At the MCA Denver, three full floors of violence, heavy and lite

Cleon Peterson, "The Embrace," 2017. Resin and lacquer paint.

The MCA Denver’s three new exhibitions ask a lot of us. Director Adam Lerner and Assistant Curator Zoe Larkins frame contemporary questions of race, empathy, and institutional power throughout the museum’s three levels in ambitious ways. The lower level and main floor, especially, prime the viewer for an emotional, personal reexamination of the ways these questions influence how we view art, though that charge fizzles out somewhat in the final exhibition; the artwork on the second floor isn’t as interested in asking those questions as it is in simplifying them.

Still image from Arthur Jafa’s found video montage, “Love is the Message, the Message is Death,” 2016.

But let’s start on the lower level, which begins with a quote from the artist Arthur Jafa that precedes his video “Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016)”:

“The question is how come we can’t be as black as we are and still be universal?…How come the audience can’t see themselves in that thing, whether or not it looks just like them or not? It’s what black people do because most of what we see are white people. It’s what women have developed the muscle to do because mostly what they see are men. It’s what gay people are able to do because mostly what they see is heteronormative stuff.  It’s a muscle that everybody needs to develop: the ability to see themselves in someone else’s circumstances without having to paint that person white, make that person straight, or a man. How can you see yourself in theother? That’s what it really comes down to — empathy. I’m trying to make my shit as black as possible and still have you deal with my humanity.”

Still image from Arthur Jafa’s found video montage, “Love is the Message, the Message is Death,” 2016.

The video that follows is a montage of clips set to Kanye West’s highly produced, uplifting hip-hop/gospel mashup “Ultralight Beam.” The footage, short clips of African-American life, from parties and concerts to crises, seems largely taken from the internet. The images often pixelated and still bearing the video owners’ trademark in the corner, which lends a low-key, casual effect to the compilation (it also gets the viewer thinking about appropriation). This is everyday stuff, in black America.

Conspicuously absent in most of the footage is white people. And this is where Jafa’s emphasis on empathy gets interesting. When white people show up, they’re authorities, police. And they’re violent. Much of this footage is hard to watch, most of all the clip of Walter Scott getting shot in the back while running away from a white police officer. Even when there’s no white officer present, their authority is still there, as in the clip of a scared young African-American boy practicing an encounter with a police officer at the behest of his father, who’s offscreen. Empathy requires white viewers (like me) to feel for the boy, yes, but also to recognize in the absent white authority our own whiteness, and an institutional authority that works for whiteness, everyday.

It’s a moving, and emotionally confusing, experience watching Jafa’s video. It questions white authority in terms of racially-motivated violence but also that evergreen question of permission: who’s allowed tobe, in the everyday, themselves? The video clips literally and figuratively blur the distinction betwe en authenticity and performativity, with the added wrinkle of how such ideas change depending on who’s present. It’s an everyday question and its asking is as much a mark of resilience as it is of desperation.

And Jafa expertly collapses the distance between the two. There are moments when he lines up the heights of a gospel chorus in West’s “Ultralight Beam” with high-res shots of the sun. Then, another quotidian clip of black America. Which is to say there’s a cosmic gap between the two, and there isn’t. In the midst of a video that’s juggling gospel and light and race and America, Jafa’s hypothesis is that maybe empathy is what glues it all together.

Diego Rodriguez-Warner, untitled, 2017, acrylic, spray paint, latex paint, on carved panel.

On the first floor, Diego Rodriguez-Warner takes up similar questions and applies them to painted an dcarved plywood boards. They resemble chaotic, colorful canvases, with famous and less-famous figuresand compositions from art history juxtaposed with more contemporary influences. In particular, Rodriguez-Warner is interested in the conventions of certain art historical periods and taking the experi mentations of those periods even further. There are multiple works that recall, as the wall text informs, the Japanese ukiyo-e genre of painting, and especially, printmaking. The Japanese, influenced by
Chinese methods of conveying depth using tripartite composition, in turn added their own experimentations in influencing the viewer’s perception. These artists were also responding to newly available western Modernist attempts while the European artists were being influenced by ukiyo-e.

Diego Rodriguez-Warner, “Curled Toes,” 2015. Gouache on carved panel.

What carries through from the eighteenth century to Rodriguez-Warner’s work is the interest in domesticity, the everyday, and often, violence. But the artist takes pains to loosen such images from their history and place them in a contemporary environment that is an even more chaotic mix of influences and appropriation. Rodriguez-Warner’s practice of additive and subtractive work on the boards creates the illusion of depth, of a fixed-perspective, but the bombardment of images takes that cohesion away, as if asking, “what coheres in contemporary culture?”

His answer might be that what coheres, eventually, is violent, misleading beauty. Blood-soaked images ofviolence, some from American Western scenes, are fractured by color and carved shadows and the presence of wildly archaic cartoon figures. The violence is present, but only so; the eye quickly moves on to picking out the numerous references it can and cannot quite place, to enjoying the tricks of depth and bright pops of color.

This is art history, and its reflections and distortions of how humans view and represent and love and hurt each other, put through a kaleidoscope. What do we as viewers carry through? Where, and in whom, do we place our empathy?

Diego Rodriguez-Warner, “When We Were.” 2015. Acrylic, spray paint. latex pain, gouache and wood stain on carved panel.

The answer, on the second floor, is disappointingly easy, where the MCA has given top billing to Cleon Peterson’s “Shadow of Men.” In scene after scene, from the smaller canvases and sculptures to the enormous murals in the larger galleries, there is very little but human figures violently clashing or suffering in black and white. Their simplified forms and composite profiles recall ancient depictions of humans. Think Neolithic cave paintings with the sophistication of Greco-Roman details. And in that sense, Peterson’s scenes have a breath of elemental humanity: the world simplified to aggressors and victims. This dynamic takes form early in the show with smaller canvases of his signature violent scenes, before the viewer arrives at the larger galleries where those scenes are enlarged to murals. Other than the size of the works, though, there are no other developments or changes. By the time you’ve reached the murals, which should be arresting, the repetitive power of the violence has worn off. While the sculptures offer a little of the visceral horror of violence in three dimensions, again, the scenes get familiar quickly.

Cleon Peterson, “The Walking Stars,” detail, 2017, Acrylic on canvas.

Which is what ultimately disappoints. The framework that leads up to “Shadow of M en” prepares the viewer for a show more complicated than black aggressors and white victims. The twisted avenues of empathy and the ever-shifting gap between institutional and everyday violence viewers wrestled with in Jafa’s video are here reduced to consistent stylizations of one-dimensional violence. The chaotic questions of how violence and its representations are explored and manipulated by artistic genres presentin Rodriguez-Warner’s show are here confined to one observation: violence exists.

Arthur Jafa, “Hokus Pokus,” 2016, acrylic on canvas.

Peterson’s murals are striking. And the dual worlds they conceptually inhabit, the museum and the public facades they sometimes adorn, pose interesting considerations of where stylized violence and public interest intersect. But they’re misplaced in context of the challenges of Jafa and Rodriguez-Warner’s work. And given the MCA’s over-emphasis on male perspectives lately, surely the topic of violence and appropriation and institutional harm might benefit from a female or non-binary perspective.

But the MCA continues its long tradition of asking tough, multifaceted questions and pairing those questions with, for the most part, equally ambitious art.

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