Immersive 2019: The more you touch at “Touch,” the better

Viewing art in a gallery can be like visiting friends in prison. You can get so close, see them and hear them, even feel the vibrations of their voice. But you can’t touch them, thanks to that thick layer of safety glass that separates you (or that chest-high steel wall, or wire fencing, or sometimes an armed guard, depending on where a pal might be incarcerated).

Museums and galleries don’t erect physical barriers to touching, but the unbreakable social rules around how we experience painting, sculpture and other precious objects are just as effective. The standard regulation is this: Hands off, and it’s only defied by the occasional rowdy 3-year-old or that rare, obsessive-compulsive nerd who just can’t resist.

It’s not unreasonable, of course: Art is fragile and we want it to last. But the experience can leave us incomplete, one sense short of fully communing with something exceptional or beautiful.

“Touch,” at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center, explores that usual limit of art appreciation, and it has some fun with it. A lot of fun, actually.

Curator Jessica Koolman Parker invited nine artists to throw caution aside and show something people could actually leave some fingerprints on. The crew went way behind that, contributing to a fully immersive exhibition that invites crumbling, scratching, spinning, stomping, playing and even entering.

At the Dairy Arts Center, visitors scratch away the surface of paintings by Mark Bueno. (Lauren Click, provided by the Dairy Arts Center)

Some of it is fully visceral, like Clay Hawkey’s set of printed art posters — one features a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, another is the “Mona Lisa” — that hang unframed on the wall waiting for folks to crush, fold and wrinkle at will. Or Elizabeth Morisette’s series of hanging plastic baskets. They’re constructed of thousands of tiny, children’s toys  — pink tea sets, green frogs, back-and-white dominoes — so naturally you want to play with them.

There are varying levels of interactivity available in the show. Visitors can simply walk under Chelsea Gilmore’s ceiling-mounted canopy made from recycled plastic sheeting. Or they can chat on Sean Patrick Faling’s reconstructed vintage telephones. Or rearrange Angie Eng’s over-sized mandala, made from scores of computer parts that are attached to magnets and placed precisely on a steel panel.

Or they can go all in. Thomas Scharfenberg takes over the entire floor of the Dairy Center’s largest gallery, covering it with intersecting green lines. It’s a maze, of sorts, a game, and visitors are summoned to follow along on its never-ending paths. Along the journey, they consider the ways we navigate through undefined, physical spaces and, perhaps by extension, how we make choices in our daily lives.

Mark Bueno contributes a series of wall-mounted panels, each about 8-by-11 inches and covered in a silver-gray paint. The gallery supplies little plastic scratchers — the same ones used to reveal instant lottery tickets — and viewers can scrape away at the surfaces. Underneath are Bueno’s colorful, abstract geometric paintings. They’re buried treasures waiting to be found.

While all of the work invites a corporeal connection, some if it demands an emotional or political probing as well. Eng’s “This Is My Land,” for example, is an exploration of what it means to be American in a diverse culture. She presents actual U.S. flags, cut into small, framed sections and decorated with silhouettes of iconic symbols — a bicycle tire, a telephone pole, a car, a rosary — each representing some core value of identity.

Elizabeth Morisette’s hanging plastic baskets are constructed of thousands of tiny, children’s toys. (Lauren Click, provided by the Dairy Arts Center)

Each piece was inspired by a poem that Eng commissioned from writers of various backgrounds on what makes them American. Visitors listen to the spoken work via headphones.

Artist Kenzie Sitterud’s “The Wardrobe” is autobiographical and fully immersive. It’s a piece of architecture, really, a small, free-standing room, or closet, set up in the Dairy Center’s lobby.

Visitors put on headphones connected to an old iPhone that plays, on repeat, Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and enter alone. Inside are articles of clothing and symbolic items, such as eggs and a neon sign in the shape of an eye. The piece is meant to spark an awakening or, at least, recreate the one Sitterud had years back, when the artist came to terms with being gay. The piece takes some interesting chances — there’s no instruction on how long you stay in this box or what, exactly, you should experience. It’s a mysterious, self-guided journey that is both effective and memorable.

In some ways, “Touch” makes the concept of touching too easy. For the most part, these are not really delicate objects that were never intended to be fondled. (Julie Maren’s straight-ahead abstract paintings are the exceptions; running a hand over their natural crests and cracks really does feel naughty.) They were made to endure some abuse, so they don’t test our resolve not to touch or grant us a privilege we don’t normally get.

Inside Kenzie Sitterud’s “The Wardrobe.” Visitors listen to Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” while experiencing the piece. (Lauren Click, provided by the Dairy Arts Center)

But they investigate our relationship to art in other ways. The show is family friendly at a level few exhibits can match. Young people really can have at the works, and their guardians can relax and enjoy the experience. It’s an excellent opportunity to introduce kids to the gallery scene.

It also questions the golden, no-touch rule of art at its core. Art is lovely, no doubt, and we value it for many good reasons. But it can present itself as too precious, as if it were made by the gods and viewers are lucky to get near it, as if not being able to touch it is an asset and a privilege, rather than a barrier to appreciating it.

“Touch” blows that out of the water. Parker and her clever collaborators remind us that it’s all a construct — no doubt practical for the preservation of work, but also part of the false aura that is often built around art to increase its specialness, to make its creators appear superhuman, and to increase its value.

Like all interactive exhibits, this show is stronger when you indulge in what it has to offer. Look with your  eyes but also with your hands, if only because, for once, you can.

The more you touch at “Touch,” the better.

“Touch” runs through March 3 at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. It’s free. Info at 303-440-7826 or thedairy.org.

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