Review: Kim Dickey’s maximum, minimal wonders at MCA

By Ray Mark Rinaldi

Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art shows work from across the globe, but its fundamental mission is to write the history of its own hometown.

The MCA’s job is to capture the who and what of right here and right now, to isolate the things people ought to pay attention to, and then exhibit them through a scholarly lens. This is harder than it seems because each outing can require months of research, scores of visits to shows, schools and studios, and an investment of both precious gallery space and the tens of thousands of dollars it might cost to mount a polished presentation.

And, just so no one forgets, the Museum has to make the experience of seeing the work a thrill or no one will remember it, or tell their friends to see it, or care about the artists, or feel connected to the art in their midst. No pressure there.

The MCA’s current show, Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves, makes all of the connections and in ways that are a revelation. Dickey, who teaches ceramics at the University of Colorado, has been producing art in this region for two decades, and a lot of it — especially her earthy sculptures covered in thousands of tiny, ceramic leaves and petals — is familiar to local crowds. Ten of her smaller works are on permanent display in the MCA’s rooftop cafe and she recently had a massive, new piece presented in DIA’s main terminal.

As the exhibit reminds us, Dickey’s repertoire is much wider than what we’ve been looking at lately. The mid-career retrospective covers years of video, photography, installation, prints and paintings, plus a variety of ceramics produced through multiple techniques.

There are many pleasant surprises for Dickey newcomers reaching back to the 1990s, such as a series of ceramic Lady J’s, those portable contraptions women (most often hikers deep in the woods) use to pee standing up. There are her whimsical Nursing Bottles, little drinking vessels shaped like breasts that can be used to feed milk to weaning babies. There is a wall of denim, fashioned out of 160 back pockets of discarded jeans, each holding inside a packaged condom past its expiration date.

There are her Salad Plate lithographs that turn patterns of cleverly arranged body parts into the stuff of dinnerware, and a hall of recent white, ceramic animal forms set on steel pedestals and arranged in a circle that play out like some sort of zoological pantheon.

Kim Dickey's ceramic works are self-contained landscapes. Photo by Daniel H. Tseng
Kim Dickey’s ceramic works are self-contained landscapes. Photo by Daniel H. Tseng

It all serves as supporting documentation for Dickey’s best work, those ceramic, leaf-and-petal covered sculptures, which really are the star of the show. Some are small mounds, about two-feet in diameter and set on the floor; others are large geometric forms mimicking the shapes created by great, late 20th century minimalist sculptors like Robert Morris or Donald Judd; and some are massive arrangements that look like flattened, scale models of the manicured, 17th century gardens at French estates, such as the Palace of Versailles and the Château de Villandry.

Curator Nora Burnett Abrams has chosen a wide array of work, but brings it all together convincingly. There is a link, she shows us, between Dickey’s attraction to both human and botanical forms, and her rendering of objects that are as hard as concrete. It is all, according to Words Are Leaves, a questioning of the very essence of Modernism.

This is the sort of dense treatment Dickey has always deserved and not always received because, frankly, it’s easy to see her as less than the sum of her parts. That’s not her fault, of course, it’s ours. Dickey creates objects that are, often and at their physical core, leaves and flowers. Female sculptors and painters who make images of flora of any kind work in a critical danger zone, easily dismissed as Earth mothers with too soft a touch, as “women artists” stuck on nature, obsessed with things that are pretty and, ultimately, boring. It’s sexist, but it’s so. Rousseau painted flowers and so did Georgia O’Keeffe, but for some reason his are seen as virile and hers as vaginas.

Abrams grants Dickey the great favor of putting her work in the broadest possible context and narrates a story about an artist at the center, for much of her career, of a battle between minimalism and decoration. And since minimalism is regarded as the rejection of decoration, it’s a bold fight to be around.

But what are Dickey’s leaf-covered sculptures if not a truce between the two ideas? They honor both concepts while simultaneously tearing them apart. The pieces, at least from a distance, can be stridently geometrical, all coldness and right angles. But up close, they are warm and tactile. The sheer work that goes into them, making each ceramic bloom individually and then attaching it to the form’s surface, gives them a natural and man-made feel.

dsc_0185-1-rotatedThis exhibit accomplishes its goals most effectively by placing photos Dickey took during trips to Versailles and Villandry right alongside her three-dimensional leaves- and flower-covered sculptures. Both are extremely ordered and intensely patterned with their sharp hedgerows and perfect flower beds.  And, surpassingly, both contain the indulgences of decoration and the discipline of minimalism.

What makes this interesting is that these gardens pre-date what we think of as Modernism, at least through the lens of art, by a century or more. Dickey recasts them as site-specific, art objects very much ahead of their time. She asks us to rethink their merits, and reconsider all landscape architecture, past and present, as a single, self-contained object rather than an extension of the royal, or suburban, backyard.

This review isn’t meant to cast Words Are Leaves as some stuffy art history lesson, only to point out its fuller pleasures and keep perceptions of Dickey’s work from falling into an overly feminine or overtly feminist trap.  Abrams is careful not to burden it with too many explanations or force specific interpretations on viewers. She just doesn’t forget that part where her exhibitions have to be thrilling.

Plus, the visceral pleasures of the show speak for themselves. Dickey gives us, if abstracted, wild animals and fertile gardens, exotic cups and saucers, and outrageous fashions. There’s plenty to tell your friends about, both right here and right now.

Kim Dickey: Words Are Leaves, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through Jan. 22; 1485 Delgany St.; http://mcadenver.org/kimdickey

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