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."

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."

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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