Art Review

DAM's Disruption Is Both Obvious and Evocative

"Untitled," by Yang Shobin.
"Untitled," by Yang Shobin. Denver Art Museum
When curators are tasked with creating an innovative new show out of a permanent collection, it can sometimes be a struggle to find a unique way to connect the artworks. However, the theme and intention for the Denver Art Museum's Disruption: Works From the Vicki and Kent Logan Collection, is immediately obvious, in both its title and its content. “The works in this exhibition are questioning our world today, the social spaces that we navigate, and the past,” says Laura Almeida, curatorial fellow for the museum's Modern and Contemporary Art department. "A lot of these artists and the artworks are subverting or disrupting cultural tropes.”

The exhibit, drawn from more than 300 pieces in the vast Vicki and Kent Logan collection as well as a few from the donors' private collection, is engaging from the start, with over fifty paintings, drawings and sculptures that rattle conventional views of media consumption, capitalism, activism, globalism and colonialism. Working with a wide array of both subject matter and mediums, Almeida and senior curatorial assistant Caitlin Swindell prove their own talent with how well the pieces mesh and flow through varying themes.

“While the museum has done permanent-collection shows before, this brings different thematic approaches that invigorate the collection,” says Swindell. “This dives into so many pertinent topics of today.”
click to enlarge A giant pack of American Spirits by Chippewa/Lakota artist David P. Bradley. - DENVER ART MUSEUM
A giant pack of American Spirits by Chippewa/Lakota artist David P. Bradley.
Denver Art Museum
At once nostalgic and reflective, a dollhouse invites — even imposes — a reflection on surveillance as visitors try their best to seek out the details inside. “Night Hunter,” by Colorado artist Stacey Steers, is a dark but charming Victorian dollhouse that looks like it leaped from an Edward Gorey illustration. Flashes from the windows beckon patrons to peek inside, where various rooms play vintage films that illuminate otherwise dark rooms, shedding light on little butterflies perched on diminutive furniture.

“I think people will be very excited about Steers’s piece,” Swindell says. “It’s talking about surveillance, and that’s a theme that runs through other pieces in the exhibit, as well.”

Many of the works confront colonialism. A giant pack of American Spirits by Chippewa/Lakota artist David P. Bradley would come across as simply playful pop art if it weren’t for its message about capitalizing on stereotypes: The cigarette company has no fundamental relationship to American Indians, despite its stamp of a silhouetted Indian in a headdress smoking a long pipe on the pack’s facade.

That theme is echoed in an array of sculptures by Michael Joo titled "Headless." The umber foam sculptures are replicated from traditional sculptures of the Buddha, but with the heads chopped off. Instead, floating above are heads from dolls of Western pop culture: Alfred E. Neuman, Pee-wee Herman, a Madame Alexander doll and Bert from Sesame Street are among the many recognizable faces. The sculptures reference the persecution of Buddhists throughout history, who saw the heads of Buddha sculptures chopped off by imperialist regimes, colonizers and traders.

“It’s about colonialism and global markets, and how that’s inundating our everyday lives,” Swindell explains. “These are challenging topics and challenging objects for viewers, but that’s what makes it ‘of the now.’”
click to enlarge "Plastic Surgery," by Inka Essenhigh. - DENVER ART MUSEUM
"Plastic Surgery," by Inka Essenhigh.
Denver Art Museum
"Plastic Surgery," a painting by Inka Essenhigh, directly addresses an “of the now” topic. The pervasive issue of body image is illustrated by surrealist white subjects cut up in a boxing ring on a striking yellow background. The curators have tied together some works with pop-culture references hung on the wall next to them: "Plastic Surgery" is emphasized by a video playing on an iPad that shows a model going through the process of retouching at a photo shoot; next to that is a framed Instagram post discussing how body poses can change how your weight comes across in photos.

Although at times these additional references can be overkill, in some cases they are necessary. A large oil painting of newlyweds, “The Wedding Picture,” by Bo Bartlett, would seem oddly out of place in the exhibit if it weren’t for its neighbor: a small photograph of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries after they tied the knot (the marriage lasted 72 days). “We want visitors to think about how these artworks speak to today’s events,” Almeida says of the pop-culture placards.

The exhibit would still be impressive without such curatorial hand-holding; most works speak for themselves, especially in the context of the medium. Rachel Lachowicz, for example, sculpted three miniature urinals out of red lipstick. "There’s a juxtaposition of gender that she’s commenting on,” Almeida explains. Other mediums in the exhibit range from bronze sculptures to the pelts of stuffed animals.
click to enlarge “Camouflage Self Portrait (A Man Like Mr. Turk)," by Gavin Turk. - DENVER ART MUSEUM
“Camouflage Self Portrait (A Man Like Mr. Turk)," by Gavin Turk.
Denver Art Museum
The overarching theme is underscored by each artwork, and some are simply disturbing at first sight, without knowing about the artist’s disruptive intentions. Yang Shobin’s “Untitled” is immediately unsettling, with faded, anguished faces appearing to violently struggle out from an alizarin background. And Gavin Turk’s “Camouflage Self Portrait (A Man Like Mr. Turk)" is as difficult to look away from as it is to look at.

There's definitely a lot to look at here, as Disruption is a wonderful feat of curatorial creativity. Through it, Almeida says, she hopes visitors will “gain a deeper understanding of how these artists are challenging subjects and pushing boundaries, and also how the disruptive elements are part of their daily lives.”

Disruption: Works from the Vicki and Kent Logan Collection, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, through January 23, 2023. Find out more here.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson