Embrace! the space at the Denver Art Museum

From the outside, the Denver Art Museum's Frederic C. Hamilton Building is among the best pieces of Colorado architecture, and its design has many supporters. But Daniel Libeskind's masterpiece also has many detractors, especially when it comes to the interior. The ground floor, which sets the tone for the rest of the visitor experience, has been particularly deadly. However, with the recently unveiled reconfiguration of that space, that issue has been dealt with to some extent.

Originally, there was an uninviting lobby to the right of the entrance, and to the left, hidden around a corner, the bookstore. Now the bookstore is in the former lobby, while the store's former space has been temporarily converted into a gallery. This solution corrects half the problem; the failed lobby is gone. But now there is no lobby. Call me simple-minded, but if there's an available space (the old book shop) and a missing element (the lobby), it seems obvious what needs to be done.

The refit of the first level — and the removal of scaffolding that has draped the leaking roof for the past several months — was timed to coincide with the opening of Embrace!, in which an international cast of artists created site-specific installations for all four levels of the Hamilton. The results are a mixed bag, and though a couple of the pieces just don't work, most are very nice. And some are so spectacular, the DAM should figure out a way to keep them after the show closes.

The exhibit was conceived by curator Christoph Heinrich, who will take over as executive director of the DAM when Lewis Sharp steps down at the end of the year. Heinrich hit the ground running when he came to the DAM late in 2007, reconceiving the permanent-collection galleries with Focus: The Figure and putting together an in-depth solo dedicated to Daniel Richter. And now he's authored this over-the-top presentation, which was necessarily in the planning stages the whole time.

Heinrich started with a list of forty artists that he cut down to seventeen, all but one of whom created work especially for the show. Each was given a space to fill. Heinrich had specific ideas about where things should go, but when some artists disagreed, he let them switch spaces. This anecdote reflects well on Heinrich, demonstrating not only his flexibility, but also his respect for the judgment of others. Both attributes will serve him well in his future role as the DAM's helmsman.

I think it makes sense to begin in the ex-bookstore, where Rupprecht Matthies's "¿Being Home?" has been installed. For this piece, facsimiles of words were created out of various materials and then piled up on the floor, mounted on the walls or hung from the ceiling. The words — and even the handwriting styles — originated with the diverse group of local individuals who submitted them. The words were made of different materials, with the cloth-covered pillow-like ones marking another layer of collaboration, as a crew of volunteer seamstresses ran them up in a kind of sew-in.

Back toward the atrium is Katharina Grosse's "George," an enormous neo-abstract-expressionist painting done directly on the wall. It is one of the most stunning pieces in Embrace!, and viewers will encounter it again and again from different perspectives as they ascend the staircase to follow the show up through the building. I think it would be great if the DAM acquired "George" rather than painting it over, as is intended. It really enlivens the ground floor and, even more so, the atrium, especially from the upper levels. Not only that, but it doesn't really interfere with the Tatsuo Miyajima, "ENGI," which is essential, since that piece is so perfect where it is.

The same cannot be said for the atrium portion of Jessica Stockholder's "Wide Eyes Smeared Here Dear," which makes an unwelcome intrusion. Plus, it does nothing to enhance the main part of the piece, which is on the second level and is tremendous as a stand-alone. Before viewers arrive at the main part of the Stockholder, though, they'll encounter Rick Dula's "A Moment of Time: Here," which depicts the same place during the building's construction. Dula had exceptional access to the Hamilton and took hundreds of photos of the construction process. Then, using his hyperrealist style, he painted the long-covered-over view that once existed right where viewers are standing. This is the other piece I think the DAM should acquire and preserve. Heinrich joked (at least I think he was joking) that he's already getting angry letters demanding that the Dula not be painted over.

Just to the right of the Dula is the Anschutz Gallery, and right inside is Shinique Smith's "Twilight's Compendium," a pendent of tied and bundled clothing with an expressively painted wall. The artist's choice of colors — a range of blues — and her technique, in which she used parts of her body to apply the paint, are critiques of Yves Klein. Beyond is the main part of the Stockholder, which is made up of everything but the kitchen sink, including paintings, assembled plastic items, a tent of clothes, etc. Walking through it is like entering a painting.

This idea of having viewers feel as though they are part of an artwork is key to Heinrich's concept in Embrace!. No artist has realized that goal more than Zhong Biao. Also in the Anschutz, Biao has had the walls painted black. To the left is a multi-panel conceptual realist painting that's extended on one end by video projections and on the other by a mirror that covers an entire adjacent wall. As viewers look in the mirror, they place themselves in the painting's reflection. It is a tour de force.

On the other side of the Stockholder is Christian Hahn's "Upside Down," a wall painting depicting fanciful architectural fragments juxtaposed with a selection of his whimsical magic-realist paintings.

Filling the Martin and McCormick Gallery, also on the second level, is a digital projection piece by Charles Sandison called "Chamber" in which words and symbols play across the walls according to a computer program. On the atrium's turnaround is Tobias Rehberger's untitled installation of multi-hued bungee cords that's like a flexible painting of stripes that viewers can make their way through. Beyond is "Last to Know," cut vinyl appliqués of knives by Matthew Brannon. It's on the tilted wall on the way to level three, where Dasha Shishkin's "Dying Christ Rushed to the Hospital..." covers the walls and ceiling of a cave-like gallery just off the stairs. Though very expressive and clearly a lot of work, the Shishkin left me cold.

"Hot" would be a better adjective to describe the lined-up models for John McEnroe's "The Bathers," in the niche facing the atrium, and for the full-blown piece itself, which is hanging from the ceiling and can be seen from both the third and fourth levels. In form, the elements are organic pendulums in dark cast resin that evoke female forms, as the title suggests. McEnroe told Heinrich that he was inspired by Renoir, but they look more like they've been sourced from Picasso.

On the fourth level, in the Fuse Box, is Timothy Weaver + eMad's "39º 44' 11" N x 104º 59' 21" W," a projection piece. Looking at climate change, sunspots and a locust invasion in Colorado, Weaver and his student-collaborators have created a multi-image work that grows as viewers go deeper into the space.

In the African Gallery is "Rain Has No Father?" by El Anatsui. This luxurious metal curtain has been fabricated using flattened liquor bottle tops, giving it a highbrow/lowbrow character. In the dramatic prow gallery, Kristin Baker's powerful "Dihedral Barrage" takes over. It's a freestanding sculpture that from one angle looks like an abstract-expressionist painting. In a side gallery, Nicola López has covered the walls and ceiling with lines made of printed wires that resemble roots or branches.

The last piece is "As to Be in Plain Sight," by Lawrence Weiner, painted high on the wall. Weiner is a pioneer of the text-as-art movement, and his piece here is in his signature style.

An idea that underlies Embrace!, and one that is implied by the title, is having the artists respond directly to the unorthodox interior spaces of the Hamilton, thus making them more user-friendly. In a few cases — Grosse's and Dula's wall paintings, for example — this process succeeded, which is quite an accomplishment.

And though there's more work to be done to fix that problematic interior, I've got a feeling Heinrich's just the one to do it.

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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

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