Review: The Biennial of the Americas Is All About Now? NOW! at the MCA

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The 2015 Biennial of the Americas, with exhibits and events running through August, strikes me as being more modest, less public, less local and more expensive than either the original, in 2010, or the last one, in 2013. That last one included two components that should have been fine-tuned and made into successful permanent fixtures: the architectural component, in which interesting follies were built, and the billboard component, for which artists designed billboards. Also strong last time was curator Cortney Lane Stell’s official exhibit, which, though thrown together at the last minute, was a very credible show, partly because it was dominated by locals.

Even though the previous rendition was stronger, the official 2015 Biennial show, Lauren Wright’s Now? NOW! at MCA Denver, is still worthwhile, with well-chosen works and a handsome installation, even if the purported topic — “now” — is so open-ended as to be utterly meaningless. Who knows? Maybe the lack of constraints enabled Wright to do as good a job as she did. Still, she pretty much left out Colorado art save for a few exceptions, and that definitely bugged me, especially since she is originally from Colorado herself, though she’s spent the last nine years in London as a curator at Turner Contemporary and a lecturer at the University of London, where she received her Ph.D.

Wright included 31 artists. Many are from Mexico, and Denver’s connections to Mexico City are a dominant theme in this show, as well as in the ambassador program and other aspects of the Biennial as a whole.

Now? NOW! is a look at what artists think about the present, so I really wanted to look at, what were the primary concerns of artists working in this hemisphere in terms of the present — what are the questions and issues they are raising in their work? How can they help us to understand the present?” Wright explains. “I was very interested in artists whose works were engaged in reality, and in the real world and what was happening in it, whose work engaged us in a conversation about reality rather than necessarily telling us what to think — artists whose work had some expansiveness, who were kind of looking sideways, rather than artists who tell us, ‘This is it; that’s all you can think.’”

Topical connections began to emerge as Wright selected the artists. “Technology, activism, the relationship of place to the present, space and time, and the relationship of the past to the present are some of the themes that came out of the work I was looking at,” she says.

As I noted, the topic was so malleable that Wright could have included anything she wanted to, which is apparently what she did. Therefore, the only way for me to talk about the show is to pick the highlights as they are laid out, as there is no narrative progression.

One of the first pieces that comes into view is Robert Longo’s “Full-Scale Study for Five Rams,” a three-part digital print with charcoal that depicts five football players who are taking the hands-up pose inspired by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. A similar subject occupies Adam Pendleton’s two oil paintings, displayed in the next space, from his “Black Lives Matter” series; in them, he’s written the phrase “black lives matter” in black-on-black. These paintings are some of the most memorable pieces in the show. The idea of oppression and resistance to it is also seen in the series of photos by LaToya Ruby Frazier, which document the failed efforts of the community to save a hospital in a declining rust-belt town.

A less specific kind of resistance — against corporations or technology? — is shown in the installation by Kari Altmann, who is currently working under the name Hitashya.org. She has filled the corner with images, some done as wallpaper, with the name “Hitashya” spelled out, and others in a wall mural and on a monitor. She made the piece by searching the Internet for imagery and then arranging what she found. Also making a commentary on corporations is the series of photos around the corner by Diego Berruecos, “Twenty Six Closed Gas Stations in Mexico,” which is a response to the work of Ed Ruscha. Interestingly, the photos have a new-topographic look, like a lot of contemporary Colorado photography.

Across from the Berruecos photos are a set of abstract masks made of vacuum-formed plastic by Zach Blas and a monitor showing people wearing them. They are from Blas’s “Facial Weaponization Suite,” which is meant to combat facial-recognition software.

In the library, behind heavy curtains, Adam Milner has used deck chairs, a video of a wild all-male party and provocatively folded towels to continue his exploration of gay cruising; in this case, it’s literal, as the whole thing is set on an actual cruise he took last fall that was sponsored by the hook-up app Grindr.

The lower level is a difficult space, and there are only a few works on view. There are the four high-tech stiles by Sterling Crispin that concern survival in the future; they incorporate articles like dehydrated food and have an anti-aesthetic character, with the exception of the cut-black-plastic panels that adorn the otherwise functional structures. There’s also a three-channel video by Joaquín Segura depicting a town in Nicaragua that holds on to its Sandinista beliefs, right down to having a monument to Cuban revolutionary José Martí; the video is supplemented by photos of rocks and bricks meant to suggest violent protest.

Upstairs on the second level, there’s “Unclaimed,” an unusual interactive installation by Laleh Mehran and Chris Coleman featuring a 3-D-printed city; it’s not Denver, but it could be. Above it are lights and fans, and as viewers blow across the model, the fans stir up plastic sheets near the ceiling that are conveyed on closed-circuit video screens. The piece is about the space above the buildings and below the air traffic lanes. It’s intriguing, especially when the fans get going. The built environment is also the topic of André Komatsu’s “Invisible Movement,” in which the artist has constructed a brick wall whose edges have been smashed and broken. It aims to contrast the pristine-ness of the museum with urban decline.

Another comment on decline, this one concerning homelessness, is brought up by the blankets distributed by the Brazilian government, which Marcelo Cidade hangs as tapestries. It’s Denver’s urban renewal that interests Kim Allen, who photographed the downtown areas that were leveled when the viaducts were removed. His black-and-white images are some of the most beautiful works in the show. The idea of building is also referred to, if obliquely, by the video “Domino Effect,” by Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, which shows repeated takes of used bricks falling like dominoes.

One of the most ambitious works in the show is “Vista de Ojos,” by Mariana Castillo Deball, which covers the floor of an entire gallery. It’s made of 130 sheets of plywood that have been painted black and had a facsimile of the first map of Mexico City inscribed on them in lines and picturesque drawings through the use of a router. It’s really impressive. Also essentially linear are the geometric abstractions in markers and yarn by Eduardo Terrazas, which are meant to explicate the artist’s theories about the cosmos.

A similar geometric approach is taken by Marcius Galan, who has placed nails in the wall with thread stretched between them to create rectangular outlines that are hung with fragments of cloth in places. It’s a conceptual primer on folding a flag.

I strongly recommend Now? NOW!, but I would like to close by saying how deeply disappointed I was to find that the official show — and the rest of the programming — has so little to do with the vibrant community of artists here. They are the ones making the scene as strong as it is, with no help whatsoever from the 2015 Biennial of the Americas.

Now? NOW!
Through August 30 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, mcadenver.org.

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