Terry Maker's garden grows at MCA Denver

Because the Project Gallery on the second floor of MCA Denver regularly showcases Colorado artists, it has emerged as one of the most interesting spaces at the museum. This is an important part of the MCA's mandate, since one reason the institution was founded was to provide an opportunity for local artists to exhibit their work in a museum setting. The chief motivation behind this goal was the terrible job the Denver Art Museum had done in this same task — something that has changed little in the decade since the MCA first opened.

The first area artist to be featured in the Project Gallery was Jeff Starr, whose paintings were displayed last winter. This was followed by photos and drawings by Jack Balas, presented last spring. Now it's Terry Maker's turn, and she's created an installation called Garden of Nineveh. Maker is a Boulder artist who's been exhibiting her extremely original pieces for the past 25 years along the Front Range, around the country and even in Japan. Born in 1953, she studied at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, where she received a BA, then went on to earn a master's degree at Texas Tech University. She completed her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Like her predecessors in the Project Gallery, Maker was selected by MCA staff members, including former director Cydney Payton. But she didn't think her initial presentation to the committee went well. "I felt as though I had really done badly and I wasn't clear about where I wanted to go with it," she recalls. As she was driving home that day, she came up with a different idea from the one she'd pitched. "I wanted the opportunity, and I love the space — it's a great museum — so I centered really heavily on how I wanted this. What popped up in my brain was the idea of our wants and desires — that we, as human beings, were walking cavities of our wants and desires," she says.

Though Maker thought she had blown her chance, Payton called her back and said the committee had accepted her proposal. Maker told Payton that she had changed her mind about what she wanted to do, and luckily the committee was fine with that. Payton has long been a supporter of Maker's efforts, showcasing the artist's work at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art a decade ago. In a phone interview last week, Payton remarked that the artist is well spoken — "she can definitely talk about her work" — and her creations are well thought out. Plus, she's very accomplished at "making art." Payton's choice of words is interesting, because it underscores the connection between the artist and her name: Maker.

Beginning with the concept of "wants and desires," Maker decided to create an installation with three parts. The first is a soundtrack, recorded at the museum itself before Garden of Nineveh was put in place, with visitors asked by Maker to talk about their private wants and desires. As the recorded voices fill the room with sound, the words of the anonymous talkers are impossible to understand. However, Maker has hidden speakers within elements of the installation, and viewers (listeners?) can step up close to them and hear the various voices clearly. Initially, I wasn't sure if the cacophony of spoken words were part of the piece or if I was simply overhearing live conversations emanating from different parts of the museum.

Though conceptually strong in light of her organizing theme, the voice tracks are much less interesting than the two distinct visual effects that complete the piece. To start, Maker has painted the Project Gallery a rich black, with the two facing walls covered with gigantic bas-relief sculptures. There are no freestanding elements and only floor space in between, making it seem as though the installation is unfinished. The emptiness also allows the soundtrack to bounce around the space, causing echoes.

Before describing and interpreting the two different wall pieces, I feel it's necessary to discuss Maker's unusual method and medium. She lays found and specially made materials into a rectilinear form and then binds everything together using plastic resin. When the resin sets, she takes it out of the form and uses power saws to cut it into relatively thin slices. Once the slices have been freed from the cast block, she uses power sanders to create a smooth surface. Finally, she appends cast-plastic elements to the sliced panels, creating a sculptural effect. Maker says she's transparent as a person, and cutting into the cast blocks is an extension of that. "Getting down to the bones, the guts of things," she remarks. "What's inside an artist? Can you look at it? Art today is about being ironic, of having a wit-off, but I'm more old-fashioned, and that makes it kind of new."

In many ways, the two wall pieces are visual and ideational opposites of one another. The first is pointy and threatening, the second smooth and inviting. The pointy side, which I've nicknamed "thorns," is much more literal in a pictorial sense than is "honey," my nickname for the smooth side. The overall colors are opposites, too, with "thorns" dominated by cool tones, especially various shades of green, and "honey" all about warm shades such as brown and yellow. The two may also be read to correspond to the dichotomy of male (thorns) and female (honey). And, really, the listing of these opposing characteristics could go on and on.

Despite the installation's title, with its reference to Nineveh (an ancient and abandoned city near present-day Mosul, Iraq), Maker says the piece is about the Garden of Eden. "The expulsion from Paradise is an interesting idea to come out of," she says. The story is well known to us all: Adam and Eve live in the garden without any wants or desires, but face temptation, the forbidden fruit. Urged on by the serpent that symbolizes the Devil, Eve picks an apple and then has Adam take a bite of it. As a result, they are expelled by God and forced to toil the land, but all that grows are thorns and thistles.

This parable is the setup for the thorn wall, which is all about struggle. Across the bottom are panels with imagery that evokes a graveyard. Maker has embedded casts of human bones and skulls that suggest decomposing bodies. Around them are swirls of materials, including shredded paper money (acquired by the artist from the Federal Reserve) and shredded foil. Above are ten vertical shafts done in the cut-resin pieces; on them are hundreds of thorns, some of which have also been cast from resin, while the largest ones are done in vacuum-formed plastic. The audio recordings emanate from the hollow vacuum-formed horns, so that even though the shape of them would tend to repel viewers, the voices bring them in.

The honey wall also has a biblical origin, referring to the idea of the "land of milk and honey," and is about abundance. Maker has created an enormous honeycomb out of the sliced-resin panels.

On top, she has placed over-scaled drips in amber resin, evocative of drops of honey. The imagery is enhanced by Maker's use of bubble wrap submerged in the resin, which itself has a honeycomb pattern. Maker tells me that while she was making it, a real bee flew into it, and she believes the hapless insect mistook her piece for its home, which is bittersweet, just like her work.

As I finished my interview with Maker, she said she hoped that Garden of Nineveh held up to the Damien Hirst exhibit on view nearby. I think it does, and further believe that the two are complementary, since both are about our all too mortal reality.

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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