The handsome Transforming Milk Into Milk, now installed in the Project Space at RedLine, is a loosely conceived group show that’s as enigmatic in places as its name. The exhibit was put together by former RedLine resident Derrick Velasquez; he took the title from an Allen Ginsberg quote related to a photo of filmmaker Harry Smith pouring milk out of a typical container into an ordinary glass. Ginsberg was pointing out the absurdity of labeling this everyday experience as some kind of alchemy, and in a free-associational way, Velasquez has chosen works that each illustrate a subtle transformation.
Some of the ten artists featured here are people Velasquez knew from Denver, some he knew from school, some he simply encountered on the Internet. All of the pieces have their own distinct presence, which could have given the show the look of a flea market — but Velasquez turns the diversity into a strong point via the exhibit’s spare design, which allows each artist room to coherently express an individual viewpoint.
“Home and a Stranger,” which starts off the show, is a large sculpture by Rashawn Griffin of Kansas City. It’s a wall-sized rectangle that’s fairly tall and extremely wide but with a narrow depth, lending it an early-Richard Serra-like character. Griffin annihilates that interpretation, though, by covering it with a geometric abstraction done in different-colored pool-table felt, as well as adding a handful of found objects on a shelf at one end. The placement of the Griffin establishes the exhibit’s flow, invariably leading viewers to a pair of drawings by New York artist Katrina Chamberlin, from her “Clickity Clack” series. Both have all-over compositions that read as abstracts, yet the shapes used are evocative of representational images — what could be stick figures, for instance. Chamberlin was inspired to do the series at the time she was teaching her baby to talk.
Nearby is one of the show’s standouts, “Me and My Father on Vacation,” an eye-popping installation by emerging Denver artist Taylor Balkissoon that includes an old found chandelier suspended from the ceiling and various elements scattered on the floor below it. Meant to conceptually convey her complex relationship with her father, it includes specific references to him, including his hockey gloves, a bowl of sugar and bunch of cigarette butts.
The mood of the show shifts radically with Kumasi J. Barnett’s ultra-provocative altered comic-book covers. Barnett, an African-American artist living in New York, finds vintage comic books and, using paints and markers, transforms the covers so that the star superhero mutates from an agent of good into a champion of white racism; the results are genuinely shocking. Political sentiments also inform the video “Surveillance2,” by Adán De La Garza, which documents a performance in which the Denver artist climbs a ladder and installs a fake video camera so that it blocks a real one. More philosophical than overtly political is an installation by Portland artist Carlin Brown that turns the ephemeral correspondence she carries out online into actual hard-copy books displayed on minimalist plywood shelves. The piece turns the notion that the virtual has replaced the actual on its head.
On the wall behind the Brown is an installation by New York’s Amanda Martinez. Within each of the three spaces defined by four sets of vertical rods is one of her “Sonatina” carvings, done in polystyrene and wood. Immediately to the left are a suite of five small figural sculptures in fired porcelain by Cincinnati’s Future Retrieval (Guy Michael Davis and Katie Parker). These figures from the artists’ “Transfer of Power” series are based on found Chinese archetypes carried out with 3-D scanning and digital production methods; the mirrored glazes are spectacular.
San Francisco artist Bean Gilsdorf has contributed one of her signature pieces, in which a classic Western painting has been printed onto cloth and then incorporated into a fringed banner. The final moment of the show is “A Temporary Respite,” a video by Denver’s Justin Beard depicting a set of painted metal plates being suddenly raised up into wind chimes, with the live soundtrack of the traffic’s roar seeming to trigger the transformation.
The other show at RedLine right now is Blow Up: Chad Person, mounted in the main gallery. Last year, Black Cube, the Denver-based nomadic museum run by Cortney Lane Stell, commissioned New Mexican artist Person to create a pop-up monument, “The Prospector,” that was briefly erected near the Colorado State Capitol. An inflated, cartoon-character-like depiction of an Old West prospector made from bright-blue vinyl, “The Prospector” looked very much like one of those Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, but was tethered to the ground rather than floating above it. Person’s pieces in this follow-up exhibit presented by Black Cube are closely related to “The Prospector” in both materials and conceptual underpinnings.
For all but one of the sculptures in Blow Up (the exception is “Dying Gaul”), Person has taken a well-known product symbol or cartoon character and turned it into an inflatable vinyl balloon. Hidden inside the vinyl forms are custom electronics that allow the pieces to self-inflate, to move subtly and to make sounds. At first glance, the whole show seems very kid-friendly, but Person has added a dark twist to each of his depictions that thoroughly undercuts that initial impression. For example, in “Thirst,” a huge red Pegasus, part of Mobil Oil’s logo, lies prone on a black plate that reads as if it were a pool of spilled oil. Underdog is the subject of “Hero”; he’s seen sitting in a stupor surrounded by drugs strewn on the floor.
Although Person designs the sculptures, he has them fabricated in India by craftsmen who specialize in making balloons for festivals and parades. They carry out the pieces partly by hand, which lends them an unexpected folkloric quality, as seen in “Oxymandias Weeps”; here the hand-painting visible on the edges of the burger that Big Boy is holding sets up a dialogue with the highly refined and tightly realized character the piece is based on.
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These two shows have much shorter runs than is standard for RedLine exhibits. As ambitious as it is, Transforming Milk Into Milk runs only through this weekend after an extremely brief three-week stint. Blow Up will hang around for an additional week. Both are worth seeing.
Transforming Milk Into Milk, through September 25; Blow Up: Chad Person, through October 2, both at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street. For more information call 303-296-4448, or go to redlineart.org.