Winter Road Trip part 3: Yes Man

by Titus OBrien January 29, 2009
Denver was a great town to grow up in (or near), but I intuited early on (by, like, age 5) that the place was long on open space and natural beauty, and short on cultural refinement. But heck, less than a hundred years before I was born (right downtown in actual fact), Denver City was little more than a stopover for miners to get supplied, and laid, on their way into the hills.
Since I left it 20 years ago, the Broncos finally turned into winners and the metroplex grew 5-fold. The skyline is impressive, the downtown vital, the public transport is a joy to use, and they have one of the most sane, progressive mayors in the US. All in all, I really like the place, and am not averse to the idea of moving back sometime.

But what’s with the art scene? The galleries are perpetually lame, reflecting a certain backward regional bent for cut steel spirals, bright-colored dated abstraction (think 1980’s), glossy soulless photorealism, lumpen cast iron and bronze – you know what I’m talking about. I know there are exceptions, but on the whole, its no mecca for aspiring art heroes. And that brings me back to the Denver Art Museum. I won’t rehash my complaints from a year ago, but suffice it to say its not gotten any better, and it may indeed (if possible) be worse.

(Core Gallery, Denver)
It’s an absolute headache-inducing travesty of a nightmare of a horror show of a crime of a post-modern architectural/artistic apocalypse. It saddens me to say that it might be the museum that Denver deserves – in so far that it embodies the latent rinky-dink cowtown aesthetic that seems to percolate up through the arid mile-high earth. Maybe it’s just too nice there, the mountainous backdrop too ennobling, the lean, active residents too bent on mountain biking or rock climbing or skiing as their existential communion.

Good art always seems to be tinged with at least a modicum of self-conscious morbidity – maybe partly why it seems to thrive in harsher, more difficult environs. When that morbidity is less conscious, you have advertising, amusement parks, pornography, cruises, ski resorts, interior design, and buildings like the Denver Art Museum, which looks increasingly like it aspires to be some conflation of the former.
(more good installation decisions. Yes, that wall is angling sharply away…)

Enough abuse. They at least recently put on the best museum show of a mid-career painter I’ve seen in years. That it was of a German comes as no surprise. I’ve seen a few Daniel Richters in person over the years, and bunches in reproduction. Nothing prepared me, though, for the giddy joy I experienced confronted by a few dozen of his enormous intensely-hued canvases, exuberantly, fearlessly executed; in turns hilarious and not a little terrifying, if for nothing else than their ambition.

Of course it was all the more surprising when you consider the signage as you enter the space. I don’t know whose idea it was, but I’ll blame the curators, because it was completely out of keeping with the work inside, and completely in keeping with the rest of the museum. It’s tempting to make drug accusations, but their twisted notion of how art should be presented is maybe a errant vision of the “wacky ideas” they think people on drugs might be having.
dam5.jpgThe weird signage, which sadly carries over onto the show catalog cover, colors the work in absolutely the wrong light, creating associations with some kind of psychedelic nostalgia. If that’s operating in the work (which I grant is quite possible inasmuch as the work seems to be about nearly everything), it’s the absolutely least interesting or insightful subtext.
I bought the catalog. Sadly, the experience simply doesn’t translate. The plates just act as slight reminders of how stunning the impact was in person. The scale is certainly a factor. Most of the paintings are Renaissance/Ab Ex huge, many towering above you or necessitating walking back and forth, toward and away to fully grasp. The nature of Richter’s paint handling regularly inspires use of the word “virtuosic”; he does seem capable of almost any effect, and determined to get every last one somewhere into every painting, along with every color combination, and every last image wrung out of his fevered conscious and subconscious (personal and collective.) But it feels less showy, heroic, or theatrical than driven by sheer exuberant love of paint and its history.

As with Peter Doig (a painter with whom comparisons are inevitable and potentially instructive; I’d say Richter is deeper, and a lot more fun), there is a surprising fondness for those formerly outré symbolist maestros Ensor, Redon, and above all Munch, who Richter seems to channel with such deftness and tenacity that it elicits accusations of possible reincarnation. My boredom with my sophomoric attempts at aping these same artists led me to stop painting altogether and make objects. It’s a measure of Richter’s courage and (dare I say) genius that he abandoned the safety of his earlier “pure” abstraction to resurrect this kind of “dated,” even adolescent figuration, and while it often still verges on the cringe-inducing, his success is made all the more triumphant for a high-wire act carried out veritably dancing on a razor-thin cable of intellectual unfashionability. And make no mistake – his paintings are each and every one near disasters: in technique as much as content, which in most cases is, ironically, depicting some kind of disaster.

I almost can’t believe I’m championing this stuff. Another artist referencing CD Friedrich? F*** off! Another painter carelessly raiding the historical icebox in the midnight of our discontent? Gack. More “difficult” Leipzig noodly anti-painting post-abstraction? Noooooo! But that’s the thing – Richter’s paintings just say yes. Yes to sentimentality, yes to story, yes to humor, yes to trends, yes to virtuosity, yes to stupidity, yes to Romanticism, yes to ambition, yes to sarcasm, yes to nature, yes to comic books & heavy metal, yes to terror, yes to allegory, yes to shit, yes to transcendence, yes to the apocalypse, yes to joy, yes to life, yes to death.



Bill Davenport January 30, 2009 - 07:19

“Denver City was little more than a stopover for miners to get supplied, and laid, on their way into the hills.” Doesn’t that, technically, make it a “layover”?

tobrienwriter January 30, 2009 - 09:44

ba dum.
good point, Bill.

Asshole February 5, 2009 - 07:39

Do they have any Alex Grey in the permanent collection?

tobrienwriter February 5, 2009 - 13:09

I wouldn’t be surprised.
I know I sort of dismissed Grey out of hand before. I actually respect the rigor with which he’s pursued his concerns. But I think the affection and attention he garners from adolescents, fuzzy headed new age transcendentalists, Ken Wilber, and Tool fans, reveals something. I guess his complete lack of humor in particular makes him suspect to me. He’s illustrating something in a very literal way, that I think is more interesting when more obliquely demonstrated. And that chapel in NYC is just tacky as hell, man. too much gold, too many eyeballs with wings.


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