Biked over to the new Libeskind designed art museum here in Denver. It looks like a boat from a Japanese animé comic — titanium skin like the Gehry buildings, but no curves, all acute angles. It was drizzling, and I wondered how those titanium flaps are going to manage keeping out the water. If water gets in via the thousands of joins and flaps, it will be a little visit to financial hell trying to sort it out.
The building has been criticized for not being very art-friendly, which is not a good thing for a museum. There are quite a few walls that lean in or out and there are pretty much no 90º angles anywhere. It’s a little bit of a funhouse. Oh well, architects and their egos know no limits. And the idea was probably not so much to make a place to show art as to make a cultural logo and draw for the city, following the Bilbao example. Rumor has it that now the museum is more than a little tight on funds, and staff have been laid off and asked to work fewer hours.
That said, these walls that are sort of unfriendly to hanging art were the exception. There were plenty of traditional upright walled galleries, although even in those, there were no right angle corners. The odd shape of the building combined with these angles effectively creates continuous disorientation, not entirely a bad thing.
This being Denver, half a floor is devoted to Western art, something we Yankees don’t see much of. We see the Hudson River School, such as Bierstadt and the others, who also painted the West and had a hand in luring settlers and travelers out there, but we don’t see much beyond that. And there is a lot beyond that. Western art goes for high figures, prices that are comparable to the contemporary art that gets all the headlines. OK, not the Bacon and Hirst prices, but well, up there.
Here’s one by one of the major Western painters, Charles M. Russell, called In The Enemy’s Country.
Russell memorialized the Native American culture as it was almost completely wiped out. In a funny way, I really like this stuff. It strikes a chord. They’re like movie stills maybe, scenes from a mythical film that never was. The color, the light, the “noble savages.” The mythology is potent, even when we realize it’s bogus. I recognize the same mythological impulses at work in the galleries lining the streets of Park City, where paintings of bears, mountain lions, and sweeping vistas celebrate the world that is being destroyed by the ski villages and condos that patronize these galleries. San Diego had similar galleries; in their case, with scenes of seabirds and windswept empty beaches. It’s a recurring theme — celebrate it as you cut it down. Do we all do that in different ways?
Here’s a lovely almost conceptual touch. Russell would borrow books from friends to read, and return them with little watercolors painted in the spaces where the chapters ended. I wonder if I doodled in a borrowed book, would the lender appreciate it?
In another Western painting, it was pointed out that part of the propaganda effort was to portray the oppressor (the white invaders and settlers) as victims. Not that the settlers weren’t ever attacked, but the fact that they were usurping the land of others is conveniently left out of the mythology. Here, an Indian kidnaps a white baby while the father shoots one of the raiding party.
Something tells me these oppressor-as-victim stories are not unique to the settling of the West. As expansion propaganda and invasion justification, they seem to recur fairly regularly.
In one of the contemporary galleries (one of which was named the Hugh Grant Gallery!), I watched a couple of videos by a German artist named Bjørn Melhus. In one 3-monitor video, a man with a shaved head lip-synched to the re-edited words of a female TV newsperson. Occasionally typical corporate news graphics would explode behind his 3 heads.
The more popular video, Captain, used 3 actors — two men and a boy — who lip-synched to dialogue from Star Trek. They stand awkwardly on a crummy lunar set with space effects (planets and stars) green screened behind them. A little as if theater director Richard Maxwell had done a sci-fi piece. It was quite long, vaguely ominous, portentous and completely hilarious (though I was the only one laughing…why?).
Sometimes the little boy character was given the voice of the ominous alien being who would threaten the crew in a deep voice; sometimes the bearded man with the potbelly would be given the voice of a woman speaking seductively to “Captain Kirk”.