Denver’s Museo de Las Americas has done a fair amount of shape-shifting during its 28 years. At one point, it was a premier regional forum for contemporary art, a real player on the local scene, known for showcasing the best offerings from working Latino artists near and not-so-far.
That changed a bit in the last few years, as the museum turned toward exhibiting its own, in-house collection of historic objects from across the Americas and hosting traveling attractions from out of town. It continued to exhibit Denver artists — Jerry De La Cruz’s 2016 retrospective was a standout — but, with the curatorial shift, it traded off its reputation as a go-to place to catch local talent. Something lost, something gained.
The new contemporary show “Espacio Liminal | Liminal Space” is an exciting first step toward the Museo’s return to a larger role in its own backyard. The group exhibit features seven Colorado artists, some of them in the top tier here and some emerging, but all pumping out vibrant and relevant painting, sculpture, photography, video and more. The show is indeed liminal, as its name implies, catching an important city institution as it explores a new direction.
The group includes familiar names, such as Jaime Carrejo, who was an integral part of the Denver Art Museum’s recent “Mi Tierra” exhibit, and Diego Rodriguez-Warner, who wrapped up a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver last year.
There are also surprising newcomers, like Alejandra Abad and Jacob Gutierrez, whose work local art fans probably don’t know. Most of the work was made specifically for the exhibit, at the invitation of Frank Lucero, the curator.
Lucero wasn’t aiming for a deliberate, overarching theme. Instead, he wanted the artists to contribute recent work, examples of their current thinking, and so he encouraged them to go in individual directions. In that way, “Espacio Liminal” serves as something of a baseline for the museum’s contemporary efforts going forward. The work may not say something cohesively, but it proves there is plenty of talent from which curators can go deeper in the future.
And if there’s a message to come out of it, it may be that Latino artists are as diverse as any other demographic of artists. To put it more directly, they’re not all making work about identity or immigration or colonialism, as some might assume. Their work isn’t necessarily full of the vibrant colors associated with traditional Latin American murals and architecture and it doesn’t reference indigenous religions as a rule. It actually can do all that, and sometimes it does here. But the hues, the history and the references are too broad to let anyone pigeonhole the art.
And so you have Rodriguez-Warner, with his painted and carved wood panels, taking cues from Matisse and Picasso, from the surrealists, collage artists and from action-packed comic books. His pieces relentlessly mix and match shapes and defy notions of surface and dimension.
The Museo works feel less complicated than what he showed at the MCA, which, in memory, exists as piles of bloody, disembodied limbs. These works are far less agitating; they’re calmer, and marked by gentler moments, which allow his technical skills to shine through. Rodriguez-Warner is evolving, maturing, and these works are something to see.
Sierra Montoya Barela works her own magic with dimension. She’s an amazingly confident painter, creating still-lifes that defy easy visual consumption.
She overlays realism and abstraction, representation with symbolism. The objects in her domestic scenes come as a group — plants, religious figures, floor tiles — but each is presented as an individual object worthy of being painted in the way that best conjures its essence. In that way, in a single painting, she’ll present a highly detailed chair, but render a vase only as a silhouette, and throw in a glowing bit of neon in the background. She puts just as much effort into a half-empty bottle of Arrowhead water on a table as she does a clock hanging on a wall or a photo of a long-ago wedding sitting upon a shelf.
Carrejo, who leads the exhibit, does his own myth-busting. His pieces take on the U.S.-Mexico border, a frequent theme, and continue his effort to demystify the terrain that connects the two countries.
Here, he uses wire fencing — a potent symbol of physical barriers — but he’s playful with it. In one case, he lifts it up off the floor — literally raising it so it hangs from the ceiling, and places flowers on top. Viewers walk underneath it.
In another, more vertical piece, he attaches a section of actual fencing to an abstract, floral-patterned painting that is applied directly to the gallery wall. The fencing is black; the painting is a vibrant green and the contrast works to normalize the geography along the border. It may be a political hotspot, but it’s really just another patch of dirt near El Paso, or Juarez, or Tucson or Tijuana or wherever. Not so intimidating.
Other artists go on their own journeys, or take us along. Abad and George Perez create immersive, meditative spaces that use similar and repeated images to explore personal environments. Both cover new ground. Frank T. Martinez presents a series of paintings that uncover his process as an abstractionist, and Gutierrez offers sculptures that combine casts of actual body parts, feet and hands, that feel both alien and familiar.
There’s a lot of work in “Espacio Liminal,” and viewers have to do a lot of work to appreciate it. And they have to be patient. There’s little signage accompanying the objects and not nearly enough in the way of clues or explanations about the art, info about materials or dates. There’s a notebook that visitors can flip through at the front desk with bios, but it’s brief.
This is clearly a choice; providing detailed signage can lead viewers to accept curators’ ideas and not form their own. At “Espacio Liminal,” people are free to think what they want and, in some ways, that’s very democratic.
But it’s a barrier. Most people need a little help. Providing catalogues, context, clues, docents and basing exhibits on scholarly research — those are the things that justify charging admission. The Museo charges $8; a new direction for its offerings is a chance to reconsider whether it should charge at all.
Make no mistake, though. The work in “Espacio Liminal” is worth your time, and the work is top-notch. And seeing it is a chance to vote for more contemporary art at the Museo. Fans of local, contemporary, cutting-edge art will want to support this effort.
“Espacio Liminal | Liminal Space” continues through Aug. 24, at Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive. Info at 303-571-4401 or museo.org.