The three exhibits now at MCA Denver are tied to each other by the thinnest of threads, but together those connections — associations with Colorado, women as subjects, women as artists — are braided together to create a strong showing.
The main attraction is Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation , which examines the work of a young photographer active in the 1970s who became internationally famous in the mid-1980s, years after she’d tragically died by suicide in 1981, at the age of 22. Francesca Woodman's surname has a special resonance around here: Her Boulder-based parents, ceramics sculptor Betty Woodman and painter/photographer George Woodman, are among the state’s acknowledged masters in their respective fields. Remarkable as Francesca Woodman’s photos are, I think they likely would have been lost to history were it not for the art-world savvy of her late parents. They recognized how important these photos were, and they also knew how to get them in front of the right people. But once they were seen, the power of her photos took over, propelling her renown like a rocket.
Francesca Woodman’s imagery has been so influential in the work of other artists over the past thirty years—arguably, even her late father’s — that today it can be hard to recognize just how revolutionary her concepts, narratives and aesthetics where when she created these photos. They looked like nothing else around, although her unnerving if unblinking reception of reality is reminiscent of the work of Diane Arbus, and the way she uses her own body to signify her defiance in the face of her own vulnerability ties to Ana Mendieta. Like Woodman, both Arbus and Mendieta met with sad and premature ends.
Francesca Woodman opens with theatrical elements in the form of vinyl appliqués meant to suggest the reality of Woodman’s depressing studio in Providence, Rhode Island. The floor of the main gallery has been covered with an enormous photo enlargement of her studio floor as it was found after her death, littered with hundreds of photos scattered here and there; on the gallery’s back wall is the blown-up image of a grimy window, scuffed wall and battered shelves. The original photos were taken by Woodman’s friend, George Lange, who was elected to clean out her studio. The show itself comprises never-before-seen Woodman photos that Lange has held since that time, supplemented by photos of Woodman taken by Lange. To artfully distinguish which photos are by which artist, they’ve been framed so that Woodman’s photos are in light-colored moldings and Lange’s are in black.
The show was curated by Nora Burnett Abrams, who sees Woodman as having been fully formed as an artist even before she entered the Rhode Island School of Design, and some high-school-era photos are included. The classic Woodman is a self-portrait, though she used other models once in a while. The most striking and sometimes startling of her self-portraits are those in which she is nude or semi-nude. These are anything but cheesecake shots, with Woodman striking a blow against the idea of the eroticized male gaze, and that’s one reason that her approach is seen as relevant to feminist art. Some of these self-portraits, such as those in which she’s entwined in roots or where she poses in a cemetery, have the whiff of art history: neo-classicism and surrealism, respectively. Others, like the ones in which she is seated with her legs spread, holding objects including a mirror, a mask and a grapefruit between them, plow new ground in the realm of staged narrative photography. They're irreverent and could be seen as almost being funny, if it weren't for all that pathos.
The genius of Woodman’s vision lies in her intriguing poses and gifted sense for enigmatic composition. She clearly was not interested in making technically perfect shots. Hers are often blurry and have been casually, if not crudely, printed. While few of her photos are titled, it’s obvious that there are specific series in which photos share the same setting, and Woodman takes on similar positions with her body. Some of these groupings, perhaps all of them, were intended to be organized into books, one of which provided the exhibit’s subtitle, “Portrait of a Reputation.”
Though Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Flora, the show on the second floor that Abrams also curated, share some of the same curatorial perspective, its principal subject is the opposite. Although her career was short, Woodman invented her own aesthetic and left thousands of images behind, whereas artist Flora Mayo, who is the subject of this undertaking, lived a long life and left behind essentially nothing, other than one indifferently carved stone bust.
Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler became interested in Mayo based on a photo in which she is seated with sculptor Alberto Giacometti, with whom she had a love affair. Between them is a bust of Giacometti that Mayo carved. The show opens with the photo and a re-creation of the now-lost sculpture, and what follows is a documentation of the riches-to-rags story of Mayo’s life through archival material. The daughter of wealthy merchants in Denver, she studied in Paris, which is how she met Giacometti. After her family was financially ruined in the Great Depression, she was marooned penniless in Europe until she finally made her way back, ultimately winding up in Los Angeles. The culmination of the show is a double-sided film with a voiceover of Mayo’s son recalling his mother’s sad life of struggle and anonymity: She went from Western high society and Parisian bohemia to a job as a janitor in her declining years.
Abrams encountered the show at the Biennale in Venice in 2017, and since the History Colorado archives held a lot of material about Mayo’s family, Hubbard and Birchler were able to greatly expand Flora here.
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Finally, on the lower level, is Stacey Steers: Edge of Alchemy, curated by Zoe Larkins. Stacey Steers is a legendary animation filmmaker and artist who lives and works in Boulder, and Edge of Alchemy, the film projected here, is the last in a trilogy of works. Although that film is a digital copy, the imagery is captured the old-fashioned way, shot frame by frame. Steers appropriates silent film images of Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor, then recasts them as wizards attempting to create life in a fanciful lab. She dresses them up with found antique imagery of leaves and flowers, and furnishes their space with depictions of archaic scientific instruments. The movement in the film and the way images morph create a hypnotic effect. Supplementing the film are a couple of sculptures — very steampunk-looking, pseudo-optical devices through which a short segment may be viewed using an integral glass lens.
The Steers show strikes just the right emotional mood to supplement the Woodman and Flora offerings upstairs.
Abrams, the curator’s curator, was named director of MCA Denver this past summer, succeeding longtime helmsman Adam Lerner. While the programming that Lerner oversaw during his tenure was heavy with spectacle, Abrams is interested in supreme subtlety. Given that, you might be tempted to think these three super-serious shows reflect the relatively recent change of the guard, but that’s not correct: All three were set on the schedule by Lerner before he left, and he was gone by the time they opened. Even so, the way they tie together so beautifully suggests great things ahead.
Francesca Woodman: Portrait of a Reputation, Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler: Flora and Stacey Steers: Edge of Alchemy, through April 5, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.