Mummies Dearest

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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.

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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