Jenny Morgan makes desirable objects and she is, perhaps, the most successful artist to come out of Denver’s art scene in awhile. Her figurative paintings, often of women, frequently naked, are easy to like and rendered in a similar and distinct style that appeals to dealers and people who buy art.
Adam Milner makes objects that are more often undesirable and he is, possibly, the most talented of Denver’s emerging, young artists. His work is free-form, difficult to classify and made from hard-to-digest elements, such as and including his own blood. Gallerists and curators have no idea how to package his considerable skills.
The two artists aren’t actually linked by anything other than geography, and the fact that they currently have solo exhibitions within blocks of each other in Lower Downtown. But their shows do combine for an interesting lesson about how art careers advance in the museum and gallery worlds. It’s not a pretty picture.
Develop a brand and work it stridently like Morgan, and there are considerable rewards, like her high-end representation at New York’s Driscoll Babcock Gallery and this high-brow show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where her multiple iterations of the same methods are on display.
Follow your creative bliss and experiment as a rule, expose both your soul and your skin, and let some works succeed and others fail and you win the respect of peers and critics instead of collectors. And occasionally you land a show that has questionable commercial potential, like Milner’s current arrangement at David B. Smith Gallery.
The comparison is especially keen because Milner has titled his exhibit “Desirable Objects.” It’s a reference to the reasons gallerists often overlook his work: He doesn’t make the kind of stuff that people buy.
And so he’s trying with this show to be more appealing, and to a large degree he succeeds. Instead of the mysterious and sometimes off-putting works we know him for — like, say, videos of his own reflection while using a urinal or snapshots of his neighbors that he took without them knowing and put on display — we get a few pieces that are soft, colorful and stunningly beautiful.
His set of four framed “Body Fossils” are genuine sofa matchers that feature actual flowers that have fallen from plants. They come in pretty pinks and happy blues and Milner has delicately and painstakingly pressed them into paper so they become as flat as possible and one with the medium that surrounds them.
Of course, this is Adam Milner — just 29 and still a cultivated rebel — so the pieces also include scores of his own individual eyelashes that are mingled with the pretty petals. His personal organic sheddings blend with the spent flora, forging an organic and poetic bond between human nature and Mother Nature.
That’s not everybody’s art cocktail, but the pieces are surely intoxicating.
That attract-and-repel mix defines this exhibit and gives it both youth and power. There are, for example, two large canvases, set side-by-side, that arrive in an amiable shade of rust. You can tell the fabric is hand-dyed because the color attaches to it in subtle fluctuating waves; there’s a lovely, human-made motion to the works.
But you do come to realize the canvases are bedsheets, and this particular sampling of the red family came from the fact that the artist dropped them in a bath of his own blood. There are also two seersucker suits on hangers, one belonging to Milner and one to his boyfriend, also dyed in the same way.
There’s something brave about using blood, beyond the act of cutting your own skin. You expose a matter that is potent and real and you connect the interior to the external in indisputable ways. Milner is reaching for something meaningful, and he gets there by reframing this disturbing matter as a symbol, or a link, to the inevitable ways — natural, sexual, unintended, circumstantial — that our bodies interact, connect and join together. To be of this earth is to accept everyone else’s germs and moist breath and microscopic flakes of dead skin.
Still, blood is a personal thing, and people have their own reactions to it. Part of me admires the pieces, and part of me wishes I’d never seen them. Your blood is as private a body part as your genitals, and there is always a degree of exhibitionism when a person lets out either in public.
There’s more DNA on display in this show, including a set of 14 frames, each containing a hair sample from one of Milner’s acquaintances that he collected over the years. They bear the names of the individuals who grew them, such as “Jenn’s Braid” or “Carolina’s lock.” The items are pressed between plates of glass, kept like specimens or artifacts.
They are at once personal and clinical, preserved body parts separated from the body, and they raise interesting questions. Is this actually a part of Jenn and Carolina we’re encountering in the gallery or something they cast off as garbage? Can we even call it their hair anymore? Or does it belong to Milner, who accepted and saved it? Or to a person who might buy this piece of art for the $2,800 asking price? What determines the provenance of personal effects?
Milner’s exploration of the things that connect and separate us comes to a climax with “Cabinet,” a distinct, but related, exhibition in the rear of the gallery. Milner has brought together 296 small pieces from different artists and placed them on a set of shelves along one wall. The assemblage is, as the show’s literature describes it, “simultaneously intimate and sprawling, modest and monumental.” It’s a precious and joyful joining together of both artists and the job of making and selling art — and only three people are allowed in the room at once. But do wait your turn and definitely spend some time there. It’s kind of a magical moment in Denver art.
Jenny Morgan’s MCA exhibit, “Skindeep,” is less demanding than Milner’s, and it comes with the artist’s natural appeal to mass audiences. Morgan’s specialty is portraiture, of herself and acquaintances, and each picture stares the viewer directly in the eyes, inviting an intimate exchange.
There’s a frankness that pervades her work here. She’s concerned with likeness but not appearance. Her subjects are fully rendered with skin imperfections and hairstyles that could use a comb. They’re just ordinary white people for the most part.
Morgan is, without a doubt, a highly skilled oil painter and able to say a lot with well-edited brushstrokes and light layers of pigment. She has a way of blending the hyper-real with the surreal; her paintings are precise but she holds back on key details to leave a little suspense.
Instead, she focuses on the interior of her subjects, using color to bring forth something more soulful than what you can see on the surface. She might add harsh reds to skintones, surround a face with a glowing yellow aura, turn a pelvis blue or add a shadow across a jaw.
That she is able to sell these paintings — of her own friends and family — says a lot about them. They are ultra-personal, though full of a coded mystery that a viewer wants to understand, to actually live with.
But the same thing that makes them commercial reveals limits to the work in this show, and to the exhibit itself. Morgan has pretty much followed the same path for the last decade — there isn’t that much difference between her early works from the mid-2000s to the ones she turns out today. The show’s statement talks about a turn toward abstraction, but abstraction seems to have been a part of it all along.
The way her work is set up at the MCA makes it look formulaic, and that is a trap that a lot of commercially successful artists fall into. When buyers are responding and dealers are cheerleading, it’s easy to keep refining and exploring the same ideas rather than experimenting with new and interesting concepts (see Adam Milner, above).
We’re used to seeing museum shows that tell us how artists grow and change, that relate a story. The MCA is particularly skilled at that as recent career retrospectives of Kim Dickey, Marilyn Minter and Mark Mothersbaugh have shown. “Skindeep” feels more like a (really, really) good gallery exhibit. It doesn’t take us on a journey. It covers too much ground to highlight a specific body of work, but not enough ground to be one of those fascinating retrospectives.
It’s hard to understand why the MCA chose to do the exhibit now and not 10 years from now (though the fact that it was funded by one of Morgan’s biggest collectors could be part of the reason; that’s another thing these shows tell us about how the art world works).
Artists have to follow their muses. There’s no other way for them to produce authentic work, but how that work gets to the public, builds their reputations, feeds them, is not always in their control. Actually, it rarely is.
Adam Milner’s “Desirable Objects” runs through July 22 at David B. Smith Gallery, 1543 Wazee St., 303-893-4234 or davidbsmithgallery.com.
Jenny Morgan’s “Skindeep” continues until Aug. 27 at the MCA Denver, 1485 Delany St., 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.