The MCA trumps logistics to present an intriguing group exhibit

As it did last summer, MCA Denver has given itself over to a single exhibit for the season rather than presenting multiple shows, and there are some obvious reasons why. First, it allows the powers-that-be at the museum to mount major exhibits, and second — and probably more important — it's cheaper to pull off. But there's one big shortcoming to this approach: the many weeks that the museum is closed while the show is being mounted and again when it's being taken down. In my mind, the building simply wasn't intended to be used this way. Nonetheless, it looks like this is the programmatic format we'll be seeing in the coming months.

That said, there is still a lot worth checking out — and thinking about — in the current feature, Another Victory Over the Sun, a thematic group exhibit that, at its core, takes up the topic of darkness. The show was co-curated by museum director Adam Lerner and assistant curator Nora Burnett Abrams, who brought together the work of eight artists, all of whom have something to do with art about — or in — the dark.

The topic presented a difficult challenge, however, because the David Adjaye-designed building is ordinarily filled with natural light filtering down from skylights on the roof and through numerous windows, including the second-floor window wall. To pull off Another Victory, every source of exterior light needed to be blocked out with panels or cloth. It was essentially a war between the curators and the building. 

Lerner has said that he contacted Adjaye about the blackout process and that the African-born British architect was interested in coming to Denver to see the effect. Adjaye, whom I interviewed on several occasions while the MCA was being designed and built, is a super-charming guy, and I'm sure that no matter how he feels about the curators monkeying with his concepts, he will be gracious about it. But it would be strange if he sincerely embraced the idea of conceptually annihilating a key feature of his design, even temporarily. After all, if he'd wanted the MCA to be dark, he'd have made it that way.

That means that Lerner and Abrams's decision to confront the building becomes not just a predominating feature of the show, but the feature. In that way, it functions not only as the ideological umbrella under which everything in Another Victory has been gathered, but as a freestanding conceptual work of art in itself. This curator-as-artist approach is well established in the realm of contemporary exhibits.

The exhibit's title is taken from an avant-garde opera presented in Russia in 1913 that was titled Victory Over the Sun. It was written by Aleksei Kruchenykh in a nonlinear format, but is mostly remembered today because of the participation of vanguard suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich, who designed the sets, which are said to have included his first ever black-on-black painting. (A film about a 1981 re-creation of the opera is running on a continuous video loop on an LCD monitor in the MCA's elevator.)

Victory begins at the top of the entry ramp with the only piece that references the Russian origins of the title: "Monument to V. Tatlin," by the late Dan Flavin. Tatlin was a pioneer of Russian constructivism and an early supporter of the revolution. His most famous work was his proposed "Monument to the Third International," which took the form of a vertical spiral. Flavin has translated that shape into a stepped vertical pyramid, like the silhouette of a skyscraper carried out in the artist's signature fluorescent tubes. It looks great where it is, perfectly filling the small space. And it heaps on the ironies (that began with blocking the windows in the mightily fenestrated building), since Flavin's oeuvre is about light while the show is about the dark. Lerner makes the point that the Flavin sums up the sensibility he and Abrams were looking for: art that is not self-contained but envelops viewers — in this case, by bathing them in light.

In the Merage Gallery on the first floor is one of the real standouts in Another Victory: "Between the Moon and the Sea," by New York artist Spencer Finch. The room-sized installation concerns the Japanese practice of gazing at the moon via its reflection in water, and the piece has been carried out as a cross between the sensibilities of Hokusai and Home Depot. Most of the gallery's floor is covered with a shallow pool of water. The sides and bottom of the pool have been painted black, giving the water the look of oil. A footbridge crosses the pool, and above it is a plastic lantern standing in for the moon. The whole thing is magical.

In the video-only Law Gallery, Miguel Calderón from Mexico is showing "Los Pasos del Enemigo," a five-minute video of a black jaguar growling in the dark. It's very creepy and a little hair-raising.

Across the lobby (and viewable via the overlook to the lower level) is the second showstopper, which, like the Finch, is also a room-sized installation: "Streambed," by Colorado artist Scott Johnson. The piece has a floor made of poured clay that has been allowed to crack as it dried; it's surrounded by walls made of sheets of mirrored glass. The contrast between the naturalistically set clay and the crisp straight lines of the mirrors is fabulous. On the lower level, viewers can see the piece through the glass because the mirrors only work one way. Also downstairs is another Johnson, a beefy étagère set with enigmatic objects including sculptures; these are meant to give us a look at the artist's creative process, but they really don't.

The show continues on the second floor in Natasha's Gallery, where New York artist Erin Shirreff displays a group of her "Untitled (Shadow)" series of post-minimalist sculptures created in the home town of minimalism, Marfa, Texas. The sculptures — made of ash and Hydrocal over metal armatures — are simple shapes that sit on the floor and lean against the wall so that their actual shadows become essential elements. Also in this gallery is a wall projection by Shirreff titled "Ansel Adams, RCA Building, circa 1940," for which she took thousands of photos of the building, framed as Adams did them originally, under various atmospheric conditions that seem to make the famous art deco high-rise morph continuously before our eyes.

In addition to covering up the exterior light sources, Lerner and Abrams have altered the flow of the interior of the building on the second floor by blocking off one of the entrances to the Promenade Space in order to make it into a formal gallery. In this space, the film Xilitla: Incidents of Misalignment, by British-born Mexican artist Melanie Smith, is being projected. The film records in a lyrical and non-narrative way the remarkable architectural follies of another Brit who worked in Mexico: Edward James, a surrealist. The film runs for nearly half an hour, so the chairs arranged in front of it are essential, but I hated the forced informality of using an eclectic assortment of junk furniture to satisfy this need.

Up next, in the Joseph Crescenti Family Gallery, are several different high-tech pieces by Denver's David Zimmer, and the group represents something of a crescendo in Another Victory. All the Zimmers are marvelous, but "Chorus" is a tour de force. Zimmer has mounted thirteen apothecary jars on small brackets on the wall. The overall shape is amorphous, with the many electrical cords that connect the elements to one another — and to a power source — adding an unexpected expressionist element, like scribbled lines. Inside the apothecaries are screens on which birds appear and disappear as they alight on Zimmer's windowsill at home.

The final part of the show, in the Project Gallery, is an installation titled "Waiting for Jerry," by deceased Spanish artist Juan Muñoz. It's made up of an illuminated mouse hole at the base of one wall, with a soundtrack from the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.

The most interesting thing about Another Victory is not the darkened space, but the fact that two of the three most successful parts of the show are by the two Colorado artists, Johnson and Zimmer. These guys didn't just keep up with the better-known players; they blew nearly all of them completely away.

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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