Mummies Dearest

On a recent sunny afternoon, Denver Art Museum director Lewis Sharp was standing under the museum's still-controversial entrance canopy on Acoma Plaza. Not that the canopy provides any shade: Though workers began erecting it last fall, it's still not finished. The stainless-steel panels intended to provide it with a roof have not yet been installed. "I just ask that people wait until it's finished before they judge it," Sharp said.

The tubular steel canopy, designed by George Hoover for the Denver architectural firm of AR7, has caused considerable consternation in the art world. In fact, a nearly universal howl has gone up, with everyone from young alternative-space denizens to elderly socialite collectors having something bad to say about it. The chief gripe is the way the canopy interferes with the view from the Civic Center of Mark di Suvero's spectacular "Lao Tzu" sculpture, which is sited on the plaza nearby.

Lately, complaints about the goofy protuberance have snowballed to the point that a formal letter-writing campaign has been launched. The aim is to have what has been dubbed "the claw" removed. Sadly, there's little chance of that, at least in the short run. But don't despair. More than one museum staffer points out that whereas the di Suvero is permanent, the same can't be said for the canopy.

Working in the canopy's defense, meanwhile, is the fact that it obviously doesn't repel visitors. For proof, check out the crowds flocking to the DAM's current summer blockbuster, Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture, and Artifacts.

Originating at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, this large traveling exhibit was organized by renowned Egyptologist David Silverman, who worked on the King Tut and Ramses shows in the 1980s. It comprises 138 artifacts from the MAA's massive 42,000-plus-piece permanent collection, a treasure trove resulting from Penn's work as a major player in Egyptian excavations from the 1890s up to the present.

The articles chosen by Silverman span thousands of years of Egyptian history, and though the MAA has been exhibiting this kind of mate-rial since the late nineteenth century, some of the items in Ancient Egypt have never before been put on public display.

DAM has gone all out for Ancient Egypt, with eye-catching banners heralding the show having been erected on light poles around town and along Pena Boulevard. To meet demand--or perhaps to create it--the museum has installed a special gift shop in the lobby. Headsets featuring audio tours of the show are available, and the Hamilton Galleries have been thoroughly redecorated with an Egyptian theme and repainted in such earthy shades as a luscious terra-cotta red. This refitting, as well as the installation of the show, was supervised by Leland Murray, the DAM's gifted exhibition designer.

Murray sets an appropriate Egyptian mood even before visitors enter the spacious first-floor Hamilton Galleries. Tropical plants have been arranged on shelves, a reference to the offerings that were placed outside Egyptian temples. The plants are positioned on either side of a colonnade whose columns have been fitted out with lotus capitals. The Hamilton Galleries are dimly lit, a concession to conservation, perhaps, but striking just the right somber chord for a display containing mummy cases and sarcophagus lids. The show is divided into four sections, beginning with "People of the Nile," which is devoted to the daily life of Egyptians, both the opulent and the ordinary. Following are self-explanatory sections on "Rulers of the Realm," "Visions of Life After Death" and "Gods and Goddesses."

As befits a summer blockbuster, there are a few diversions along the way. One of four interactive displays in the show, for instance, invites visitors to try their hand at mummification: "Participants can handle the brain hook," enthuses the exhibit's press release. In better taste are the three other interactive setups, one devoted to cosmetics, another to stone-carving and the last one to calligraphy. And though curmudgeons may howl at this shameless attempt to engage otherwise inattentive viewers, the kids love the stuff: The mummy display is constantly mobbed.

While the mummies are undeniably fascinating, the real appeal of Ancient Egypt is its fine Egyptian art. The show offers a wide variety of remarkable objects, and none is more remarkable than the "West Wall of the Tomb Chapel of Kaipura," originally built in Saqqara almost 4,500 years ago. The "West Wall" is a nearly twenty-foot-long, eleven-foot-tall limestone fragment covered with finely carved bas-reliefs. Silverman calls it the largest object ever to travel in an exhibition. The University of Pennsylvania owns the entire chapel and originally conceived Ancient Egypt as a way of raising funds for its restoration.

The wall is made up of nearly two dozen stone blocks, the largest and heaviest being the "false door," which alone weighs five tons. As a result, it was necessary to create a specially engineered display that features a mammoth vertical counterweight (disguised as a pedestal) running along the floor below the "West Wall." This counterweight is used to redistribute the weight of the wall across the floor and across the building's structural frame so that it won't fall into the DAM's basement.

The combination of the wall's tremendous weight along with its delicate surface made erecting it a difficult task. The job was taken on by a crew of specially trained workers who labored for the better part of a week. But that was nothing compared to what it took to get it out of the MAA in Philadelphia, where an elevator had to be removed and replaced with a heavy-duty hydraulic lift. The "West Wall" had been there since mercantile prince John Wanamaker donated it to the institution in 1904. (Wanamaker bought the chapel after the close of the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition held that same year in St. Louis.)

The "West Wall" is breathtaking, especially the elaborate "False Door," which is covered with hieroglyphics. Other areas of the wall have narrative figural panels depicting various activities such as the butchering of animals. Though these surfaces were originally painted, the colors have mostly worn off over the course of the last few millennia.

Much smaller--and considerably newer, being "only" 3,000 years old--is a window grill from the palace of Pharaoh Merenptah in Memphis. The limestone window has a substantial bas-relief running across the top with flattened images of sphinxes and panels of geometric patterns suggestive of basket-weaving.

Ancient Egypt also includes an array of sculptures ranging from miniatures to life-sized pieces, as well as ceramics, metalwork, papyrus scrolls and stunning jewelry. And it's striking how many of these pieces resemble modern art as we know it. Egyptian art, after all, exerted a profound influence on twentieth-century art, even spawning the entire art-deco movement, which owes much of its palette and details to the treasures in King Tut's tomb that were discovered and exhibited in the 1920s. It's this historical link that provides the spark for a second Egyptian-themed show at the DAM: Egypt of the Mind, which sits across the lobby from Ancient Egypt, in the Close Range Gallery.

Organized by DAM assistant curator of modern and contemporary art Jane Fudge, Egypt of the Mind is a raucous assortment of modern and contemporary artworks with references to Egypt. The pieces have been gleaned from the DAM's permanent collection and borrowed from local artists, collectors and galleries. Fudge had little trouble finding relevant pieces, and she's filled the smallish Close Range to overflowing with two works exhibited just outside the entrance: "Centurion," a painted and gilded construction with neon from 1989 by Allan Olson and Therese Edson, and Vance Kirkland's "Egyptian Garden" mural, an oil on canvas from 1937.

On loan from the Kirkland Foundation and Museum, "Egyptian Garden" was formerly installed over the Stout Street entrance to the old Neusteter's department store (now residential lofts) on 16th Street. Rendered in pale shades of gray-green and cream, it's a beautiful period piece that makes clear the association between art deco and the ancient Egyptians.

Most of the other pieces in the show are newer than the Kirkland, with nearly everything dating from the last ten years. Notable are three photographs from Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, who helped launch a number of local careers in the 1980s, including that of Wes Kennedy. Thorne-Thomsen's signature pinhole method is in evidence here, particularly in the lovely and intimate "Pyramid," a close-up shot of a pyramid that she made herself using river rocks.

As might be expected, pyramids are a recurring theme in Egypt of the Mind. They appear even in such unlikely forms as Maynard Tishler's wool-hooked rug, "View of the Nile," done in 1977 and altered twenty years later by the artist, who's better known for his meticulous ceramic sculpture. Less literal depictions of pyramids are found in Denver artist Martha Daniels's "Three Gold and Green Towers," a glazed, gilded, lacquered and varnished ceramic sculptural group from 1997.

Hieroglyphics seem to be the theme of two fabulous Gene Matthews paintings done last year, "Utterances 2," a monumental oil, acrylic and enamel painting on canvas covered with intricate and tiny patterns suggestive of Egyptian scribbling, and "Utterances," a mixed media on inked board that appears to be a preparatory study. Equally energetic is Jack Balas's "It's a Long Way Back to Columbus," an oil on canvas from 1992 in which Balas lays a grid of numbers over a landscape dotted with pyramids.

Among the most intelligent things in Egypt of the Mind are three wall-hung pieces by Gary Emrich. In 1994's "Cultural Cast-Off," Emrich uses photo emulsion to transfer a photograph of an Egyptian wall relief to a flat fragment of stone. The tension of the high-tech method and the age-old subject matter heightened by the inspired use of stone is wonderful.

While Ancient Egypt is the product of a century of serious archaeology (with the possible exception of the brain hook), Egypt of the Mind qualifies mainly as a whimsical romp. And the two make a logical pair: Since the admission tickets to Ancient Egypt are good only for designated viewing times, visitors are sure to find themselves cooling their heels in the lobby--or just trying to get in the mood. A quick trip through Egypt of the Mind is a good way to get your head in the game.

Searching for Ancient Egypt: Art, Architecture and Artifacts, through August 2, and Egypt of the Mind, through September 27, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.


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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