First Draft: A Survey of Denver’s Artistic Talent

by Paddy Johnson on August 20, 2013 Reviews

Draft Urbanism at McNichols Building Civic Center Park

It must have been five or six years ago, when I asked a friend how he knew when his paintings were done. The question came up during a two-hour-long studio visit where we’d talked about everything from his painting influences to his struggles with addiction. Even the psychedelic paintings that were barely marked up looked complete, so it seemed relevant. “They’re done when the truck comes to pick them up,” he told me, explaining that he’d just keep working on them if they weren’t taken away. “It’s like drinking, I guess. I don’t stop.”

My friend’s tragic reflections reminded me that what completes an artwork often isn’t anything more than the presence of a viewer. That reality seems particularly relevant today, since there’s a viewer for almost everything (nothing is private), and digital files are manipulated endlessly.

This context informs “First Draft,” an exhibition curated by Cortney Stell for Denver’s Biennial of the Americas. Located at the McNichols Building Civic Center Park in Denver, the one floor exhibition includes 23 artists and surveys talent in the Denver area. In doing so the show reveals a peculiar brand of obsessive formalism and conceptualism that relentlessly calls completeness into question.

That tactic has its pluses and minuses in this show. On the one hand, this obsessiveness can produce work that’s formulaic. There’s plenty of that in the show. On the other, that context allows ideas to develop in surprising directions. There’s plenty of that in the show, too. What follows is a slideshow with commentary on some of the work in the exhibition.

Matthew Harris and Tobias Fike, "Beach Ball Collision Test", 2013

It’s hard to imagine a better piece to introduce the show than this one. The piece is simple: Fike and Harris slingshot balloons at each other until all the beach balls have been shot. They then collect the balls and start over again. The piece isn’t as involved as another work in the show, like Geoffrey Pugen and Tibi Tibi Neuspiel’s “The Tie Break,” a 12 hour marathon piece in which they continually recreate, shot-by-shot, the 1980 Wimbledon final tie-breaker between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, but for this setting, that was probably appropriate. It’s a simple, repetitive act set up to both create and break symmetrical forms.

Gary Sweeney, "Contents of a Handwritten Note…", 2007-2011, Mi Querido, Te Extrando, Mucho, Espero Que Regreses, Al Norte, Pronto, neon. Jesus Torres died in the Texas dessert, on his way back to the States. His love letter, translated and placed in order: My love, I miss you so much. I hope that you return to the North very soon.

I can’t say I understand why this love letter was transformed into a neon restaurant sign, but I’m betting my confusion lines up with the artist’s intentions. After all, he’s transformed a bit of meaningful text into something largely unintelligible through the use of what the artist describes as “American” aesthetics. This isn’t an approach I care for. The result is a simple-minded message about the evils of America, and that could have been communicated any number of ways that didn’t involve reducing someone’s dying words into a bunch of bling.

Devon Dikeou's "Open Art Fax Line", 1992

Getting a sense of the real art jewels people sent in to Dikeou’s fax line when they’re all in a pile may be difficult, but I like the piece regardless. It offers a sense of history (this is how the piece was originally displayed in 1992), and it removes some of the preciousness of art. You can always fax your work again. In fact, you can still fax in your work to Dikeou’s number 303-482-1988. For “First Draft”, Dikeou also put together a vitrine to display some of the faxes she received over the years.

Laura Shill, "A Small Room" 2013

Walking into this piece is like walking into a vagina. Or an asshole, according to some of my colleagues in the know. The installation is made of old quilts, satin, and other fabrics and is supposed to speak to the nature of adaptability. In the sense that both vaginas and assholes are flexible, I’d say Shill’s hitting on something.

Alicia Ordal, Chola Brows, 2012

This work is a little pedantic for my tastes; “chola” describes a Latin American girl with indigenous Indian ancestry and gang-associated Latinas and is the subject of the work. The portraits depict the same chola in heavy make-up and different eyebrows, symbolizing both generalized and mutable identities. It’s the kind of work a viewer grasps as soon as they see it.

Conor King, Kevin, 2012 Bruce, 2012 Gretchen, 2012 Nicolai, 2011 archival inkjet print

These portraits all have the same unsmiling art face that’s so popular in fine art photography, but they’re worth a mention regardless since the minimalist palette does leave the sitters seeming a little more exposed than they might otherwise. Connecting this work to the drafting theme of the show is a little difficult, but that’s fine. The show is also about giving Denver-based artists a little love, and Stell’s certainly achieved that.

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