RedLine's group photography show is earning double takes

Month of Photography, a citywide series of events going on right now, has really left its mark on Denver over the past few years — a goal that hasn't been easy for some other recent multi-venue offerings.

Remember Dialogue Denver, which coincided with the 2008 Democratic National Convention? No? Neither does anyone else. How about the Biennial of the Americas, from 2010? Maybe you do, because there were a few things worth noting. But as the next one needed to be postponed by a year (it will be presented this summer), the original can hardly be seen as having been a success.

Erin Trapp, head of what was then called the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, was involved in both (though her relationship with the Biennial was only in the initial planning stages), and she has been tapped to get the upcoming Biennial under way, so I don't have high hopes. My prediction is that this will be yet another Denver event that has little to do with Denver.

MoP (a slight misnomer, as it straddles March and April), on the other hand, presents a rousing contrast to the other two. Mark Sink, a photographer and arts advocate (he was one of the founders of MCA Denver), is the force behind it, helping to orchestrate a staggering set of exhibits, workshops, lectures and panels all somehow related to photography. Sink launched the biennial event in 2004, and it has gotten better with each successive rendition. The secret to his success is that Sink is an integral part of the local culture and can therefore tap into its people and its resources, while the organizers of the other spectacles aren't, and usually don't.

For me, the prospect of looking at the many MoP exhibits is mind-numbing; there's no way I could possibly review every one. But some of the interesting standouts include the historic photos at the Byers-Evans House and Z Art Department; the cutting-edge photography presented at the Gildar Gallery and Vertigo; the street photography at the Myhren Gallery; and the fantasy photos and videos at Metro's Center for Visual Art.

But MoP's marquee presentation is The Reality of Fiction, an enormous and fabulous show that Sink ably curated and laid out at RedLine.

See also: Photos: The Month of Photography's marquee event blurs reality at RedLine

Photographic images have long been considered records of real places and actual sights (before the development of Photoshop, anyway), but The Reality of Fiction takes up the notion that photos can also fool the eye, making them both true depictions of reality and false ones. With only a few exceptions, most are straight photos, with no digital hocus-pocus.

Sink included work by more than two dozen artists from around the world, but a big hunk of the entries were done by the home team, a who's-who of lens-masters from the local scene.

Staged self-portraits perhaps best express the concept behind the show's title. There are Michael Ensminger's odd and somewhat disturbing (though sometimes funny) self-portraits in which he shows himself frolicking in nature, often in the nude. His self-characterization suggests he's in some kind of primeval natural world as he wraps himself around branches or lies on the ground. Sally Stockhold does some of the same things in her mock historical photos. Using costumes and elaborate settings, she impersonates various figures, including artist Alice Neel, advertising icon Aunt Jemima and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Related, though very different, are the restaged Diane Arbus photos in which emerging photographer Emily Peacock stands in for people in some famous original images.

Although Adam Milner also includes himself in his photos and in a two-channel video projection, he doesn't disguise himself; instead, he creates a dialectic between simulation and actual experience. In the video, "Adam & I," he is shown on one side cooking, and on the other acting as though he is cooking — and you can't tell the difference.

Other players in the show create their own worlds but don't inhabit the resulting images. Katie Taft takes color shots of little whimsical figures that she makes. Lori Nix builds miniature landscapes that she records and which are only clearly false once we look closely at them. Sarah Haney puts together vignettes starring Barbie and Ken in some weird situations, like Barbie posing provocatively as Ken takes a cheesecake photo of her. As with the Nix photos, you need to do a double take to understand that you are not actually looking at people, but at little dolls. Also compelling are the photos by James Soe Nyun, in particular the copy of the famous Paul Strand photo of the back of the St. Francis Church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Nyun has built a model of the church out of Wonder Bread and Sno Balls!

Then there are those artists who find people engaged in simulations of reality all on their own. Greta Pratt has taken posed portraits of current-day Southern belles — including some African-American ones — in hoop skirts, guys dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and Lincoln impersonators. And despite the potential humor here, some of the subjects are actually a little unnerving. Edie Winograde is represented by a quartet of striking shots of historic reenactments, in which people pretend to be cavalry members and Indians. Also incredible in their beauty and concept are photos by Reiner Riedler depicting people enjoying vacations in ersatz resorts, including the "tropical islands" inside a German complex and the "ice cave" at the indoor snow center in Dubai. They're incredible.

Among the handful of digitally altered works are several large pieces by local pioneer of the medium John Bonath and Conor King's monumental landscape, in which letters and numbers are hidden in the tall grasses in the foreground. Finally, there are the hallucinogenic works by T. John Hughes, in which ghostly images of lost historic buildings are superimposed on present-day shots of the same place.

A few works defy easy categorization, like the Polaroids by Joe Clower, in which he has suspended a miniature space ship in front of real views of the city or countryside. Also unusual and very good is the imaginary assembled landscape by J. Frede made from antique black-and-white snapshots of different views.

P. J. D'Amico, RedLine's executive director, told me he was in awe of the difference that a single person — in this case, Mark Sink — can make for the city. And who could argue with that?

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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