DAM’s “Light Show:” When a museum feels like your living room

Lucas Samaras’ “Corridor #2,” from 1970, is a 50-foot-long walk-though hall of mirrors. (Provided by the Denver Art Museum)

The Denver Art Museum feels a lot like my living room these days. Well, not my personal living room, which is smaller and has fewer paintings, but rather some grand, mutual parlor of culture we all share as a local community.

Things are very familiar there at the moment, and it kind of warms you up inside. That’s because DAM has focused locally this summer, starting with its (just-closed) exhibition of  Denver-native Jordan Casteel’s paintings on the first floor; a horde of blow-up, inflatable creations by Denver artist Nicole Anona Banowetz (though Sept. 9) jammed in the kids’ space on the second level; and Denver artist Jonathan Saiz’s large-scale, 10,000-painting “Utopia” (through Nov. 17) installation up on four.

It’s a major home-grown moment for an institution that doesn’t always embrace the painters and sculptors that live closest to it, preferring instead to collect and trumpet artists with national or international reputations. That’s not a terrible strategy, even if it feels a little stingy at times to creatives in Denver. Big-name artists give a museum distinction and clout, and DAM surely has both.

Plus, those outside artists are transformed into something local when DAM adds individual pieces of their work to its holdings and weaves those objects into its exhibits. They become a component of our personal environment, our identity and history, as much a part of our view as those cherished mountains to the west.

That adopted, and endearing, quality warms up the museum’s major summer offering, titled “The Light Show.” The exhibit is immense and covers significant chunks of two floors, and the thing that brings the assembled objects together — more than any curatorial theme — is the fact that they all come from the in-house collection. All 250 of them belong to Denver. Their home is our home.

Among DAM’s more recent acquisitions is Fred Wilson’s “The Way the Moon’s in Love with the Dark,” from 2017. It is made from Murano glass, clear brown glass, steel, light bulbs. (Provided by the Denver Art Museum)

“The Light Show” is the product of a rare pairing. It is co-produced by Jorge Rivas Pérez, curator of Spanish Colonial Art, and Rebecca Hart, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. He specializes in the 1600s and she focuses on art being made right now.

That brings an organic comprehensiveness to the exhibit that is borne out in its variety. There are some older objects, like a pair of Mayan ceramic vases dating back to 100 A.D., and some new ones, like artist Fred Wilson’s 2017 “The Way the Moon’s in Love with the Dark,” a glass, brass and steel chandelier that mixes Muslim and Christian design traditions, lighting the way between two diverse human subcultures.

The exhibition’s theme — light, and the way artists have tried to depict or employ it over time — is broad, and ridiculously so. What painting or photo or bronze figure in the history of humankind kind isn’t about wrangling with the way light infuses its subject? And what object is comprehended through anything other than the amount of light that accompanies our interaction with it? That’s how our eyes and brains work, and everything ever made fits into the category.

But it serves multiple purposes, primarily allowing the museum to show off the depth and breadth of its wares in one convenient pass-through. It could just as easily have been titled “Highlights from Our Incredible Collection.”

Denver artist Don Stinson’s oil painting on linen, titled “High Beams and Starlight Beyond Absence,” is from 2004. (Image provided by the Denver Art Museum)

Second, it keeps the museum’s multiple departments in the public eye while its historic North Building, which normally houses and exhibits their collections, is closed for renovations. “The Light Show” runs through May 2020, closing just in time for the various curators to gather back their objects and get them installed for the North Building’s reopening in 2021.

In that way, the current exhibit is a sampler, and all nine curatorial departments get a piece of the action.

From the Asian holdings: Chinese urns and bowls, carved from jade in the 18th century. From the American Indian holdings: a “button blanket,” made from wool, shells, copper and buttons by an unknown Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist in the Pacific Northwest around 1910.

From the architecture and design collection: Gisela Stromeyer’s 1987 “Hula Hoop Column Lamp.” From textiles and fashion: Jean Dessès’ lacey, 1971 “Belle Epoque Dress,” topped with Caroline Reboux’s 1900 “Wide-brimmed Feather Hat.” There’s even a piece from the quilt collection, a cotton “Steeple Chase Quilt,” sewn together by Elizabeth Ann Cline around 1860.

Not surprisingly, some of the richer offerings in the show are associated with the curators themselves. From Spanish Colonial: an imposing sculpture of Saint Ferdinand that originated in a church in Querétaro, Mexico, around 1750.

Childe Hassam’s oil painting “A Walk in the Park or Springtime in the Park” is from about 1889. (Provided by the Denver Art Museum)

From the contemporary lineup, a sparkling, bronze, 1990 Keith Haring altarpiece.

Does all of it fit the theme? Sort of. Is everything welcome? Certainly. It’s a power-packed exhibit that skillfully integrates formal, contemplative works with anything-goes interactive moments. Visitors will spend some time looking at their altered reflections in Anish Kapoor’s 1999, hyper-blue, stainless steel wall sculpture. And they will gladly don the disposable, blue booties required to walk though Lucas Samaras’ 1970 “Corridor #2,” a 50-foot-long hall of mirrors that revs up the senses from every angle.

“The Light Show” is careful not to take itself too literally. Based on the title, it could be all lamps and landscapes. But it works hard to portray light in more fascinating ways — in the halos that emanate from saints in religious scenes, through the shiny golds and silvers that bounce off of Mark Bradford’s mixed-media paintings, or softly glisten from El Anatsui’s wall constructions, which are fabricated from thousands of found, and then flattened, metal bottle caps.

That said, its best moments come from actual, electrical lights that plug in — the chandelier, the walk-through and, from Tatsuo Miyajima’s digital sculpture, “Floating Time.” Also from a section of the show that features actual lighting fixtures inspired by 20th-century modernism.

Visitors will find their favorites and linger near them. Though the exhibit’s power glows from its whole, rather than any individual gesture, it’s an impressive assemblage of goods, skillfully installed for maximum impact.

And while “The Light Show” is special, it’s not precious. Unlike many of DAM’s other major offerings, the objects on display aren’t here one day and gone the next. Feel free to get attached.

They’ll stick around, even though they might disappear for awhile in May. You’ll see them again, once DAM finishes rearranging our living room.

“The Light Show” continues through May 3, 2020, at the Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock streets. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.

 

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