Fast and Loose

Mark Masuoka took over as director at the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver on January 1, 2000, and he quickly transformed the place from what had looked like the city's largest co-op into something that could pass, on a good day, for a bona fide museum. But less than ten months later, and less than a week after the October 6 opening of his first full-blown show, the much-talked-about Colorado Biennial, Masuoka announced his resignation, which will be effective at the end of the month ("Trouble in Purgatory," October 26).

One of Masuoka's apparent strengths was in his ability to recast MoCAD's physical plant. But he also revealed a genuine gift for programming, as evidenced in his conception of the Colorado Biennial, which runs through the end of this year. The show demonstrates Masuoka's courage as well as his zeal, because unlike most other group productions of this sort, the Colorado Biennial is not a juried exhibit, but an invitational.

"I wanted the show to be my responsibility," says Masuoka, "and I didn't want to rely on a jury. It's easy to bring in a jury to make the decisions, but I didn't want to do that."


Colorado Biennial

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1275 19th Street

Through December 29

Masuoka got the idea for the exhibit almost as soon as MoCAD hired him, during a conversation with Simon Zalkind, the director of the Singer Gallery. The two were brainstorming ideas for future shows. Zalkind, a well-known art writer, was originally set to pen the show's catalogue but wound up writing only the foreword; Boulder Daily Camera art critic J. Gluckstern wrote the essay.

Masuoka wondered if he could intelligently lay out a cogent snapshot of the Colorado art terrain, since he had been in the state for only two years. To solve this problem, he solicited input from many other art professionals in the region and assembled a group of longtime local experts to serve as volunteer consultants. "I asked a lot of people to submit lists of artists who they felt were doing the best work in Colorado," he says. The committee included, among others, Cydney Payton, the director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; James Baker, from the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass; and Gerry Riggs, from the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Colorado Springs. In addition, Masuoka asked MoCAD's own exhibition-committee members to suggest artists who they thought were making what he calls "the most exciting contemporary art in Colorado."

In May, at its first and only meeting, the committee presented the efforts of nearly ninety artists. By June, Masuoka had a list of more than 200 artists for his consideration. Of these, he chose to visit the studios of around seventy, then narrowed his list to around fifty.

In late summer, Masuoka finally announced the fifteen artists he had selected, and you could hear the groans wherever you went. Every artist in the state wanted to be in the show, though only a few were chosen.

I confess to having been confused by Masuoka's choices at first. What in heaven's name, I wondered, do these artists have to do with each other? Not much, as it turns out. Masuoka says it wasn't his intention to identify styles or trends, but rather to consider artists independently of one another and to appraise the widest stylistic range imaginable. Nevertheless, there is a stylistic slant to the show, as Masuoka clearly prefers conceptual art, especially installations, over more traditional types such as painting and sculpture.

The snapshot he reveals isn't the one many would have taken -- and word on the street pans the show -- but there's no denying that Masuoka compiled his list conscientiously and that the result is intelligent and thought-provoking.

Colorado Biennial begins with a bang with "Mirage," a large ceramic-and-plaster installation by Kim Dickey, a member of the art faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A recent arrival to Colorado, Dickey had her gallery debut in Denver last spring at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery. That exhibit was one of scores of ceramics shows presented in association with the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts last March.

"Mirage," situated in the first exhibition space right off the entry lobby, is both distinct from and related to the work Dickey showed at Rule. There she was represented by urns, bottles and nesting bowls, all of which were glazed in dusty hues and all of which referred to industrially made giftware associated with 1940s and '50s California. These overt references to retro-California kitsch are even clearer in "Mirage," not just through shape and color, but also in the subject matter. The installation features a group of palms and succulents that appear to be just outside a funky old motel whose presence is indicated solely by a helium-filled glass sign that reads "vacancy."

Masuoka pulls us into the next section by visually linking "Mirage" to two paintings by Aspen's Jody Guralnick that are hung just beyond the installation. Though primarily orange, both paintings also include a lot of green, just like Dickey's piece. Using a surrealist style, Guralnick assembles a variety of representational and abstract images and scatters them across the canvases. Some of those elements -- such as an urn in one painting and a flower in the other -- connect the works to Dickey's installation.

This use of palette as a linking mechanism to propel us through the show also connects Guralnick's paintings to "Foxy," a sixteen-panel composition by Denver's Lauri Lynnxe Murphy. This artist also uses lots of orange and green, but "Foxy" explores feminist issues with a neo-pop attitude. In it, Murphy addresses female appearance -- hairstyles, in particular. She has incorporated photocopies, yarn and other found or ready-made materials into her acrylic paintings.

Turning around, we see a classic painting titled "Sticks and Stones," by Denver artist Trine Bumiller. Masuoka connects the Bumiller to the Murphy though the multi-part format used by both, then back to "Mirage" through the subtle and dusty palette Bumiller shares with Dickey. The two side panels, which are marked by crossing lines in Bumiller's triptych, contrast with the center panel, which has a pair of concentric circles formed by dots. Like all Bumiller paintings, "Sticks and Stones" has a luminous surface, the product of her application of layer after layer of oil glazes.

Leaning against the wall in a corner nearby is Denver sculptor Myron Melnick's subtly elegant cast-paper sculpture "Brancusi." The title refers to Romanian modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and with it, Melnick pays homage to Brancusi's "Endless Column" sculptures created in the first half of the twentieth century. But instead of soaring skyward, as Brancusi's did, Melnick's seems to have fallen over. The repeated cubelike shape that undulates in and out of "Brancusi" reminds us of a similar device Dickey used to make her palm trees.

At this point, the show changes gears with "House Call," a small installation by Lawrence Argent, a teacher at the University of Denver who is generally regarded as a local master of installation. "House Call" is a deceptively simple piece made up of a wooden table placed at an angle to the wall. On top of the table is a translucent casting of an old doctor's bag that has been internally lighted. Next to the bag is a glass of water, and at the bottom of the glass is a mixing rudder -- straight out of a science lab -- that constantly rotates by means of the electromagnetic mechanism hidden under the table.

The dark brown table, which dominates "House Call," leads our eye to the mammoth "Hearts and Minds," a wall construction by Manitou Springs artist Floyd Tunson in which both painted and photographic elements have been laid down in a dark wooden frieze. Through the use of pop imagery, including handguns, targets and portraits of young black men, "Hearts and Minds" addresses the struggle of poor black youths stuck in a culture dominated by violence. Tunson, who is one of the state's great artists, just retired from teaching after more than thirty years at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs; he used some of his former students as subjects for the piece.

Adjacent to the Tunson is an installation called "mapping, in every room of my life," by Debra Goldman, a photography professor currently on leave from the University of Colorado at Denver. Hanging on the wall is a computer-generated black and white image of a jellyfish that is essentially abstract. Beneath it is a set of three small metal tables; on each is a stack of one hundred computer-generated reproductions. The stacks are held in place by flat metal bars.

Opposite this piece is "Me, the Flower and the Pistil," an organic figural abstraction by James Surls of Glenwood Springs. Hung from the ceiling, this sculpture is made of poplar, oak and steel, and it depicts a man's profile above a spiraling flower. Surls, who only recently moved to Colorado from Texas and has already earned a national reputation, was the first artist Masuoka selected for this exhibit.

In the corner, beyond and behind the Surls, is Linda Herritt's "As If," made of fabric and a rotating light. Herritt teaches at CU-Boulder but is currently on sabbatical. Her piece, in which she has draped the bottom of the corner of the room with red cloth, expresses a feminist ideology, as her work always does, by commenting on domestic environments.

Commenting on another aspect of everyday life is "American Master Works," by Denver's John McEnroe. The artist has built a group of organic sculptures, some of them sprayed with automotive paint and carrying chrome-plated marquee labels, including "Explorer." It's with heady pieces such as this one that McEnroe keeps his master smartass status. The joke is obvious: It is cars, not paintings, that are the greatest accomplishments of our culture.

Behind the McEnroe and through a doorway is Scott Massey's "Birth Weights," in which a group of articulated wooden cylinders are suspended on wires from the ceiling. The brackets that connect the wires to the ceiling and the cylinders are elaborately figured bronze casts that look positively art nouveau. The materials, in particular the dark-finished wood, remind us of Argent's, Tunson's and Surls's work.

The last three artists are grouped in the third and final leg of the show. They are united in their use of moving pictures in their pieces.

Eric Ringsby, who splits his time between Aspen and Wyoming, has stretched a translucent rawhide over a frame. Video of a rodeo is projected onto the rawhide, but the details are difficult to see and thus become dreamlike.

Around the corner and through the coffee shop is a very dark gallery, lighted mostly by footlights. In the dark is Denver illusionist Standish Lawder's "Tongue Toys," a stereoscopic installation of three-dimensional slides of tongue piercings running continually on a loop. Special features of this piece include the use of 3-D glasses and a squishy floor covered in springy Styrofoam, an aspect Masuoka conceived of to add a compatible tactile experience to the visual one.

The exhibit ends with a pair of animated lenticular lens photos by Aspen artist Linda Girvin. They're perfect after Lawder's piece. Using an elaborate printing method in which different photos are adhered on either side of raised ridges, Girvin creates the suggestion of movement as one image changes into another when we walk by the piece.

The idea for Colorado Biennial was a very good one, but with Masuoka leaving so soon, it's hard to say whether the next one, tentatively slated for 2002, will ever get off the ground. We'll just have to wait and see.

Masuoka may have left MoCAD, but he's staying on as a player in Denver's art world. He's set to enter into a partnership with Sandy Carson at her Sandy Carson Gallery. At MoCAD, museum staffers Patty Ortiz and Sarah Nuece will serve as interim co-directors until a new permanent director is found. The board of trustees hopes to have a new director in place by the first of next year.

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