January 2010 Archives

Primordial Humaness

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Looking for the Face I had before the world was made
by Terry Talty
January 30, 2010

Paintings by Belgian artist Michael Borremans at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

DENVER, COLORADO - Representing the human face in art is a little like telling everyone who you're sleeping with. You're admitting what you find attractive (akin to buying unusual art - you must like this weird thing  - it says to anyone who might see it in your house).

When you paint heads, you're showing what you think is human. If you paint with accuracy and copy every detail of a face, you're placed in a sub-genre: photorealism, or worse portraiture. Like the artist/photographer in the neighborhood portrait studio, you're an artist with the narrow vision of seeing just one face. And this is a valuable mission when you're hired by a high-school senior to make something for the yearbook. It's a different mission to paint what you want to represent humanity. Many contemporary artists use a cartoon, a symbol, or some other kind of messy mark or gesture to depict the every-face. Michaƫl Borremans blur some, and focuses well on the nondescript parts as he works to find another way to that universal face.

The show called Looking for the face I had before the world was made is six-different exhibitions by six artists that opened Jan. 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Borremans' paintings, about 10, are in the main floor gallery.

The faces in the paintings are not engaging the viewer. We are looking from the back of heads, at someone looking away, at the profile of an artist intent on something oblique to us. The colors are somber and in one, the subject is a thorny stick leaning against the wall. In one, the figure is wearing a tight cap that seems to have mouse ears sewn onto it.

'No one would be caught dead in such a hat unless it was a costume, says my friend, nudging me. My friend has the rare profession today of being a housewife.

MCA)@.jpgThe universal face is on the other side of that hat, looking into the picture frame with us. But as my friend said, that hat is drawing our attention to her - the feminine subject.  Inside another frame is a brown-haired feminine subject looking down at her hands. No facial features stand out. Two figures are standing in the dim gallery light looking at this canvas. One brown-haired female looks like the painting. I take her picture on my crummy phone camera. The other human is a guy with too much apparent individuality to be the universal. One side of his head is shaved and the other - I can only see a dark line of hair at the crown from my vantage point - seems to be the barbershop classic, the taper.

Try to mentally draw this threesome as the universal. The guy can pose showing his left or right side and play the part of twice as many characters.

I let Photoshop help me try to find the 'common human.' I eliminate until I get there, worry I've taken away to much, or kept too much. When I'm done, I'll mentally put this face, these faces, in a scene that we all do: look at our hands, scratch an itch or turn away from someone looking at us. Give it a try, and then come back and look at these paintings.


The primordial human face -- one to whom we can all relate -- is cold and sad like the feeling in this gallery. We are not inside this human. We are looking at it from a separate skull. The feeling is completely different feeling than the Renaissance window to the world where we look into a picture and buy the illusion, as if it's a window onto a painted scene.

There is one painting in this show that has this traditional perspective just to remind us that looking at the face that is not engaging us, is different from looking through the window with the artist. Its subject is simply an open magazine. We are in the mind, behind the face, of the universal person looking at the open pages.

I'm pretty sure Photoshop and I have a long way to go before we finally create the meta-face, but when I look back at the Borremans painting where that I was trying to understand in that exercise, I notice they are not like the open magazine painting. They don't prompt me to feel 'hey, we're all looking at the same stuff. I can really feel I'm seeing with that figure's eyes.'

Instead, I question, 'hey, is that what I look like to the world?'

The name of this exhibition, of which these paintings are just one part, is "Looking for the Face I Had Before the World Was Made," taken from a line in a poem was W.B. Yeats. And if Borresmans has found the face that we had before the world was made ... have I always looked that alone?

MCA Denver: William Stockman

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In Human Scale

Looking for the Face I had before the world was made
by Terry Talty
January 29, 2010

William Stockman drawings at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Drawings by William Stockman in the paperworks gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.  Photos:Terry Talty
DENVER, COLORADO - Like pages from a journal as big as my arm's span drawings hung from pushpins in the paper works gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Each page was a sparse scene of people in action: a man in a small boat reaching into water for fish, a woman with her hands stretched out on a string of twinkling lights. The activity was depicted simply, with more interest in creating atmosphere than comic-book reality. The date was stamped into the thick drawing paper so that its colorless existence took a little discovering, but made me start thinking of journals, newspapers and other ways we make marks on paper to describe the day. And tomorrow, describe the next day.

It never seems like much at the time - what happens in a day - but when these days are put together it could be amazingly rich. Particularly if they are drawing, and enormous.

The images William Stockman pulled out from 2009 to put on the walls of the Contemporary are enormous. Stockman's drawings are one part of the 6-part exhibition called Looking for the Face I had before the World was Made that opened January 29, 2010.

Museum of Contemporary Art Denver O'Grady, Lorraine
Small, intimate gallery painted black sucks up light and makes for long exposures with the photographs of Lorraine O'Grady.

Coming from being intensely focused on photographs hanging on the black-painted walls of another part of this exhibition, I walked into the Paper Works gallery expecting the past show, which was full of medium values of blue and gray and mixed materials. The new whiteness of the space surprised me. I was struck by the beauty of the giant pieces of creamy white drawing paper hanging by black binder clips from push pins.

I could see paper envy in the eyes of my two friends. These are big sheets of expensive, thick, pudding-smooth paper. And the drawings are just black marks and some grays made by erasing. It is easy to imagine that more could be done with that much rag real estate. 'Yeah, I might have kept going,' said one of my companions about one very ethereal drawing. 'I like the sparseness,' said someone else in the gallery, and much later another person in our group said that this particularly minimal drawing, which he called 'the shadow people with the halos on their heads,' was his favorite one of the drawings.

Exhibition at MCA Denver William Stockman
Natural light streams into the upstairs galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. These drawings are hung from black binder clips (office supply materials). Then on of the arms is slung over a push pin in the wall. Brilliantly simply and pretty safe for the paper.

It took a long time of looking for me to get over the idea of such nice paper being paired with just so few expressive lines. I left the gallery with my friends and their paper envy, but knew I wanted to go back. We all did. On the second trip I'd accepted the austerity of the works. When we discovered the dates on each one, the idea of keeping a vivid, enormous, graphic journal struck me as such a beautiful life documentary. Awe-struck me, like the cave paintings at Lascaux.


Never Dead Poets

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Looking for the Face I had before the world was made
by Terry Talty
January 29, 2010

Samuel Beckett at Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
DENVER, COLORADO - Disembodied lips enunciated clearly the plight of the speaker feeling disconnected from the world and her physical body. The brain ... and the brain ... the lips say, and emphasize with the few poignant pauses. This 14-minutes monologue is so fast you originally believe it's in a foreign language.

The language is that of Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright who gave us Waiting for Godot and many other surrealistic plays and stories. The lips are a 2 foot by 1 foot video projection made before the playwright died in 1989, and it is installed in a completely black room at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The background of the face or anything else that would be on the screen is black. The projected lips are a deep value of black, the mouth less deep and the teeth white, and moving as fast as the lips.

Of course this image is intriguing. Is it the face I had before the world was made? as the title of this six-part exhibition at the MCA is called? 

Before The World Was Made

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity's displayed:
I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I'd have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

Beckett's film piece is called Not I. The speaker continually talks about the the person who is physically moving about: looking at something in a museum, grocery shopping, typing as the Not I, not the person that the speaker feels she is. She doesn't recognize her physical self. She sighs, she screams a little, she emotes and is rational. This may sound like too much to take for 14 minutes, but the speech is as open as an astrology column. The lips for words, words make thoughts, spoken thoughts lead to created thoughts, thoughts trigger emotions, emotions fire sensations, create more thoughts and on and on.

Out of the blue, a friend of mine said to me a while ago, "I don't want to die. I really like thinking."

Is this experience in a dark room with disembodied lips what I was before the world was made? And is that different from the one that will be mine after my world is gone?

What would you look like as a building

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Looking for the Face I had before the world was made
by Terry Talty
January 30, 2010

DENVER, COLORADO - Portraits of people by A.G. Rizzoli at the Museum of Contemporary Art are a cross between a building dedication plaque and Dadaist drawings of machines or geometry that were titled with someone's name. Each of Rizzoli's elaborate mechanical drawings of the classic sky scraper is named for someone - his mother, a Mr. Alfredo Capobianco (full title of the piece: Alfredo Capobianco and Family Symbolically Sketched/Palazzo del Capobianco).

These aren't tiny images - about 3 or 4 feet tall - but every viewer steps within inches of the frame to get more intimate with the details of Mr. Capobiano's immortalization as a drawing of a building. There are slogans in banners and bigger-than-marginal comments that give us some tiny hint at who these people were, but it's not obvious why one building is Mr. Capobiano and another is the artist's mother. The buildings are similar just as grave markers are similar. Every one of the displayed drawings is the same style, fine lines and architectural text.

I go back again and again to look up close at one of the drawings and pick out something interesting like the window ledges. The next time, I take in the scrolls. These drawing are like those Edible Bouquets, lots of different things of the same family.

'What kind of building would you be?' I ask a woman looking with me at one of these fantasy buildings. She describes a house she'd imagined when she was a kid: nine stories below ground and nine stories above, made out of malleable foam.

Me? I had a dream when I was a kid that I lived in a house made of a tight circle of pine trees with a floor about ten feet up. A treehouse with no walls but pine trees, no windows except the those created by curves of the tree trunks, and a view to the stars framed by the far away tops of the trees.

And you?

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