The cornerstone of any library sits in its stacks: books and media waiting to impart knowledge and share stories. When tasked with curating a show for the shelves of MCA Denver’s Open Shelf Library space, artist Derrick Velasquez began by deconstructing the library aesthetic and finding parallels in life, bringing together what might seem like a scattered group of collections in repose.
But the resulting exhibit, The Stacks, is no reliquary, where things are locked up and hidden away. Instead, it’s a series of life situations brought into focus, the way books come alive when you open them up and begin to read.
“I began with the idea of what a library is. What’s a librarian?” Velasquez asks. That conjured mind pictures, some of them of things lost to technology, of old-fashioned card catalogues, books lined up on shelves and the idea of the stacks, a vast backup lying behind the library’s public facade. He then riffed on the central idea of stacks: stored books, objects in piles, archives, collections and, distinctly different, things collected.
“That’s what they call the books they keep in the back: the stacks,” he begins. “But the art kept in the back of Robischon Gallery is also called the stacks. Books are stored vertically; so is the art in stacks.” From there, Velasquez filled in the visuals and the concept, subsequently fitting several big discoveries into a relatively small space.
First, he built a series of card catalogues and commissioned five young artists from diverse backgrounds to create works that fit inside the drawers. Corey Feder’s “Hi, It’s Me,” is a charming ceramic comic book with pages unfolding in each drawer, while Marco Cousins’s drawers open in succession to deliver a Black Lives Matter call to arms. Patrice Renee Washington’s ceramic inserts ape actual catalogue cards, with each drawer opening to the card of a book written by an African-American woman. Raúl Romero’s “A to Z” contains audio tapes of earworm music, and Amna Ashgar filled her drawers with tiny screen prints.
The drawers are meant to be opened and closed. By forcing a hands-on approach to art viewing with The Stacks, Velasquez also encourages the unthinkable — touching the artwork, and even taking some home, in the case of Stats Magazine, a vaguely sports-oriented art publication that Velasquez produced with gallerist Adam Gildar, arranged in stacks as part of the exhibit and free for the taking.
Other shelves hold blankets in indigenous patterns, stacked by Jovencio de la Paz as if stored in a linen closet, and another wall of the space is given over to Sierra Montoya Barela’s “Letters to Renee,” a partial re-creation of the artist’s home studio, where overlapping fabric prints are hung on the wall, cardboard tubes are stored high above in the rafters, and personal artifacts are scattered, opening up Barela’s studio practice to public viewing.
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And finally, a recent piece of Denver history also has a place in The Stacks: Velasquez has taken remnants of mural-painted walls saved from Denver’s Rhinoceropolis DIY space after the venue was closed down late last year for code violations. Created and gathered by Thomas Scharfenberg, Colin Ward and Stephan Herrera, the pieces aren’t included to evoke nostalgia for Rhino. "Thom was storing this stuff in his yard, so I’m trying to save him money and space by placing it here. I’m not re-creating the space — it used to be a space, and this is about the bones of the place, the idea. Now they have a place to go, and I’m the intermediary.”
In conjunction with The Stacks, MCA will host a series of five informal Read Out Loud events, which Velasquez likens to a storytime for adults. All participants must read something aloud (this can be anything, from a grocery list to a lab manual, without thematic restrictions); attendance is limited to twenty people per session, and interested parties are asked to register for one session only. The first Read Out Loud is from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26; subsequent sessions are scheduled on May 27, June 25, July 20 and August 15. For more information and to register in advance (it’s required), go to MCA Denver online.
The Stacks remains on view through August 27 in the Open Shelf Library at MCA Denver.