is Roth, a conceptual artist and associate professor of sculpture and studio practice at CU. First up is a sculpture that looks like a roll of chain-link fence, but the piece, "10,000dwt (pennyweights)," is made not of some mundane metal, but from sterling silver, giving it a warm, whitish glow. Beyond are three altered forklift pallets, one of which has been luxuriously inlaid, the other two baroquely carved in the Philippines. All of these works blur the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary. It's a different motive that informs the set of photos in which Roth, in collaboration with Andrew Blackstock and Casey McGuire, asks for directions in different cities while referring to a photo that depicts a hand-drawn map on someone's palm.

The final stage of the show is the gallery devoted to the works of the last three artists. This section includes the conceptual photos by Winograde, who is represented by two separate series. Best known for her "Place and Time" collection, in which long-exposure views of historic reenactments conflate fiction and fact, Winograde is using this show to unveil a newer series, titled "Sight Seen," which looks at tourist sites. If Milner is the emerging artist of the summer, Winograde, also of Denver, is the season's established artist on the move, with a preview of her work seen earlier at Robischon, in the gallery's own version of a Colorado show. As much as Battle's work, Winograde's pieces fall neatly into the contemporary-Western ethos that's been percolating out of California for the last year or two.

Just to the right is a large monitor on which Johnson's "Ruminando" appears, though it was originally conceived as a projection. In this two-channel piece, Johnson, who is an associate professor of art at Colorado College, wanders the streets of Venice, where he once lived. In a split screen, he records sidelong glances, and not direct views of his travels. Johnson is one of the state's most significant conceptual artists, and his work has been shown at the MCA before.

Finally, there are McKenzie's representational paintings of broken windows at the old Gates factory on South Broadway. The paintings aren't quite photorealist, but they are very realistic. And by focusing on the windows alone, McKenzie, of Boulder, comes up with images that at first appear to be abstract pattern paintings.

Many of the artists who submitted for Continental Drift have complained to me that the selection process was brutal — and it was — so they haven't gone to see the show. But I really don't think that that was the intention of the curators. Rather, I think that both of them, being new to the area and early in their careers, had no idea about the consternation they were causing in the community. Not that they needed to come up with a big survey; they just needed to exercise a little more finesse in communicating their aims. To be fair, despite this aspect of the show, it's worth a look, because whatever mistakes Abrams and Proctor made, they took their jobs seriously and should be lauded for that.

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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