Three important Biennial art exhibits bring the Western world to Denver

I could use this entire page — and many more — to talk about what a lost opportunity the 2010 Biennial of the Americas turned out to be. I'd start out by exploring the story of the stillborn "In Good We Trust" theme thought up by Bruce Mau, who split from the project. I could then talk about how the members of the board of the Biennial appear to have as little interest in art generally — and in Colorado art, specifically — as the laws of physics will allow. I could go on to discuss how boring many of the events sound, like discussions with such mind-numbing titles as "Education: The Achievement Gap" or "Trade: Leveraging Partnerships for Sustainable Economies."

But I won't do any of that. Instead, I'm going to discuss three of the most important Biennial shows and urge you to see them.

The official exhibit is The Nature of Things, ensconced in the gutted and slightly facelifted McNichols Building. The exhibit was curated by Paola Santoscoy, a native of Mexico City who's fresh out of graduate school at the California College of Art.

When Santoscoy came on board in February, she had to conceive of a show that would relate to the Biennial's themes, invite the artists, and figure out where everything would go — not an easy task at the time, since the McNichols was still a warren of offices.

The show begins outside with a functional installation by Jerónimo Hagerman made of hot-pink banners. The banners shade the building's forecourt, which Hagerman has furnished with outdoor chairs made of black iron and lime-green cords. Topping the whole thing off are planters filled with live foliage that wrap around the columns.

Entering the building, the first thing viewers will see is a compelling white assemblage by cypher13 that's made up of constructivist forms based on the shapes of the countries of the Western Hemisphere. There are also some counters, desks and stools made of beetle-kill lumber by the tres birds workshop.

Up on the piano nobile level are a number of interesting things, none more so than Gabriel Acevedo Velarde's "Hijos de la Nada," which creatively documents, in video and on a laptop, a story about Peruvian teenagers who defaced pre-Columbian ruins and then posted their exploits on YouTube. The video is set to a hip-hop soundtrack done by Velarde himself. Nearby is a symmetrical ceiling-hung installation that looks like a mad scientist's greenhouse. The piece, by Joseph Shaeffer, explores natural defenses, and there are a lot of references to thorns and claws within the high-tech aesthetic of the piece.

The show culminates on level three. Standouts include "Palas por Pistolas," by Pedro Reyes, a lineup of shovels on the floor that have been made from recycled guns, with a set of videos documenting the process. Adjacent is a flexible, lightweight space-frame construction system by Alexis Rochas. It really has a resonance with Clark Richert's systemic pattern paintings and his video about structures, all of which have been installed nearby.

The show's title is taken from a poem by Lucretius, and Santoscoy interpreted it as being about a sense of place. That interpretation led directly to this very intelligent show.

Interestingly, Santoscoy was recommended for the job by MCA Denver director Adam Lerner, who, together with architect Paul Andersen, is putting on his own Biennial show at the museum. Having the epic title of Energy Effects: Art and Artifacts From the Landscape of Glorious Excess, it, too, begins outside the building, where Gonzalo Lebrija's sculpture from his "Between Life and Death" series has been installed.

The sculpture depicts a car set vertically over a reflecting puddle, and the artist has used an actual car and puddle to do it. This has got to be one of the coolest outdoor sculptures in all of Denver, and I was happy to hear that efforts are already under way to make it permanent elsewhere in town. The piece could be used as an index to the MCA show, because it explores how energy is expended, and not how it's conserved. And how to better express that than by having a car seeming to be diving into the water? Lebrija's piece might not be about the BP spill, but it sure brings that disaster to mind.

Once inside, viewers will see two interventions in the atrium lobby area: Ciro Najle's "cumulus," a computer-aided crocheted installation hanging from the ceiling; and Orly Genger's "Reg," a black cube of woven ropes that blocks their path. Both contain two currents that run through the show — those of science and nature (and the dichotomy between the two). Each says something different about the atrium, however, with Najle's piece proving it's a great place to exhibit art and Genger's suggesting that sometimes it's not.

The pieces that use nature or natural processes include: a lineup of rope sandals by Viviane Le Courtois whose forms have been sculpted through the act of walking; Martha Russo's aquatic-inspired abstract forms that seem to emanate from a corner; and Janine Gordon's C-prints of agitated young men.

The works with scientific or technological subtexts include: Don Stinson's gas pump drawings; Willard Wigan's Statue of Liberty in the eye of a needle seen through a microscope; and an elaborate installation by Jim Sanborn. The piece, which depicts the first particle accelerator built in the 1930s, puts a twist on the idea of using found objects. The accelerator model was scratch-built by Sanborn, but his design was ready-made by someone else seventy years ago and was dedicated to a completely different purpose.

The theme of energy segues neatly into the last of the shows I'm going to mention, Objectophilia, at Capsule, which is split between a space just beyond the Lebrija car sculpture and the ground floor of a nearby high-rise. The show, which takes up the topics of stored energy or energy that's already been expended, was curated by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, who was drafted into it after the local art community pointed out to the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs how local artists had been marginalized in the Biennial. Though both The Nature of Things and Energy Effects feature works by Colorado artists, they are distinctly in the minority in both shows. Objectophilia is different, because it's dominated by artists from around here. And the show proves the point that first-rate stuff is easy to find in Denver and its surroundings.

The strongest part of the show is in the building across from the MCA, not because the works therein are any finer than those a block away, but because Murphy was able to take charge of this smaller space in a way she wasn't able to in the high-rise.

There are a number of well-established talents here, including Bill Amundson, Phil Bender, Tim Flynn, Mark Friday, Rian Kerrane, Jerry Kunkel, Terry Maker, Jimmy Sellars, Jerry Simpson, Jeff Wenzel and David Zimmer. But there are also many unknowns, including a few surprises. Jimmy Descant's rocket-ship construction falls into this category, as do Scott Lary's suspension pieces made from old plastic dishes. Lary's sense for composition and his gifted touch with color mixing make these pendulums constructed from discarded plastic positively elegant.

I can only touch on the tip of the iceberg of this gigantic two-part presentation, but it's as important to see as the other two shows.

I'd like to close with a suggestion of what could have helped the Biennial to succeed to a greater extent than it has. It shouldn't have been called the Biennial of the Americas, because that cuts off the rest of the world. Let's say that instead it had been dubbed the Denver Biennial: Old World/New World. Then, all of a sudden, the event could have incorporated the Henry Moore show at the Denver Botanic Gardens and the King Tut show at the Denver Art Museum. Moore and Tut are the big blockbusters this summer, not anything associated with the Biennial.

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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