From freshly bulldozed lots to towering cranes, Denver is home to a growing chasm between what’s needed (affordable housing) and what’s increasingly offered (luxury housing). It’s a large space, and one that Derrick Velasquez’ latest work occupies with an attention to the basic building materials that structure such a space and the shiny, rent-inflating accoutrements that often characterize it.
At the MCA Denver show, “Obstructed View,” the first thing you see is “XXXXXXXXXXX L (hole),” where Velasquez uses prefabricated ornate crown molding (which looks like the stuff you imagine hangs in President Trump’s penthouse) to turn the opening of the lower-level atrium into a gilded picture frame. What’s framed is the black floor of the lower level gallery, and when there’s no one standing below, there’s a visceral disconnect between the ostentatious frame and the void at the center of it. (It reminds me of Trump’s plan to be laid to rest in a Versailles-inspired tomb-scape at his Mar-a-Lago golf course). Have someone stand below, however, and it’s a fun but unsettling picture, the warmth of a person neatly cooled by the surrounding void they appear to be hovering in.
The lower level gallery features “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” a series of generic desks/cabinets arranged in right-angles that, given enough space (and money), look like they could be endlessly replicated, a mild circle of hell that might be called Infinite Ikea. Housed inside of and on top of the cabinets are various sculptures-as-accents, like a real estate agent might arrange to establish an atmosphere of high culture. There are mini concrete pillars, roughly finished, piled in a pyramid and mounted on a walnut base. There’s galvanized steel pipe, also mounted on a walnut base, a butcher knife (“inherited”) in a glass vitrine, framed rectangles of privacy glass, and even a fake ficus tree. Most of the pieces are basic materials you could find at any housing construction site, whether affordable or luxury. It’s the jump from building material to sculpture that provides the dissonance; how small the jump is, how replicable, and then the shape of this Ikea hell starts to intrude. You think of the sterile glass-box terrariums being built, offering luxurious amenities and “antique” lighting and “high-end” touches throughout.
The abstract maneuvering that Velasquez works to prompt is fun, but he also presents a series of photographs (“Property Lines 1-9”) that bring you back to Denver’s very real housing issue, where change and development can be seen at the boundary between one property and the next. There’s an old brick bungalow next to sleek modernism, an overgrown shrub next to a brand new, imposing wooden fence. The photographs are plain, seemingly unfiltered. What’s “obstructed” is a glimpse of the inhabitants of Denver, the very people that inhabit all of these structures and spaces, the substance in Velasquez’ frame, but out of view.
Over at Robischon Gallery, Velasquez has a concurrent show titled “Constant Denial.” His interest in the architectural elements of housing and change is distilled into smaller pieces than at the MCA, but the materials are the same. There’s a maple pillar in the corner that strikes a modest, homely touch until you walk around it to a reveal its concave interior lined with bright blue trim molding. There’s another trim molding sculpture, this one a repeating, zagging line, which recalls “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and its vision of empty, architectural infinity. The largest such trim molding sculpture, a black piece intimating an endless Greek key shape, is titled “Preservation of Monument: Imperfect Future,” and it’s in such a title that these works’ unsettling tensions are given vast amounts of space and time to operate. What is preserved in the architecture being built in Denver today? What kind of future does that foretell?
“Constant Denial” is a sort of macro view partner to the MCA show. It’s not just the issues of housing and building elements and wealthy excess that come across here, but also the long view; architectural tastes last longer than those for whom they’re built. The dominant piece in the one-room show is “Dart Board (The Baby-Faced Assassin),” a cast-foam ornament in the classical style studded with darts. The piece is vertically halved in color by what appears to be a passing shadow, darkness giving way to light, or is it the other way around? Janus isn’t saying.
The darts, which penetrate the ornament but are also in the wall surrounding the sculpture, provide a menacing feel. Like the fixed shadow, it’s not action itself, but in this case, the aftermath; the darts didn’t discriminate between wall and ornament.
A pair of small oil sticks on laser cut paper close out the room. Titled “Brutal World 1” and “Brutal World 2,” they feature brutalist architecture in highly contrasted white and black overlaid with ornate, ornamental designs. It’s an emphatic statement, but a playful one too. “Brutal World” is literally brutalist. But it’s also topical, whether it’s the vacuous world of Trump or the housing crisis here in Denver.
“Constant Denial” continues through Sept. 9 at Robischon Gallery.
“Obstructed View,” at MCA Denver, closes August 27.
Torin Jensen is a poet and translator living in Denver. He publishes Goodmorning Menagerie, a chapbook press, and his work has appeared in numerous journals and online publications. He’s the author of “Phase-sponge [ ] the keep” (Solar Luxuriance, 2014).