Trevor Appleson: Photographs From Mexico

Cydney Payton, outgoing director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver (1485 Delgany Street, 303-298-7554, www.mcadenver.org) has been something of a one-woman show, overseeing just about every aspect of the place (see column, page 43) for years. And in addition to all of her other duties, she lines up the constantly changing roster of shows for the six revolving galleries.

The big gallery on the main floor is dedicated to photo exhibits, and there's currently an intriguing group of oversized C-type prints displayed in Trevor Appleson: Photographs From Mexico. A South African who lives in London, Appleson is a self-taught photographer who first specialized in portraiture before turning to narratives about cities. He did studies of Rome in 2006 that anticipated these very different pictures of Mexico City from last year.

The initial image is shocking — at least for children — with a convincing stand-in for SpongeBob being burned on a campfire. The SpongeBob figure is actually a piñata that also appears in another photo around the corner, "Mascara Purpura vs Sponge Bob" (pictured) one of four photos featuring famous luchadores — Mexican wrestlers — doing battle with cartoon-character piñatas.

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Trevor Appleson

This juxtaposition is meant to subvert the larger-than-life fame of these showmen-athletes by bringing them down to the level of storybook players, Appleson says. Actually, though, the photos conflate violence and childhood innocence, with brutality being the actual theme, and, come to think of it, that's true of all the photos in this group.

These Applesons are love letters to Mexico City, but when you look closely at them and think about what you're seeing — a slaughtered pig at sunset, for example — it comes through as a fairly twisted kind of affection. As in the luchadores photos, the imagery may look pretty on the surface, but it's ugly underneath, revealing a Mexico City crammed with disturbing sights and customs that Appleson is able to render as though they were beautiful, which only heightens the biting sociological narrative he weaves.

Trevor Appleson: Photographs From Mexico runs through August 10 at the MCA.

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