Amber Cobb and Mario Zoots are engaged in all the right ways. In the traditional sense, for starters: The pair are set to get married in July at Denver’s RedLine studios, where they were both once part of the art center’s prestigious residency program.
But also in the creative sense: They’re engaged with each other’s art making, merging their significant solo practices from time to time into the duo Hardly Soft, which has a show right now at the experimental Understudy gallery downtown. It coincides with an independent exhibition by Zoots at K Contemporary gallery.
The two galleries are only a 15-minute walk apart, making the offerings a nice window into the talents of two of the city’s visual arts standard bearers at strategic points in their careers — and in their personal lives, as well. Viewers get to see them sorting things out as a pair, and that adds a rich layer to already interesting work. Cobb and Zoots put it all out there — the work is conflicted, sexy, personal, confessional and, buried somewhere in all of that, kind of sweet.
And while their relationship is on the cute side, their collaborative art definitely is not. The Understudy show, titled “Night Cream,” is a full-out experimental indulgence that presents a dozen or so mysterious things scattered about the room. Rather than being separate objects, it’s one linked installation brought together under some extremely pink lights. Cobb herself describes it as “weird.”
But it makes sense, if you know the back story.
Zoots is best known for his collages, in which he cuts out various images from vintage magazines, textbooks, commercial ads and current news reports and then reassembles them in unpredictable relationships on paper or board or in digital forms. His skill is to juxtapose things just so — pulling in viewers’ attention and inviting them to solve riddles about why this goes next to this, or that overlaps that. Sometimes, he’s telling a story; other times, he’s just letting the visual dialogue play out. It’s smart work, but not something you overthink; better to just get lost in its shapes and tears and let meaning unfold, and evolve, over time.
It’s mostly two-dimensional, flat surface against flat surface, and while he experiments with the collage form, it’s nearly all with done with crisp edges. That’s the “hard” influence in Hardly Soft.
The “soft” comes from Cobb, who is known for her investigations into gender, psychology, sexuality and, perhaps above all, sensuality. Her work, which often references mattresses or bedding or intimate toys from her childhood, explores the conflicts of personal identity.
It’s tactile to the extreme, and pliable, rubbery, gooey. She often covers things in dripping latex. (She has a piece in a current group show at nearby Jukebox gallery — heart-shaped, sticky and striking — if you want to stop by there for a solo sample.)
At Understudy, you hear both of their voices. No doubt, there are distinct elements in the mix: a tongue-like ooze of pink plastic drooping over a formal, upholstered chair screams Cobb, while a flat collage of torn-up fashion photos, set on a billboard easel is surely more Zoots.
But it gets fascinating, and voyeuristic, when the lines are blurred.
Like with one object, lifted off the floor with a triangle of wooden dowels and that features a solid concrete hand reaching out of a puff of pink silicone and holding a dripping blob of blue-ish muck. It has Zoots’ juxtaposition of unrelated objects and Cobb’s in-your-face fluidity. One supposes that a long and involved back-and-forth took place between the creators, though the piece feels organic, not at all forced. And it’s definitely weird.
So is the functional. store-bought table and chairs they covered in thick, pastel foam, and another piece that features a bendable wire, anchored at the base by a concrete brick, but dangling a waterfall of purple ooze at its top. None of it reads easily.
And it’s satisfying to speculate those moments where the duo confronted the tension and anxiety of their professional collaboration and imminent personal coupling. One piece appears to be an abstracted human figure connected by a chain to a heavy concrete block, a possible reference to the “old ball-and-chain” metaphor. Another object has foot-high male and female figures holding hands — only they are separated by a white plastic tube and can’t quite see each other’s faces. Above them dangles a concrete sphere, just waiting to drop so it crushes them and their dreams. Yikes.
The real meaning of these pieces is anyone’s guess, and Zoots and Cobb don’t force the specifics. It’s possible to see everything from sex acts to science experiments in the work. Have at it.
It’s also enjoyable if you don’t know the narrative. “Night Cream” is an escape into the sort of experimental work that rarely sees the light of day in Denver and which Understudy, a project of the Denver Theatre District, supports with actual grants to artists. The work featured in the space’s changing shows can be erratic, but it provides a tangible way of helping local talent develop and is always worth a visit.
I suggest catching Zoots’ solo show first at K Contemporary then hopping over to Understudy to check out the collective effort. There are definitely some valid experiments with his own work — a couple of oversized collage prints on birch are quite unusual, and a few pieces, where he has sent his collages off to be rendered in oil on canvas by an anonymous painting service he found online, are both surprising and successful.
But at Understudy, you get to see the full potential of his ideas and, looking bigger, how artists experiment and move forward. And you get to see how artists can influence each other when their minds — and, maybe, in this case — their hearts are open.
Hardly Soft’s “Night Cream” continues through May 25 at Understudy, located at the Colorado Convention Center light rail stop near 14th and Stout streets. It’s free. Hours vary so check the website: understudydenver.com.
Mario Zoots solo, “Gentle Distortion,” runs until June 1 at K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee St. Info at 303-590-9800 or kcontemporaryart.com. It’s free, too.