Art exhibits can be as much about where they take place as they are about the objects they put out there. A show about race, for example, might play differently in the South than in the North, where the backstories are different. Or an exhibit of mountain landscapes might seem like a locally produced documentary in Denver but come off as exotic escapism in crowded Manhattan.
Context matters, and it is the thing that gives Terry Maker’s Time Release its punch at the Fulginiti Pavilion gallery on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
In the surrounding buildings, future doctors, nurses and pharmacists are getting their basic training at the University of Colorado’s medical schools, learning how — and how much — to treat the thousands of patients they will be called upon to heal over their long careers. And in the middle is Maker, suggesting in a clever and entertaining code that their decisions are more complex than what their textbooks teach them.
Specifically, she questions our reliance on prescription pills. Maker blows them up hundreds of times their actual sizes, turning them into sculptures that sit on the floor or on pedestals or are attached to the walls. They retain the essential visual qualities of the real two-part capsules we depend upon for relief. They are the colors of sweet, sugar candy and children’s toys — glossy reds, blues, pinks and purples. Inside, they appear to be filled with tiny particles of medical magic, the chemicals that take away our headaches and muscle pain, that regulate our circulatory systems so our hearts pump in rhythm or re-channel our brain connections so we don’t get depressed, that keep cancer cells from reproducing or allow us to have sex when our bodies won’t meet the call to action.
By super-sizing pills, Maker glorifies them. They have a larger-than-life role in our routines, and she points out their abilities to make out bodies better.
But these pills, of course, are too hard to swallow, and that invites us to look at their limits, at issues of dependency and necessity. Do we take too many of them because they are an easy fix? Or because drug companies, reaching for profits, dress them up as attractive solutions in those endless TV commercials?
She goes deeper, raising questions of faith and spirituality. How does our belief in modern medicine mesh with our belief in ourselves, or a higher power? In a society that increasingly reaches for pills over prayers or patience, does quick-fix medicine replace or enhance our confidence in our own minds to connect meaningfully to the universe?
It’s not uncommon to see artists exploring medicine, or pills in particular. The well-known, artist-prankster Damien Hirst did it two decades ago, recreating their shapes and natural attractiveness and asking us to stand face-to-face with them in a gallery setting.
The art collaborative known as Pharmacopoeia bases its whole body of work around our relationship with medicine, and the British Museum has made prominent its “Cradle to Grave,” an installation of 14,000 pills, reflecting the number most people are prescribed over a lifetime.
Maker moves the conversation in a different direction by taking it to a more personal and internal place and by incorporating familiar materials into her objects.
The piece titled “Time Release” is an abstract look at the cross- section of a pill, though blown up to a diameter of five feet. The various layers of the pill, in yellow, green and red, are constructed from shredded paper and actual prescription warnings.
“Superscopic” is a geometric collage of sorts, 4-feet-square, and full of symmetrically arranged circles made from shredded medical documents and hundreds of those common, gold-brown prescription bottles, that have been cut and crushed to make them malleable.
The mundane materials, recycled into something new and thoughtful, brings the work home. Nearly all of us deal with this medical detritus, and we never know whether to throw it out or read it, to save it for reuse or discard it. How important is all this junk?
The question resonates at the medical school and in this gallery, which is deftly programmed by director Simon Zalkind, who curated his show. Frankly, it’s hard to tell if it the objects would mean as much in another setting. Medicine is certainly not a new topic for artists, and Maker isn’t the first to dabble.
But all those future physicians walking around campus take the exhibit to a level of real that isn’t possible in a SoHo gallery or a slick, city museum. In this location, the exhibit asks students to question their powers and for everyone else who visits to question the power we give them as healers.
Time Release is about medicine, but it is also medicine itself, an intervention into a complicated system that’s meant to make things flow more naturally, and with great care.
Terry Maker’s Time Release continues through Feb. 16 at the art gallery in the Fulginiti Pavilion at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, 13080 E. 19th Ave., Aurora. Free. 303-724-3994 or ucdenver.edu.