Art of Identity

In the 1970s, contemporary art fractured into a riot of diverse styles. The anything-goes situation in which we find ourselves today is the inevitable product of this explosion. Now that artists have had decades to work out the various logical extensions of this cornucopia of ideas, contemporary art encompasses a mind-numbing array of aesthetic philosophies, all of which enjoy some level of acceptance -- even when some are clearly antithetical to one another.

What made me think about this interesting situation is a pair of current shows that feature diametrically opposing points of view: the social versus the psychological. The first is a group show of feminist artists, mostly women, who examine sexism in their work; the second is a solo by a young man who is a modernist artist exploring personal power in his pieces.

Here's a funny conclusion I came to: The feminists are pointedly political and intellectual, and the modernist guy is romantic and emotive. Talk about reversing roles!

"Political" and "intellectual" are good descriptive terms for the traveling show H2O at the University of Denver's Victoria H. Myhren Gallery. The smartly installed exhibit, which takes up the topic of water, was organized by Jo Anna Isaak, a professor at Hobart College and its sister school, William Smith College, both in upstate New York.

Isaak is a strident curator, infusing H2O with a hefty dose of politics, which she uses to justify including several pieces that are unpleasant or even vulgar. Surely, "vulgar" is an apt description of Sally Mann's gelatin silver print "The Three Graces," in which the famous photographer and her two teenage daughters are captured urinating. Mann has outraged many with her work over the years and is as notorious as the late Robert "S&M" Mapplethorpe or Andres "Piss Christ" Serrano, but as demonstrated by "The Three Graces," she's not in their league as a photographer.

According to Isaak's doctrinaire feminist essay in the accompanying catalogue, Mann's photo critiques the prurient interests of the old masters. The idea is that the traditional female nude in European art is actually erotic and thus degrading to women. Those dirty old masters would dress up their tawdry sexual urges by giving their paintings or sculptures pretentious titles such as "The Three Graces." (Did I just hear Canova rolling over in his grave?)

Deconstructing the classic female nude is also what Laura Aguilar's photos are about -- at least according to Isaak. In the two here, Aguilar, who is way beyond what could politely be called Rubenesque, has taken black-and-white shots of herself posing by water.

Also on this old-master-bashing train is "Ebb," by Amy Jenkins. The video, which is projected onto a miniature bathtub, depicts a woman bathing and releasing her menstrual blood into the water. However, the video runs in reverse so that the blood appears to flow back into her. By depicting menstruation, Jenkins -- again, according to Isaak -- skewers those period-piece paintings of female bathers done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As I took in the Mann, the Aguilars and the Jenkins, it suddenly occurred to me that Isaak's ideas about the old masters, a favorite topic for feminist art studies, really misses the mark. That's because the vast majority of viewers of contemporary shows such as H2O know little or nothing about art history. They don't need these "antidotes," because they never consumed the "poison" in the first place.

Other pieces in H2O are mercifully less self-conscious, such as Dorothy Cross's "Tea Cup," a DVD of a teacup that's filled not with tea, but with moving images of the roiling sea. The realized view of a tempest in a teacup brings up the topic of domesticity and the troubles contained within that life. There's an interest in beauty in Cross's piece, and the teacup and saucer, a fussy affair with gilded rims, are exquisitely lit. This interest in beauty sets Cross apart from most of the artists in H20, who are more interested in narratives than in the visual.

But Cross is not alone: There are other good-looking standouts, such as Susan Unterberg's altered photo "Fish," which looks like a landscape from the old school except for the fish swimming through it. Even better are two sculptures by Christy Rupp, which use steel rods to create skeletal seashells that Rupp has filled with plastic bottles. The steel and plastic catch the light and make the pieces seem as though they're internally lit.

I didn't really like H2O too much, because it seemed to be more about thinking than seeing. But this hardly means that I didn't find the show intriguing; I did. And that, as far as I'm concerned, means it's absolutely worth seeing.