By Ray Mark Rinaldi
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic
"Constructed Histories," the new exhibit at the David B. Smith Gallery downtown, is as good as any contemporary show you might see at the Denver Art Museum these days. Maybe even better, considering the circumstances.
The DAM is without a contemporary-art curator right now, after the departure of William Morrow, who arrived with great fanfare — and considerable talent — in late 2012 and left abruptly six months ago due to creative differences with leadership. The museum is in a holding pattern while it searches for a replacement to develop new shows, a process that can take years.
In the meantime, David B. Smith seized the opportunity and invited Morrow to put together an exhibit at its gallery on Wazee Street in LoDo. Unexpectedly, Denver is getting a chance to see what might have been if Morrow had stuck around.
Denver should be full of regret. "Constructed Histories" is a highest-caliber endeavor powered by well-respected names in art-making, including Sanford Biggers, whose work takes on the myths and truths of slavery and racism in the U.S. The show is a big move for Smith in terms of quality and content, a giant leap forward for a commercial gallery in Denver, a city where sales, not ideas, usually guide what goes up on the walls.
That's not at all the case with "Constructed Histories," which offers a reflective, revisionist take on our recent past. The 20 works come together to question who controls the narrative of our day — political, economic, personal, collective.
That's not so new, of course. Contemporary art is full of work where one artist or another is trying to set the story straight, as they see it. Truthfully, some of the objects in "Constructed Histories" fall on the been-there-heard-that side of the telling; not so much revelatory but a reminder of what we already know. It makes few points about injustice or misplaced nationalism that a viewer could actually argue with. Slobodan Milosevic, for example, was a bad man.
Still, it is full of well-designed marvels and innovative story telling, and, as a show, it is relentlessly on point. What we learn about Morrow here is that he is focused.
And connected across cultures and media. He presents large, woven photographs from Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Lê; a video collage from Lebanese-born Teresa Diehl; silk-printed portraits by Brooklyn duo McCallum Tarry; impossibly balanced constructions from L.A.'s Glenn Kaino; a large oil painting from Aspen's Tania Dibbs; graphite drawings from Kentucky's Aaron Skolnick.
The show is saturated with color and wallop, starting at the front door with Jeremy Dean's "Everything That Rises," a set of 16 salvaged metal folding chairs fastened together into an upright ring 12 feet in diameter. Scratched, dented and worn, the chairs appear to have held up through a million public gatherings.
What was discussed on them? We don't know, but they stand in for the sort of civic assemblies where regular folks gather to air grievances, ask questions, demand change. Unified, they are elevated into a force of optimism and power rendered, interestingly, in hues that imitate multiple human skin tones.
Morrow has also included Dean's "Convergence 2," from his series of American flags, for which he pulls apart the stars and stripes, thread-by-thread, and reweaves them into new shapes, attaching each thread to canvas via a separate needle.
For this piece, he couples two flags so that one hangs correctly, the other is upside down. The result is a ghostly image of both strength and distress.
There is plenty of questioning of American identity and presumption in "Constructed Histories." The most direct comes from the placement of two pieces from Christoph Draeger, who has created giant jigsaw puzzles from images of man-made devastation. One depicts a ruined "Nagasaki, Aug. 9, 1945." The other a wrecked "World Trade Center 9/11."
A pair of tragedies, for sure, though the image from the atomic bomb attack is four times the size of the WTC mess, implying that it was the worse of the two. No doubt, many Americans see the gravity of those events in reverse.
In its cross-examination of a century's worth of history, "Constructed Histories" dwells, not surprisingly, on race. McCallum Tarry make elegant the mug shots of three men arrested during civil rights protests in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1950s. The black-and-white photos are re-created in warm tones, printed on silk and framed as if they were family portraits.
The two Biggers pieces come from his series of paintings on top of fragments of antique quilts, similar to those used to guide slaves along stops on the Underground Railroad. Quilts were folded or displayed in certain ways to message whether a place was safe or under surveillance by authorities.
The blankets are historic objects from the 1700s and 1800s, and show craftsmanship in their sewing and geometrical arrangements. But there's more to the story and Biggers gets at it by applying spray paint, tar and other materials on the surface. He layers on them his own updated message, recording their place in history and connecting the past to the present.
"Constructed Histories" can beat viewers over the head with its ideas. It is loud and a bit crowded, though always engaging, and strongest when it makes its point not through deconstruction, but simple reduction. The nine monitors in Diehl's video piece present Middle East battle zones with the geographic details expunged so that you can't discern exactly where they are. Skolnick's figurative drawings of black activists show only parts of bodies, floating heads or torsos. The urge to fill in details make the pieces interactive.
There's a larger level of interactivity going on here and that's between the space itself and the city. The Denver Art Museum has a nearly four-decade history of showing contemporary art and it will likely recover into the power house we know it to be in the genre. This is the way a great, regional institution serves its own time and its own artists.
In the meantime, there's an opening for galleries like David B. Smith to emerge as distinct voices with an important role in keeping Denver interesting, actually upping the level of culture here. And for fans of contemporary art, to explore new places eager to bring them art that is relevant to our era. They can start right now at David. B. Smith.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, email@example.com or twitter.com/rayrinaldi
The David B. Smith Gallery presents a group exhibition curated by William Morrow. Through March 21. 1543 Wazee St. Free. 303-893-4234 or davidbsmithgallery.com.