Cultural Diversity

I recently made my way to the fifth floor of the Denver Art Museum, and once again, I was struck by its spare and stunning beauty. The galleries on that floor, home to the Asian art collection, are bathed in golden light and filled with exquisite paintings, prints, sculptures, pottery, lacquer-work and furniture, all of it perfectly installed. Credit for both the collection's high quality and its tremendously elegant installation goes almost entirely to one person: Ron Otsuka, the museum's curator of Asian art.

Otsuka was born in an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese-Americans in 1944; his father was fighting with the U.S. Army in Italy, a member of the famous Nisei troop. After the war, the Otsukas returned to their former home state of California, where Ron grew up. In 1973, while a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, he visited Colorado and met, among others, Emma Bunker, a noted scholar, collector and art donor. At the time, Otsuka was a student of legendary Asian-art historian Alexander Soper, with whom Bunker also had studied. A few months later, Bunker asked Otsuka to apply for the Asian-art curator's job that had just opened up at the DAM. And that fall, renowned director Otto Bach hired Otsuka.

Although Otsuka's stock in trade is traditional Asian art, he's been drafted into doing contemporary duty because of a recent gift by Vicki and Kent Logan that includes more than a score of contemporary pieces by Asian and Asian-American artists. This newly acquired booty gave Otsuka the opportunity to explore new Asian art within shouting distance of older material, which is what he's done with Full Frontal: Contemporary Asian Art from the Logan Collection.

The show, in the William Sharpless Jackson Jr. Gallery, definitely makes its presence known among the more subtle beauties that surround it. As you approach the gallery from the elevator lobby, you can do a little comparative analysis. To the right, there's a serene space filled with old Chinese decorative art. To the left, there's Full Frontal -- which is anything but serene.

Flanking the show's entryway are a pair of goofy-looking sculptures of men, in acrylic on resin. The sculptures, part of the Logan Collection but not part of the gift, are by Yue Minjun, a Chinese artist who's clearly been influenced by Japanese animation, which itself comes straight out of American pop culture. In fact, virtually everything in this show has some intimate relationship to American or Americanized pop culture and, as a result, to pop art. Conversely, the pieces have little to do with Asian art traditions, as a quick glance back at all that stunning Chinese furniture will firmly attest.

It's no surprise that most of the standouts in Full Frontal are neo-pop, but few make the case as cogently as Yu Youhan's "Mao Decorated" -- based not on the famous traditional portrait, but on Andy Warhol's version of it. Also in the pop mode are two light boxes by Hung Tung-lu, "Evangelion" and "Street Fighter," which are absolute showstoppers. In both, Japanese-style cartoons of women in full figure are seen in Duratrans prints, lighted from behind.

The front-runner in the current generation of Chinese artists is Zhang Huan, a conceptualist. In Full Frontal, he's represented by a photo, "Dream of the Dragon (#5)," documenting a performance in which he coated his nude body with a mixture of ground hot dogs and then had actual canine-type dogs lick it off him. No, really.

Full Frontal is small, but as Huan's work indicates, it's also bold. After thirty years at the DAM, Asian-art curator Otsuka is still at the top of his form.

Also in top form is Metro State College's Center for the Visual Arts, which is hosting a magnificent traveling show, Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography. Big as this show is -- and it's very big -- it's actually a small part of a much larger exhibition that surveys African-American photography from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The larger show was organized by Deborah Willis for the Anacostia Museum and Center for African-American History and Culture, and it was presented in 2000 at the Smithsonian. In the CVA's abbreviated version, the focus is on photography from the past twenty years.

Nearly everything Willis selected for this show references the African-American experience in some way, so that most works were not only created by black artists but are also about being black. Even if most address the same broad topic of racial identity, however, they take divergent routes to get there. Only a few artists in the show, most notably Clarissa Sligh, employ straight documentary photography. The majority use photography as a tool for carrying out their ideas, not as an end in itself.

Carrie Mae Weems, who's very famous in contemporary art circles, is a case in point. For her conceptual piece "Not Manet's Type," a series of five silver gelatin prints with silkscreened text running below each image, Weems has taken nude shots of herself reclining on a bed and reflected in a large, round mirror. The text ruminates on the fact that Weems, who is black, is not Manet's type -- or, to be more specific, not the type of woman ordinarily depicted in Western art.

Renee Cox, another big-name artist, seems to be keying into the same idea but coming at it from an entirely different direction with the color self-portrait "Burning." Cox has dressed herself up like a '60s blaxploitation-style superheroine, then laid that image on top of a separate image of flaming wood that suggests the burning crosses of the KKK, over which she's obviously triumphed.

Thomas Allan Harris and Lyle Ashton Harris paint their pictures with a broader brush -- or should I say a wider lens? "Procession," a huge C-print, explores the hybrid identity of black Americans, with their varied connections not only to Africa, but also to the Caribbean, Europe and the Americas. These influences are personified by nude and clothed figures posed by the Harris brothers in groupings that resemble arabesques; the result is epic in both size and scope.

"Intimate" describes the scale of Dennis Olanzo Callwood's two photos of gang members, "Signs/Signos: In Their Own Words" and "In Memory of Jasmine." Part of a series based on the words Callwood found in the tattoos of street kids, both are type-R prints in graffiti frames, and both are absolutely beautiful.

Reflections in Black is the most important group photo show to be presented in Colorado in a couple of years, and that's really saying something. So hurry over to the CVA, because it closes this weekend.

Definitely saying something is the news that Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art is one step closer to having its own built-from-scratch museum. The idea became concrete earlier this year, when Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss announced a promised gift to the MCA of a parcel of land at the corner of 15th and Little Raven streets. This intersection is close to where LoDo gives way to the Platte Valley, so it's a very good place for a museum.

This fall, the MCA sent out "requests for qualifications" on the project to some seventy architects around the world; it received over forty responses, which were subsequently evaluated by the MCA's architect-selection committee. That group chose six finalists: a partnership of Denver's Humphries Poli and TEN Arquitectos from Colonia Condesa, Mexico; Snohetta from Oslo, Norway; Tucson's Rick Joy Architects; Predock_Frane Architects from Santa Monica; New York City's Gluckman Mayner Architects; and finally, Adjaye/Associates of London. I don't know anything about any of them except for Humphries Poli, which is one of the most artistically distinguished firms in the state and the only Colorado outfit to make the cut.

Choosing a designer is the least of the MCA's worries. The money to build the new museum -- no matter who's anointed to do it -- must still be raised. Times are tough out there, but the project seems so hot that it may attract donors in the same way that it has already attracted an international cadre of architects.

Mayor John Hickenlooper took his time selecting a director of planning, announcing just last week that he had chosen Peter Park of Milwaukee to fill the mega-important job that was held by the late Jennifer Moulton during the entire Wellington Webb administration.

I often found myself at loggerheads with Moulton, although we maintained a cordial relationship through the years. And while she did a lot of things that I hated, notably rolling over on Zeckendorf Plaza, she also did a lot of good things. For example, she was personally responsible for saving Annex I, which is now part of the Webb building. But her greatest accomplishments were with new projects. Moulton used her formidable power to force Fentress Bradburn Architects to improve the design of Invesco Field at Mile High, which started out as a pretty bland stadium. Even worse were the various early designs, also by Fentress Bradburn, for the Colorado Convention Center expansion. That project is still a disaster -- but thanks to Moulton, at least it's going to be a high-style one.

Will Park be as effective? We'll know soon enough, because there's an acid test on the horizon: the vulgar changes looming for Ocean Journey. First, the good folks of Landry's want to put a fake stone cave at the main entrance. Then, they want to paint the gorgeous brick masonry white. And while they haven't said so yet, I'm sure they plan to cover the whole thing with illuminated signage.

I have no doubt that Moulton would have beaten up the Landry's crew and wrung concessions from them. Let's hope Park is able to do as much.

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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