Salon Selective

Mark Sink is both a prominent Denver photographer and a member of a prominent local family. That explains why he's a tuxedo-clad semi-regular on the society pages of the city's dailies, typically seen in photographs with one or the other of his divorced parents. His father is Chuck Sink, an old master among Denver's modern architects whose greatest accomplishment is 1 Cheesman Place, a sublimely minimal late-modern-style high-rise at 13th Avenue and Williams Street on Cheesman Park. His mother, Ann White, now married to architect Ed White, has been known for decades for her watercolor abstractions of the landscape and is a prominent member of The Eight, a group of contemporary Denver painters.

Since 1992, son Mark has had his own private art club: the Denver Salon, a kind of exclusive clique made up of photographers Sink has personally invited to join. Sink established the salon a couple of years after returning from New York City, where he had lived for a decade and made a reputation with his Polaroid portraits of art-world habitues such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Denverites got a chance to see Sink's New York photos when they were exhibited a couple of years ago at the Mackey Gallery.)

But to find the source of inspiration for the Denver Salon, one needs to go even further down Sink's family tree, back a century to his maternal great-grandfather, James L. Breese. Breese is essentially forgotten today, though Sink is working to correct that. But in the 1890s he was a fine-art photographer of considerable distinction, a partner in the renowned Carbon Studio, where he took portraits of New York's social and artistic elite; he was also one of the founders of the New York Camera Club, an organization important to the development of American fine-art photography. More relevant to his great-grandson's current activities, Breese also staged his own "1001 Nights" salons, holding them at midnight in his Fifth Avenue townhouse. At these gatherings, photographers and others met to discuss their work in a festive party atmosphere.

Sink became aware of his illustrious ancestor's life and work when a large archive of Breese's personal files and newspaper clippings, along with a cache of carbon prints, lantern slides and glass negatives, were entrusted to him after he returned to Denver from New York. This valuable material had languished in the safety of storage for a hundred years and finally wound up in the Santa Fe basement of a relative, where Sink discovered it.

Sink defines a salon as "an assemblage of persons, usually of social or intellectual distinction, who frequent the home of a particular person." In the case of the Denver Salon, that home is Sink's funky Victorian in the Highland neighborhood. To push the connection to Breese still further, the room in which the Denver group meets is decorated "salon style," with works of art clustered on the walls. The members sit at a long, draped table that's lit by candles, and at the end of each meeting, a photograph is taken of the members posed with a picture of Breese.

More than a dozen Salon members are now featured in the current exhibit Mark Sink, Inna Valin and Selections From the Denver Salon at the Rule Modern and Contemporary gallery. And the show serves as proof that Sink is following in Breese's footsteps in more ways than one. It not only holds together, but is as good a snapshot of Denver's contemporary photography scene as any survey in recent memory.

Some very unusual and striking photographs as well as edgy photo-based pieces have been included, and though a whiff of the past can be detected in some of the photos, the nostalgic spell is broken before the gallery-goer even enters Rule. In the windows, gallery director Robin Rule has placed four photo-dotted sculptures by young art star David Zimmer. One look at them makes it clear that this show is about photography in the 1990s, not the remote events of the 1890s.

Also in keeping with Sink's vision of the Salon as a cutting-edge crew, the Rule show provides viewers with a glimpse of the latest in gallery display techniques. This fall Rule reconfigured the interior of her gallery, dividing the space into a series of small, residential-sized rooms. This is the wave of the future as commercial rents skyrocket; plus, the market has turned away from the impossibly large, institutional-sized works that necessitated the big, empty white rooms that have long been an industry standard. After all, people are more likely to buy art for their living rooms than for the lobbies of their office buildings. And if the recent remodeling at the Denver Art Museum--where, as at Rule, large rooms were subdivided into smaller ones--is any indication, the traditional white walls, long the only choice for "serious" art display, are another industry standard that's on the way out. (Rule hasn't gone that far yet; the gallery is still painted white--for now.)

Zimmer's sculptures are painted wooden cubes set on stout, cylindrical legs; the cubes have been painted a rich charcoal gray and then adorned with silver-print portraits that are back-lit and partly obscured by strung wire. The wire suggests bondage, and there's a fetishistic quality to the subjects of the portraits as well. Zimmer, after all, is known both for his boxed sculptures and for his photos of Denver's pierced and tattooed demimonde. The four pieces in the Rule show merge those interests seamlessly.

Zimmer is joined in the foyer by another artist pushing the photographic medium toward its limits. As with Zimmer's work, Susan Evans's pieces aren't photographs at all. In her case, they're simple drawings of easy-to-recognize objects done on photographic paper. In the 1997 silver print "Banana Box," she places a thick, crude line drawing of a banana next to one of a box. In "Give It to Me," another 1997 silver print, the subject is six lines of mechanically produced text. The content of "Give It to Me"--like much of the rest of this show--is for mature audiences only.

Sink also has pieces in the foyer space, but his are appealing in a downright old-fashioned way. The three color prints of flowers from 1995 pointedly recall seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting. And like the work of the Dutch masters, they're characterized by dense composition and deep focus.

These photos lead the viewer into the newly subdivided main space at Rule, where Sink's more recent pieces are displayed. For the last few years, Sink has been shooting black-and-white "staged fantasies" with a Diana camera that produces a blurry image. These fantasies center on partially draped nude women and, according to Sink, are a melding of historical views of the nude with "high-end pornography like Playboy."

In the 1997 silver print "Michelle From Behind," a vaporous and dark image of a woman's draped posterior seems to float across the picture. Her outstretched arm and long flowing hair form a diagonal that leads the eye up and out of the shot. Any oblique references to pornography notwithstanding, few will find a prurient interest in these tame nudes, which are far too subtle and demure to make it into Playboy. But one person apparently did: The gallery received a rambling phone call from a woman who accused Rule of being a front for prostitution. Strangely, the caller was responding to a photo that's about as risque as an art-deco lamp: Sink's "Statue," a 1997 silver print that features a nude woman, her face obscured, holding up a diaphanous cloth.

Across the room from Sink's nudes are those by Inna Valin, the other artist given top credit in the show. The self-taught Valin is known for her wild self-portraits, and she continues the trend with these recent works, in which she dresses in antique clothing and covers herself with garlands to conjure an exotic and forbidden world. Her delicately hand-colored silver prints are more elaborately staged and detailed than Sink's, and her theme--taxidermy, anyone?--is much more unorthodox. She's effective holding a stuffed bird in 1997's "Fourth Angel of the Winds" and is unforgettable posing with a two-headed calf in her "Journey of the Calf in a Dark Garden" series.

Other works on display in the main room echo Sink's and Valin's fondness for the staged photograph, including Eric Havelock-Bailie's nude close-up silver prints and Paul Schrsder's retro naughties of a young woman with unbelievably long hair. Christopher James takes a different tack with his stunning nocturnal views of Colorado; so does John Hallin in his show-stopping wall-hung relief "Nautical," which he spent hours erecting for this exhibit. The piece features layers of visual elements hung on wire from the wall; tiny cut-up silver prints scattered over it are its only connection to photography.

Hallin's work is placed at the end of the main series of spaces. Behind it, in a very small back gallery that is actually an anteroom for the office, are photos by other members of the Denver Salon. Shaun Gothwaite's touching three-piece series dedicated to her late husband is among them.

It's apparent that no particular artistic thread connects the artists of the Denver Salon--some, such as Zimmer or Hallin, can't even truly be called photographers. The only thing they have in common is that Sink is taken with their work--or perhaps that he just enjoys having them in his home. As this show makes clear, they're all good company.

Mark Sink, Inna Valin and Selections From the Denver Salon, through January 25 at Rule Modern and Contemporary, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

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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