Although he took the reins of MCA Denver at this time last year, director Adam Lerner didn't roll out his first full slate of shows until January. Exhibition venues typically plan their events a year in advance in order to make all the arrangements, so until then, Lerner had mostly overseen exhibits he inherited from his predecessor, Cydney Payton.
For Looking for the Face I Had Before the World Was Made, which is made up of six smaller shows, Lerner was the lead curator, with new hire Nora Burnett Abrams acting as his assistant. The epic title, taken from a line by William Butler Yeats, is enigmatic, as is its relationship to the shows. Very broadly, though, all six are about people.
Lerner has repurposed some of the galleries, as revealed by the fact that Michaël Borremans, a solo dominated by contemporary realist paintings, is installed in what was the photography gallery on the first floor. The Borremans show begins with a photo-based piece, however: "The Weight" plays on a DVD screen that's been framed as though it were a painting. A woman is shown as she rotates via some device off-screen. The main part of the show is made of diminutive paintings of people and objects that have a decidedly Old Master-ish character — reflecting, no doubt, the fact that Borremans lives in Ghent, Belgium, with the Flemish and Dutch traditions so well known there. This show is gorgeous, with the tiny paintings offering big doses of charisma and charm.
Less compelling is a video called Samuel Beckett, which shows a disembodied mouth with the soundtrack of a woman, Billie Whitelaw, reading Beckett's "Not I." Though it runs only fifteen minutes, that was way too long as far as I was concerned, and after a minute or so, I left the gallery to check out the rest of Looking for the Face.
Lorraine O'Grady: Miscegenated Family Album is ensconced in the Projects Space on the second floor, a gallery formerly dedicated to the MCA's artists in residence, most of whom were from Colorado. The exhibit comprises sixteen Cibachrome print diptychs; each one pairs a shot from O'Grady's family album with one of an ancient Egyptian artifact. This makes them both conceptual and hermeneutical. The principal pairing is of the artist's estranged sister, Devonia, who died at age 36, with Queen Nefertiti, who disappeared from Egyptian history when she was in her thirties. The impetus for this series was a performance O'Grady presented in 1980. The pairs, stacked salon style on the black painted walls, are very compelling and raise a number of issues conflating white and black, ancient and modern, unity and disagreement.
Around the corner, in the Paper Works Gallery, is William Stockman, featuring some monumental charcoal-on-paper drawings by the well-known local artist. Stockman's method is to pull figurative images from the newspaper and do quick small sketches based on them. Then he creates the large presentation works using a pantograph. In a break from his traditional practice, each of these recent works has been titled according to the date when the source imagery appeared in print. Typical features of these drawings are erasures and rub-outs, with the pieces being informally presented, held to the wall using heavy-duty paper clips.
In the Promenade Space, an ad hoc gallery, is the oddest show in the group, A. G. Rizzoli. The exhibit is made up of meticulously done drawings from the '30s and '40s depicting hypothetical buildings that are meant to be portraits of people and include passages of type. Rizzoli fantasized about actually constructing these edifices and envisioned them in relation to one another, with one of the drawings showing the proposed site plan, called the "Y.T.T.E," which stands for "Yield to Total Elation."
The last of the group, in the Large Works Gallery, is Eric and Heather ChanSchatz: 10,483,200 Minutes, which records a series of pseudo-collaborations between the artists and different groups of people, including coal miners and American soldiers. The artists create surveys that are filled out by the selected people; then, using the results and sets of pre-determined images, they create paintings in mixed materials that bleed onto the walls. The paintings themselves are gorgeous, but the show is too crowded.
Lerner intended for all six shows to be a part of a singular whole, and for that reason, they all opened on the same day and will close at the same time. This won't be the case with the shows that open later this spring at the MCA, however, when the venue will go back to having staggered openings and closings — something that sounds a lot smarter.
On the other side of downtown is RedLine, a venue that could give the MCA a run for its money if only all the shows presented there were as good as Love Lines. This exhibit was organized by Jennifer Doran and Jim Robischon, the owners of Denver's most distinguished commercial space, Robischon Gallery. The pair selected artists both from Robischon's stable and from RedLine, and the result is a wide-ranging group effort that's absolutely dynamite, even if the theme is fairly vague.
Walking into the main space, the first things you encounter are a pair of Halim Alkarim's altered digital photos of women — "Goddess of Florence" and "Goddess of Venice" — that recall Renaissance paintings. Though they look completely fictional, Alkarim actually starts with real models, but he shoots them through scrims, then further alters the images on a computer. Alkarim's brother, Sami Alkarim, is also in the show; a video of his, complete with a soundtrack of bird calls, is being presented upstairs in the loft.
Across from the Alkarim digital photos is "Piano," an installation by Jonathan Saiz. The artist has taken a baby grand and covered the keys in paint so that the blacks and whites are reversed, harpsichord style. The piano has been balanced on the keyboard side so that the lid rises up diagonally in the air; in front is a sea of spilled candy. On the elevated rear leg, Saiz had attached a bunch of helium-filled Mylar balloons with a Valentine's theme. I'm not sure what Saiz is trying to do or what the piece means (the kitsch references to romance are a clue), but I do know a striking visual statement when I see it, and "Piano" certainly fills that bill. So does Saiz's other piece here, "Us," a cluster of painted boxes, two of which show men in a tug of war. I loved it.
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A major category in Love Lines is contemporary representational art, with strong paintings by Wes Hempel, Jerry Kunkel, Terry Campbell, Ian Fisher and Jack Balas. The Hempels pair take-offs on historic paintings with mundane modern messages. The Kunkels — two photo-realist still-life scenes and two equally accurate landscapes — spell out easy-to-understand narratives. Balas continues his exploration of beefcake models set in surrealist surroundings, while the single Campbell and the lone Fisher both trade on classic realism.
A different kind of representational imagery, grounded in expressionism, is seen in the Mimo Paladino print and the stylistically related painting by Margaret Neumann. In both, human bodies are exaggerated and awkwardly posed. Even further afield is Jeff Page's "The Other Organ," a sensational abstraction based on the form of the human brain. It's mostly black, with iridescent stripes of Mylar outlining the shape.
In a way, Love Lines is two different shows, and in and among all this Western art is a generous portion of contemporary Chinese works, the most notable of which is a pair of monumental figural sculptures, by Yu Fan, "Mr. W." and "Miss L," that are shockingly graphic. Other Chinese artists in the show include Xing Danwen and He Jian.
It's no secret that Doran and Robischon are among the best curators around, and Love Lines continues their tradition of turning out first-rate shows.