The big fall show at the Center for Visual Art, the off-campus exhibition outpost of Metropolitan State University of Denver, is the ambitious if unwieldy Water Line: A Creative Exchange, which focuses on water as a threatened resource. Cecily Cullen, the CVA’s managing director, curated the exhibit, selecting conceptual artists from around the globe who address environmental topics in their work, often guided by political or scientific perspectives. While water flows through as a connective theme, the sensibilities of the artists vary widely, as do their works. As a result, Water Line functions as much as a sequence of wholly separate presentations as it does a thematically organized group show.
The first of these sequences is in the crowded window gallery, which is anchored by pieces from contemporary Native American artists, notably Cannupa Hanska Luger of New Mexico, a graduate of the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts. Luger has become well known for his aesthetic activism in support of the Standing Rock protests mounted in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred Sioux grounds. One fear fueling the demonstrations is that an oil spill will spoil the water — not just on the plains, but in the belowground aquifer. That possibility was obviously on Luger’s mind when he conceived “This Is Not a Snake,” a very over-sized — and very over-the-top — rendition of a snake, its head raised as though about to strike, its body made of lined-up oil barrels, ordnance boxes and the like. Predominantly black and running across two-thirds of the gallery, as the artist intended, it’s threatening and outstandingly ugly. Also focusing on the dangers of oil are four graceful wall constructions from Luger’s “We Have Agency” series, in which ceramic body parts are suspended from cords, with each construction containing an all-but-hidden knife poised to cut one of the cords. The implication of the juxtaposition of the knives and cords is that each of these anthropomorphic constructions is about to fall and shatter on the floor.
In the first space off the corridor, New York artist Aurora Robson reveals her interest in what she calls “intercepting the waste stream,” gathering debris to come up with the materials for her colorful plastic sculptures. A good example of this approach is “Jetsam,” a large, spiky conglomeration of plastic fragments selected not only for their specific shapes, but also for their colors, since the piece’s palette is dominated by blues, greens and purples. The title refers to the litter jettisoned from boats, with plastic trash being a major water pollutant. For Robson, this kind of soft recycling, in which found discards stand in for more traditional art materials, is an ethical and earth-friendly act. In the space across the corridor, India’s Vibha Galhotra uses the polluted Yamuna River for inspiration. The most remarkable of her installations is “Flow I,” a tapestry of sorts completely covered with tiny metal bells that conveys the idea of liquid flowing down the corner of the wall and forming a puddle on the floor. The metal bells are common in India — so much so that they become a source of water pollution themselves when they fall off of women’s clothing and are washed into the river.
In the corridor and an adjacent space, Natascha Seideneck, who teaches at Metro, is represented by several series, some of which look at ice. For these, Seideneck tints water by adding paint or other pigments and then freezing it. A few of the pieces here are from her “Terra Incognita” series, for which she photographs circular dishes of frozen water against a dark field; the results are evocative of telescopic views of unknown planets in outer space. The circle is a favorite shape for Seideneck, whose “Horizon” series depicts disasters in roundel formats. Another Seideneck piece is the standout “Frozen Earth/Pavement River,” which comprises a vertical digital print mounted floor-to-ceiling on the wall, with a video projection that extends the image across the floor. The print is an all-over pattern of ice crystals, while the video records a melting rivulet of running water. It’s a clever use of video in combination with still photography, and very striking.
Melting ice is the underpinning of the most beautiful portion of the show, a spectacular multi-part installation in the large back gallery by Anna McKee, “WAIS Reliquary: 68,000 Years.” The initials “WAIS” stand for “Western Antarctic Ice Sheet,” and the piece is an abstract representation of the thickness of the sheet and the colors of the ice over the past 65,000 years as revealed by ice-core drilling. McKee’s interest in the ice caps led her to undertake an artist residency in Antarctica, where she worked among scientific researchers. The installation includes a row of fringe — nearly 700 narrow silk sashes — hung just below the ceiling and running diagonally against the back corner. The silk is dyed in a range of hues meant to represent the colors of ice — some crystal blue, others grayish white, with various shades in between. It’s cut to different lengths so that the bottom profile of the piece conveys the changes in the depth of the ice cap, with the thinnest part based on more recent core samples. Attached to the bottom of the sashes are more than 3,000 tiny glass ampoules filled with the melted water from the ice cores. The glass bottles glisten and, with a tinkling soundtrack accompanying them, seem to be moving, as I mistakenly thought at first. Paired with this installation is the drill bit used to get the core samples; McKee has polished and engraved it, and intends to entomb the melted water inside after the suspension piece has been retired.
A nice chaser for Water Line is the smart little show Propagate: A Backyard Revolution, curated by Metro undergrad Amber Micciche for the student-run 965 Gallery. Although this display isn’t about water, the topic isn’t unrelated: It’s about plants. Covering the south wall and wrapping around the corner is Meredith Feniak’s luxurious, all-over composition of a gilt cut-paper mural depicting pea vines in low relief. Peas not only have decorative power, but they have scientific significance: They were the subject of Gregor Mendel’s famous plant-mutation experiments. On the opposite wall is a visual essay — an expertly executed, multi-part print installation by Eileen Roscina Richardson that contrasts the handful of commonly seen apple types with the hundreds of varieties that actually exist. Especially neat are the dotted sheets in which the “dots” are embossed renditions of different apples.
With the world’s current natural and unnatural disasters, the environment is increasingly on the minds of many, and Water Line and Propagate demonstrate that these artists are in that group, too.
Water Line and Propagate, through October 21, MSUD Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, msudenver.edu/cva.