Prescription for Success

Cydney Payton plays many roles at Denver's smallish, newish Museum of Contemporary Art, including that of director and chief curator. She doesn't put together every show at MCA, but she does organize the vast majority of them. In fact, it was her reputation as a first-rate curator that got her the MCA job. When she was hired a couple years ago, Payton was already a known commodity in the local art scene because she had put on scores of interesting exhibits, first at a string of commercial galleries here in Denver and then at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Payton doesn't always hit a home run, even if she does have a remarkably high batting average. I say this because the current show, PILLish: Harsh Realities and Gorgeous Destinations, is not, in truth, one of her greatest hits. Although, to be absolutely fair, it's not a miss either.

My initial reaction to the show was pretty negative. When the young woman behind the information desk asked me what I thought of it, I jokingly asked for my money back. But my early appraisal of the show has softened through repeated viewings. On my first run-through, I thought it fell flat. On the second round, I noticed that even if there were some really terrible things in the show, most everything else was good -- some of it very good. During my last turn, it occurred to me that the show looked tight as a whole, even taking into account those dreadful pieces that were on display.

"The idea was to put together an exhibition about something I was seeing in the art world: artists mining the poisonous, ecstatic and health-related sides of pharmaceutical substances," Payton says. "I wanted to put that particular topic out there right now, because it was new and because it would be controversial."

I have to take issue with this second point. PILLish is absolutely not controversial, but that's not Payton's fault. It's hard, if not impossible, to elicit controversy with fine art these days, and the crowd that stops by the MCA is, I dare say, particularly difficult to outrage -- especially when the topic is drugs.

Casting a wide net, Payton chose pieces in which drugs were used as either ad hoc art materials or as narrative content. Organizing an exhibit that surveys international currents by using the work of famous artists is a difficult proposition for a small place with a tight budget like MCA. Shipping and insurance costs are high, and work of the hottest artists is often in short supply, if not completely inaccessible, so Payton was able to get only a few major artists, who are represented only by minor works.

When I mentioned to Payton that there were not many important things in the show, she immediately brought up Larry Clark's photos. Clark's multi-part "Kids Portfolio," a series of color photos depicting teenagers doing drugs and having sex, does, I have to admit, qualify as a major work by a major artist. And it might even be one of the few things in PILLish that could actually qualify as being genuinely controversial, because the subjects are underage.

But making my point is Fred Tomaselli's "Metalectual," because it's one of the artist's Iris prints and not one of his famous relief sculptures made of wood and pills and capsules. The print, in which skeins of color made from little pill shapes spiral across a black field, is very nice, though very modest in size. Larger and consequently more impressive is Damien Hirst's "Tetrahydrocannabinol," a color etching of dots that is part of his famous series in which dots stand in for pills. In this piece, Hirst laid out circles meant to express the chemical makeup of the substance that gives marijuana its hit.

More like the Clarks, there's another group of photos that qualify as being important works by an important artist: Nan Goldin's C-prints, which record her stay in a drug rehabilitation center in London. The photos are out of focus and hung so that they wrap around a corner in the main space. The one of the Christmas tree at the Priory, a facility that treats heroin addicts, is particularly poignant.

The exhibit includes a lot of photos and photo-based pieces, including digital prints. In addition to the Clarks and the Goldins, there are those by Richard Billingham, Glenn Brown, Thomas Ruff and Albert Chong. Technically, the video installation "The Pits," by David Critchley and Dr. Elizabeth Lee, is also photo-based, but the less said about that self-indulgent effort, the better. (Too bad Payton thought to devote an entire gallery to this nonsense.)

There are few sculptures and no paintings worth mentioning in PILLish, but there are two remarkable wall hangings made of found materials by Tom Fruin, a New York artist who is not as famous as most in this show. In "Vial Piece," Fruin sewed and tied together, among other things, the little plastic envelopes and vials that crack cocaine is sold in, gathering the material for the work on the streets of his neighborhood. The other hanging is similar in concept and appearance. In addition to being beautiful, the two Fruins use the illegal drug culture as a way to explicate the current urban environment.

PILLish doesn't quite jell, but it's hard to be too critical of Payton for that, since she's been so darned busy with other things. For the last year and a half, she's been spearheading the drive to get the MCA a new building.

The whole thing began when Mark Falcone and Ellen Bruss gave the MCA a tract of land in the Platte Valley at 15th and Delgany streets. The lot, worth some $800,000, is part of a development being done by Falcone's company, Continuum Partners. Surrounding the new building will be Art House, a group of luxury townhouses, and the mid-priced Monarch Mills loft project, which is being sub-developed by Urban Ventures. Denver's Studio Completiva designed all but one of the Art House townhouses, as well as Monarch Mills and the site's master plan.

After the announcement of the gift of land, Payton launched an international design competition that began in late 2003 and continued into early 2004 in which six architectural firms made public presentations of their work to packed houses of museum supporters and building enthusiasts. This past April, Britain's Adjaye/Associates, headed up by David Adjaye, was chosen as the winner.

At the same time she was shepherding the design competition, Payton was also beating the bushes for construction funds. And though the capital campaign has not yet been launched, she's already lined up nearly $4.5 million in land, gifts and promises. A cost estimate for the new building has not yet been set, but $15 million is a number that's been kicked around, which is a lot more realistic than the $4 million estimate that was originally put forward by the MCA.

A couple of weeks ago, Adjaye was in town to unveil a model of the new building. It is an extremely simple and elegant structure that represents a revitalized architectural modernism that could be called post-post-modern, or neo-modern for short. Adjaye combines elements associated with various first-generation modernist styles, but he expresses it in new ways, so he can't be called a revivalist. Appropriately, members of Studio Completiva, which is doing the other projects associated with the new MCA, are homegrown proponents of the same neo-modern design concepts.

The building will be rectilinear and completely covered in UV protective glass backed on three sides by translucent plastic sheeting. This will allow the walls to glow inside during the daytime while glowing from the outside at night. There are also light wells on the roof, which will provide indirect and UV-safe lighting to the galleries and other interior spaces. There is no visible entry; rather visitors will follow a processional outdoor corridor to the hidden main door. This is either like the passage into a sacred space or to a subway, depending on your taste in imagery. The interior plan is conceived as though it were three separate buildings connected by passages. In a break from what has become a standard for recent museum design, the interior will not feature big flexible spaces, but instead, discrete rooms devoted to specific art forms. This was something Payton wanted after she and the architect selection committee studied new museums around the world.

In Adjaye's proposed MCA, there's a lot of Miesian content, but it's in the detailing and not in the conceptual underpinning. There's also an elaborate cubist combination of masses, visible especially inside and on the roof, that harks back to the international style of the 1920s and '30s. I couldn't help also thinking of Edward Durell Stone, the ultra-formalist of the mid-twentieth century. And believe it or not, there's an African element to the building, too -- at least according to Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania, where his father was a diplomat. Simple patterns, such as the stacked design in the glazing of the glass curtain walls, are a significant part of the African aesthetic, he notes.

Based on the model, and even more on Payton's well-tested ability to get things done, I'd say the new MCA is set to be one of the city's greatest new landmarks. I can't wait until it's finished in 2006.

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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

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