In the hierachy of exhibits, the retrospective solo ranks at the top of the heap, as it allows viewers to follow an artist’s aesthetic life through the course of a career. The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is currently hosting just such a show, Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves, organized by curator Nora Burnett Abrams over the past year. Ranging across the entire set of galleries and connecting spaces on the MCA’s second floor, it’s stunningly beautiful and elegantly restrained, providing a striking counterpoint to the riotous and over-the-top exhibits on the lower level and first floor, Nathan Carter and Bodacioussss, respectively.
Born in New York in 1964, Kim Dickey became interested in art as a child, as she revealed to Abrams in a wide-ranging interview that will be included in a forthcoming catalogue. Her earliest memories were of drawing plants that she saw in her backyard garden. But in sixth grade she was introduced to ceramics, and she soon realized that it was the medium for her — even if she has sometimes questioned that choice. In 1986, Dickey earned a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and in 1988, an MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, an institution that has played an outsized role in the history of studio ceramics in America. Today Dickey is a Colorado artist who’s also an art professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she has taught since 1999; she had her first Denver solo the following year. Her early inspiration in the garden and her embrace of ceramics create a direct — though braided — line, from her work as a young artist all the way through her latest pieces, which employ clay to refer to plants. But as the MCA show reveals, Dickey also delves into other mediums, including printmaking, photography, fiber and even video and performance.
The MCA exhibit runs clockwise through the various spaces, and though it begins with the oldest pieces and ends with the newest, Abrams has clustered the works in between according to visual or conceptual affinities rather than chronology. The first section starts with art that Dickey was doing in New York, but also includes pieces done after she arrived in Colorado. In a way, this first section lays out the parameters of Dickey’s interests by showing works of various types and mediums. The chief revelation here is that some of Dickey’s earliest pieces make quiet and almost invisible references to the human body and its functions, references overshadowed by the obvious botanical imagery that has dominated much of her art since then. A display case in this area is filled with small bowls, each with a spout at the bottom; their shape is based on a female urination device known as a “Lady J.” Above these spouted bowls is a lineup of photos showing them in use, a shockingly graphic way to start a show that’s mostly about gardens — but it does expand our understanding of Dickey’s aims. That’s also true of the less-in-your-face “The Fall Set,” a nesting stack of porcelain bowls, with each demountable element meant to hold a different course of an elaborate meal — and on a monitor next to the stacked bowls, there’s a video of a man eating those courses. If these pieces weren’t accompanied by photos or videos showing them in action, viewers might not understand their full meaning; otherwise, they suggest nothing more visceral than delicately rendered mid-century-modern vases or bowls.
The next gallery holds the exhibit’s first showstopper, a unified statement that establishes the predominating garden theme and illustrates Dickey’s desire to create sculptures that are geometric, minimalist and decorative, all at the same time. As you enter, you see “Parterre” hanging on the far wall; it’s a mammoth, fifteen-by-fifteen-foot bas-relief completely covered with simple ceramic quatrefoil forms mounted onto sheets of aluminum. Using different colored glazes, Dickey has rendered an aerial view of a formal European garden called a “parterre” that’s defined by its pattern of linear hedges outlining symmetrically balanced spaces. “Parterre” was originally created for Denver International Airport, where it was laid horizontally over the basin of a failed fountain designed for the terminal. There’s also a wonderful installation on the floor, “Rosebud Bush and Lift and Divide Rug,” with a sculpture of a rosebush reduced to a dome shape that’s been covered with repeated elements — those glazed green evocative of leaves, and others, in pink, indicative of flowers; it sits on an industrial mat that’s been printed with an aerial view of a different formal garden.
The next showstopping passage is down the corridor and around the corner, in the wedge-shaped anteroom, where a lineup of oversized vases on cylindrical bases sits against one wall. All of the vases are glazed in a rich off-white and pay homage to many classic vessel traditions — but several have titles that make allusions to brides, introducing narrative content to the mix. The magisterial vessels are set off by a few of Dickey’s signature hedgerow sculptures placed on the floor on the opposite side of the space. These are essentially aluminum boxes, sometimes angled and covered with ceramic multiples suggestive of leaves. The results comment on the groundbreaking minimalist beam sculptures by Robert Morris in the 1960s, but they’ve been translated by Dickey into her unique visual language.
The finale in the large gallery off the anteroom does not disappoint. It’s populated by a menagerie of lyrical renditions of animals and birds, each on its own pedestal; they all sport a rich off-white finish similar to that of the large vessels. The inspiration for these figures is the heraldry that symbolized noble European families, often incorporating animals and birds. Dickey has modeled the forms as though they were topiaries covered with wrapping and overlapping leaves, yet despite this camouflage, viewers instantly understand that they are looking at a squirrel, a boar or a stag, for example. A couple of the pieces in this section depict not animals, but raised human arms — one holding a laurel, the other an ax — and they, too, are reminiscent of the imagery seen on family crests.
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Some of the best shows I’ve seen at MCA Denver have been career solos, and Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves ranks among the top.
Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves, through January 22, MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.