Weather Changes

Entering the first of the galleries off the main entrance of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, viewers are surrounded by white-on-white color-field paintings by German-born Udo Nger, one of three artists in WHITE OUT: Lighting Into Beauty.

As I looked around at the dazzling lack of color, it occurred to me that the show must have originally been meant for a wintertime slot as opposed to the late-spring one it occupies. It turns out that is the case: The show's dates were shifted because of the conflicting master scheduling of the traveling exhibit Will Boys Be Boys?.

At first this unseasonable quality struck me as being strange, even unfortunate. But it also occurred to me that presenting such a chilly aesthetic experience makes WHITE OUT the art-world version of a Popsicle -- and that may be exactly what's in order, as hot as it can get this time of year.

Nger lives in Hawaii, but in the early '90s, he lived in the Denver suburbs, which is how MCA director Cydney Payton, who curated this show, first met him. As I recall, Nger was up to his neck in neo-expressionism -- a far cry stylistically from what he's been doing for the past several years -- and his early paintings were crammed with images. The first time I saw the kind of color-field painting he's doing now was a few years ago at Robischon Gallery, which was Nger's Denver representative at the time.

The paintings at MCA, from his "Light as Material" series, are done in a range of off-white tones. Some have a hint of green, others pink or lilac, but mostly the paintings are covered in a warm cream. For WHITE OUT, the walls of the MCA were painted white -- what else? -- and the Ngers are spaced widely apart, which makes the beginning of the show look very austere.

As is made explicit by the title of the series, these works are about light -- in particular, light reflected off the paintings themselves. Though a credibly contemporary conceptual framework, it's also a truly old-timey pursuit for a painter. However, Nger achieves his richly luminous surfaces using an innovative technique: sandwiching three translucent sheets of canvas. He sometimes paints on all three layers, but not in every case. The different painted layers add literal depth to the picture plane as well as catch the light projected on them from the spots in the ceiling and the sunlight coming through the windows.

The pictorial elements are mostly simple organic forms, especially egg shapes. In "Arena Sleeping," Nger uses a single egg in a grayish white that's placed in the center of the composition and surrounded by wide concentric bands of white. In others, the artist lined up the eggs so that they run across the center of horizontally oriented canvases.

Though all of the Ngers are of a single piece, there's some variation in the compositions, including lines that can be serpentine or more or less straight. These linear compositions are less striking but more elegant than the others. In "Gleichfliessend," a meandering line cuts across a divided color field, with one side done in a darker shade of white than the other. Also very nice -- and distinctly different -- is "Inner Light II," a vertically stacked diptych on which Nger painted expressively drawn horizontal lines. It looks very impressive hanging in the MCA's central gallery.

The Ngers provide the perfect setup for "The Big Flake," the single, monumental piece by the second artist in WHITE OUT, Jaeha Yoo, who lives in Colorado. For this piece, Yoo used a lighted fabric-over-wood installation maze that was inspired by a snowflake. Using thin boards, Yoo built vertical frames and covered them in gauzy, translucent fabric. Groups of these frames are hinged together and arranged to create narrow, zigzagging aisles. The entire thing has a six-sided shape, which is also true of snowflakes.

If there's one problem with the piece, it's the space in which it is displayed. The room is too tight, so viewers can't see the whole thing at once. And because the installation is in a single-story space under the mezzanine, it's impossible to see the overall snowflake configuration from above -- and that's really too bad.

The last artist in the show, the hot New York photo girl du jour, has her work displayed on the mezzanine. Tanyth Berkeley was one of a number of breakout talents launched in P.S.1's Greater New York 2005, a kids-only show presented earlier this year. Her posed photos of strange-looking women are from her "Orchidaceae" series, which refers to the orchid family. The photos have a decidedly Diane Arbus-y quality to them, which makes them deeply touching -- and a little troubling.

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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