Risky Business

Contemporary art is dangerous territory to map. There are so many different aesthetic and intellectual paths to follow, half of them leading in opposite directions. There's a confusing array of named and unnamed stylistic tendencies vying for attention and comment -- some concerned with championing the object, others with destroying it; some that tell a story and some that don't. Modernism, post-modernism and what's whimsically called post-post-modernism are all happening simultaneously. Just about anything goes.

This complex and inherently contradictory situation makes it impossible to know which stylistic routes will lead to the art of the future versus those that will dead-end just over the horizon. But there are always some dreaming the impossible dream, attempting to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical. Surely it is with this goal in mind that the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center presents the astounding Lateral Thinking: Art of the 1990s, a traveling show highlighting selections from the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

The MCASD was founded in 1941 -- an extremely early date for a museum devoted to contemporary art, but it is on the West Coast, after all -- and eventually wound up in an oceanside building in La Jolla. By the 1990s, a downtown branch designed by neo-modernist standard-bearer Helmut Jahn was added, and the old building was greatly expanded according to post-modern guru Robert Venturi's design. During this time, the museum also actively collected recent art, amassing more than 250 major works by internationally, nationally and regionally significant artists. This effort reflects an attempt "to serve as both a repository for the art of our time and as a catalyst for the creation of new art," as director Hugh M. Davies wrote in the essential show catalogue.

MCASD curator Toby Kamps organized and oversaw Lateral Thinking, and the exhibit reveals that he is clearly interested in post-modernism above all else. Kamps has only a little interest in neo-modernism and prefers narrative over non-narrative art and conceptual over formal -- going gaga, for example, over process-oriented installation while remaining indifferent to abstract painting.

Thus Lateral Thinking is not simply a snapshot of the 1990s, as Kamps and the title would have us believe, but one taken through a lens bent to the curator's personally peculiar predilections. Another curator could have, and probably would have, made different choices when looking at the last decade of the twentieth century. In fact, one did: To some extent, Dianne Vanderlip, head of the Denver Art Museum's modern and contemporary department, is also looking at the art of the recent past in the current DAM exhibit Retrospectacle. The coincidence of two major contemporary shows being presented at the same time in the area is a lucky break, providing one and all the opportunity to take a painless short course on the subject.

A comparison of the two is inevitable, and I must conclude that Vanderlip's selections are more routinely on the mark than are Kamps's picks. (But, I guess, only time will tell which styles will endure.) Vanderlip obviously had more money to work with than Kamps did, but the credit for that goes to her, too, since she raised all of it herself. (Interestingly, some of the same donors paid for pieces in both shows, including Ted and Joyce Strauss and Nancy Tieken.)

Lateral Thinking may be a close second to Vanderlip's clear winner, but Kamps should be lauded for his unblinking courage in presenting the show. It takes guts to build such a collection in a politically conservative place like San Diego -- not to mention the guts it took for the CSFAC to bring this over-the-top show to Colorado Springs, a center for Christian conservatives who have little tolerance for the excesses of contemporary art. Doubtless, many conservatives will be offended by Lateral Thinking, but to be honest, you don't need to be a fundamentalist Christian to find some things in the exhibit offensive. I know I did, and I'm not a fundamentalist. I'm more of a pagan.

Then again, that's absolutely the point. This stuff was created to disturb and rile viewers and be noticed by them -- not embraced by them. Some pieces are very successful at this, so much so that I didn't even want to look at them. Fortunately, there are enough broadly engaging displays that visitors can lurch from one of those to the next to get through the mammoth show.

Lateral Thinking fills three CSFAC galleries to their limits. It begins in the Garden Gallery off the grand entry lobby, and the thick irony in this room sets the tone for the rest of the show. Consider Vernon Fisher's mixed-media piece, "Faya," done in 1998. One of the first things we see is a weathered formalist abstraction with four meticulously crafted flies made of painted plastic and wire attached to the canvas and the wall. Fisher's message is clear: Abstraction is rotting, and it's starting to attract flies. I think he's wrong about that, but "Faya" works anyway.

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