A bracing corrective to Wyoming cabin fever is a trio of exhibits at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver this spring. If you find yourself sliding in a southerly direction, perhaps drawn to the Edgar Degas: A Passion for Perfection exhibit at the Denver Art Museum ( the sole American venue), or are just craving super-fresh visual stimulation, make a point of visiting MCA Denver first. After that it’s only ten minutes’ drive to the grand old DAM. Separately and as a body, the three exhibits offer plenty to see and think about.
For starters, the building itself is clad in a shiny wraparound Cleon Peterson mural, an amuse bouche for the main exhibit. Massive male figures, so stylized that they could all be the same silhouetted no-neck guy, attack each other with knives. The effect is stunning.
We enter the building, and the world of those figures. Peterson’s show, Shadow of Men, fills the second floor with paintings, sculpture, murals, and printmaking completed in the last two years. The exhibit is installed in a way that introduces not just the artwork, but also the building’s innovative interior space. It’s a fine integration of architecture and exhibit, providing the visitor with a revelatory experience of both.
When I first encountered Peterson’s work several years ago, I felt it glorified violence and was repelled. But after spending more time with it, I decided that far from celebrating rampant brutality, it accurately translates the way humans live or fantasize about living, especially when stimulated by fear. I judged Peterson’s art to be far more thought-provoking and easier to view than breaking news, or movies in which heroes win by being better brutalizers than the evildoers.
“Because of my personal history, I identify with the victimized and powerless. I make art that reflects the darkest elements in society and in me because I believe change happens when we bring those elements into the light.” – Cleon Peterson
Peterson’s trademark high-contrast style generally consists of simplified human figures in black and white. The figures are not individuals, but archetypes, depicted as either perpetrators or victims of forced will. In the current exhibit, Peterson has amplified his stencil-like precision and bold graphic design to produce work that is more visually appealing than ever. The paintings, from small canvases to huge murals, are composed of flat shapes in black, white, and cream. Smooth and shiny sculptures, in the same palette, range in scale from tabletop porcelains to double-life-size resin monuments. The works draw the viewer irresistibly, and resolve into choreographed figures of men harming each other all of the time, and harming women much of the time.
The males’ heads in many of the two-dimensional works are mere protuberances between massive shoulders. Thus gendered, these males have no genitalia, body hair, or head hair. Peterson has omitted sexual anatomy without calling undue attention to its absence. This lets the images go beyond violence that is sexual (literal depictions of which are all-consuming and problematic) to also stand for metaphorical violence, such as economic, legal, or psychological dominion. The females are depicted with normal proportions, long flowing hair, and simple outlines to denote breasts and pubic hair.
In every work, black male figures attack other black male figures or white figures. It is tempting to embrace flat thinking by interpreting the white figures as “true” victims (throughout the exhibit, all female figures are white, but only some males are white). Even so, the black figures clearly suggest bad guys who sometimes turn on each other. For some viewers, black could represent the psychological “shadow,” the dreaded parts of our deepest selves that become stronger the more they are repressed. The white victims, similar in color to the background, could be perceived as blanked-out or negated. Some viewers might find a racist message in the black/white visual dichotomy, but I was unable to make the concept of race wars or white paranoia match up with these works, especially given the artist’s printed statements.
To me, the exhibit articulates male force ruling the world. Of course, it is absurd to say that women are always victims and never perpetrators. In one form or another, every victim becomes a perpetrator — the shadow won’t be denied. But it is also absurd to say that women wage war and commit violent crime at anything near the scale and frequency men do.
Others have written about the art historical references in Peterson’s work. The bold patterns and especially the poses of the figures remind some viewers of ancient Greek pottery designs and sculpture. They remind me of countless works I have seen and studied in books and museums, from many centuries and cultures. They’re usually described as traditional history paintings, allegories, illustrations of popular myths, or tributes to ruling powers.
But special knowledge about art and artists is not a prerequisite for finding meaning and enjoyment in artwork, as recent practices in art education have shown. If we are sighted, we have the skills to find an entry point into practically any visual artwork. Still, I found the printed quotes from the artist, which are displayed at intervals throughout the exhibit, illuminating and interesting. For Peterson, the artist’s experiences are vital to understanding the work.
“I don’t see how you could study art without going into the person that’s making it. The thing that’s on the wall is only half of the story. A lot of the time it’s the person behind the thing that makes the art special. I don’t even know how to talk about art without talking about the artist.” – Cleon Peterson
Clearly, Peterson believes that what he has seen and done should matter to visitors in this exhibit. He was a heroin addict from a deeply dysfunctional family, he was a skateboarder and street artist, and today he is a highly trained fine artist with an impressive international exhibition record. That a backstory is vital for deeper appreciation doesn’t contradict the fundamental accessibility of visual art — it complements the “come as you are” premise by acknowledging that the more you know, the more you may appreciate.
A very different approach to the human figure greets the visitor to the ground floor galleries. Honestly Lying, Nicaraguan-American artist Diego Rodriguez-Warner’s exhibit of mixed media works on wood panel, all made in the past five years, is a riot of brightly colored male and female bodies in various states of fragmentation, costumery, and nakedness. The pieces appear from a distance to be collages of found images and objects, with large paper cutouts overlapping each other, twisting, and protruding from the panels, but the three-dimensional effects are mostly trompe l’oeil (painted illusions) generated from combinations of acrylic, spray paint, opaque watercolor and latex.
Trained as a printmaker, Rodriguez-Warner further pushes the boundaries of painting by carving into the plywood surfaces of his panels as if they were woodcuts. Some of the paintings look very much like printing blocks that have been inked, but not printed. They are brash, disorienting, naughty, and beautiful.
The basement video space is currently showing the acclaimed Love is the Message, the Message is Death, a seven-minute 2016 video by renowned cinematographer Arthur Jafa. This piece, which screened at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., and at MOCA Los Angeles last year, is another work that will elicit visceral reactions, primarily touching on race — arguably the most difficult, emotional, and persistent issue in American culture. The video is a splicing of clips harvested from the Internet, alternating with footage from Jafa’s own films and videos, with sound contributed by Kanye West’s rap hymn Ultralight Beam (2016).
The very short clips that compose this video speak to the Black Lives Matter and civil rights movements, the historic role of religion in the lives of black Americans, and everyday life in black communities. They show people praying, dancing, speaking into the camera, celebrating, suffering, living. The emotions they raise in the viewer may depend on how that person feels about power and race in America.
“How come the audience can’t see themselves in that thing, whether or not it looks just like them …? It’s what black people do because most of what we see are white people. It’s what women have developed the muscle to do because mostly what they see are men. It’s what gay people are able to do because mostly what they see is heteronormative stuff. It’s a muscle that everybody needs to develop: the ability to see themselves in someone else’s circumstances without having to paint that person white, make that person straight, or a man. How can you see yourself in the other? That’s what it really come down to – empathy.” – Arthur Jafa
I get it, and I like that this video challenges people like me to open up, and not judge in accustomed, automatic ways. I like that the Ultralight Beam lyrics connect to Peterson’s exhibit upstairs: “You persecute the weak because it makes you feel so strong … Father, this prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough / This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up.” But why does a video about empathy include clips of scantily clad young black women grinding their rears against fully clothed black men’s crotches? My auto-judge can’t help it: this is not OK or pertinent.
Since this video didn’t need to show black men as half-naked sex objects, then it didn’t need to show black women that way, either. Kanye West, like countless hip hop and rap artists, has been called out in the past for woman-hating lyrics, but rap culture is loathe to change, given that the devaluing and objectification of women worldwide throws its own enormous shadow. This is a major blind spot in the conversation about race in America.
All three solo exhibits now at the museum deploy the human figure as their primary vehicle. They display the human body in fragments, and in situations of violence, freedom, or transgression.
Further, all three MCA Denver exhibits resonate with the Degas exhibit at the DAM. The great French impressionist’s primary subject was the female figure, in whole and in part. He sketched ballerinas and opera-goers, and posed his paid models as nude bathers. He captured them in paint, pastel, and wax maquettes. Further still, a connection can be found between Peterson and the Impressionists by locating in the Peterson exhibit a particular quote by the artist.
This is a perfect time to visit Denver to take in challenging exhibits that speak to each other and bridge cultures, centuries, and movements. Their intellectual and aesthetic frisson will reward your eyes and your mind.
Artists’ quotes were selected from statements displayed with the exhibits.
Cleon Peterson: Shadow of Men February 2 – May 27
Diego Rodriguez-Warner: Honestly Lying February 2 – May 13
Arthur Jafa: Love is the Message, the Message is Death February 2 – May 13
Sue Sommers is an artist in Pinedale, and a regular contributor to Studio Wyoming Review.