The Dan­ger of De­sir­able Ob­jects

Ex­hibits of work by Adam Mil­ner and Jenny Mor­gan say as much about the artists as they do the art world

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

Jenny Mor­gan makes de­sir­able ob­jects and she is, per­haps, the most suc­cess­ful artist to come out of Den­ver’s art scene in awhile. Her fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings, often of women, fre­quently naked, are easy to like and ren­dered in a sim­i­lar and dis­tinct style that ap­peals to deal­ers and peo­ple who buy art.

Adam Mil­ner makes ob­jects that are more often un­de­sir­able and he is, pos­si­bly, the most tal­ented of Den­ver’s emerg­ing, young artists. His work is free-form, dif­fi­cult to clas­sify and made from hard-to-di­gest el­e­ments, such as and in­clud­ing his own blood. Gal­lerists and cu­ra­tors have no idea how to pack­age his con­sid­er­able skills.

The two artists aren’t ac­tu­ally linked by any­thing other than ge­og­ra­phy, and the

fact that they cur­rently have solo ex­hi­bi­tions within blocks of each other in Lower Down­town. But their shows do com­bine for an in­ter­est­ing les­son about how art ca­reers ad­vance in the museum and gallery worlds. It’s not a pretty picture.

De­velop a brand and work it stri­dently like Mor­gan, and there are con­sid­er­able rewards, like her high-end rep­re­sen­ta­tion at New York’s Driscoll Bab­cock Gallery and this high-brow show at the Museum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Den­ver, where her mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions of the same meth­ods are on dis­play.

Fol­low your cre­ative bliss and ex­per­i­ment as a rule, ex­pose both your soul and your skin, and let some works suc­ceed and oth­ers fail and you win the re­spect of peers and crit­ics in­stead of col­lec­tors. And oc­ca­sion­ally you land a show that has ques­tion­able com­mer­cial po­ten­tial, like Mil­ner’s cur­rent ar­range­ment at David B. Smith Gallery.

The com­par­i­son is es­pe­cially keen be­cause Mil­ner has ti­tled his ex­hibit “De­sir­able Ob­jects.” It’s a ref­er­ence to the rea­sons gal­lerists often over­look his work: He doesn’t make the kind of stuff that peo­ple buy.

And so he’s try­ing with this show to be more ap­peal­ing, and to a large de­gree he suc­ceeds. In­stead of the mys­te­ri­ous and some­times off-putting works we know him for — like, say, videos of his own re­flec­tion while us­ing a uri­nal or snap­shots of his neigh­bors that he took without them know­ing and put on dis­play — we get a few pieces that are soft, col­or­ful and stun­ningly beau­ti­ful.

His set of four framed “Body Fos­sils” are gen­uine sofa match­ers that fea­ture ac­tual flow­ers that have fallen from plants. They come in pretty pinks and happy blues and Mil­ner has del­i­cately and painstak­ingly pressed them into pa­per so they be­come as flat as pos­si­ble and one with the medium that sur­rounds them.

Of course, this is Adam Mil­ner — just 27 and still a cul­ti­vated rebel — so the pieces also in­clude scores of his own in­di­vid­ual eye­lashes that are min­gled with the pretty petals. His per­sonal organic shed­dings blend with the spent flora, forg­ing an organic and po­etic bond be­tween human na­ture and Mother Na­ture.

That’s not every­body’s art cock­tail, but the pieces are surely in­tox­i­cat­ing.

That at­tract-and-re­pel mix de­fines this ex­hibit and gives it both youth and power. There are, for ex­am­ple, two large can­vases, set side-by-side, that ar- rive in an ami­able shade of rust. You can tell the fab­ric is hand­dyed be­cause the color at­taches to it in sub­tle fluc­tu­at­ing waves; there’s a lovely, human-made mo­tion to the works.

But you do come to re­al­ize the can­vases are bed­sheets, and this par­tic­u­lar sam­pling of the red fam­ily came from the fact that the artist dropped them in a bath of his own blood. There are also two seer­sucker suits on hang­ers, one be­long­ing to Mil­ner and one to his boyfriend, also dyed in the same way.

There’s some­thing brave about us­ing blood, beyond the act of cut­ting your own skin. You ex­pose a mat­ter that is potent and real and you con­nect the in­te­rior to the ex­ter­nal in in­dis­putable ways. Mil­ner is reach­ing for some­thing mean­ing­ful, and he gets there by re­fram­ing this dis­turb­ing mat­ter as a sym­bol, or a link, to the in­evitable ways — nat­u­ral, sex­ual, un­in­tended, cir­cum­stan­tial — that our bod­ies in­ter­act, con­nect and join to­gether. To be of this earth is to ac­cept every­one else’s germs and moist breath and mi­cro­scopic flakes of dead skin.

Still, blood is a per­sonal thing, and peo­ple have their own re­ac­tions to it. Part of me ad­mires the pieces, and part of me wishes I’d never seen them. Your blood is as pri­vate a body part as your gen­i­tals, and there is al­ways a de­gree of ex­hi­bi­tion­ism when a per­son lets out either in pub­lic.

There’s more DNA on dis­play in this show, in­clud­ing a set of 14 frames, each con­tain­ing a hair sam­ple from one of Mil­ner’s ac­quain­tances that he col­lected over the years. They bear the names of the in­di­vid­u­als who grew them, such as “Jenn’s Braid” or “Carolina’s lock.” The items are pressed be­tween plates of glass, kept like spec­i­mens or ar­ti­facts.

They are at once per­sonal and clin­i­cal, pre­served body parts sep­a­rated from the body, and they raise in­ter­est­ing ques­tions. Is this ac­tu­ally a part of Jenn and Carolina we’re en­coun­ter­ing in the gallery or some­thing they cast off as garbage? Can we even call it their hair any­more? Or does it be­long to Mil­ner, who ac­cepted and saved it? Or to a per­son who might buy this piece of art for the $2,800 ask­ing price? What de­ter­mines the prove­nance of per­sonal ef­fects?

Mil­ner’s ex­plo­ration of the things that con­nect and sep­a­rate us comes to a cli­max with “Cabinet,” a dis­tinct, but re­lated, ex­hi­bi­tion in the rear of the gallery. Mil­ner has brought to­gether as many 100 small pieces from dif­fer­ent artists and placed them on a set of shelves along one wall. The as­sem­blage is, as the show’s lit­er­a­ture de­scribes it, “si­mul­ta­ne­ously in­ti­mate and sprawl­ing, mod­est and mon­u­men­tal.” It’s a pre­cious and joy­ful join­ing to­gether of both artists and the job of mak­ing and sell­ing art — and only two peo­ple are al­lowed in the room at once. But do wait your turn and def­i­nitely spend some time there. It’s kind of a mag­i­cal mo­ment in Den­ver art.

Mor­gan’s MCA ex­hibit, “Skindeep,” is less de­mand­ing than Mil­ner’s, and it comes with the artist’s nat­u­ral ap­peal to mass au­di­ences. Mor­gan’s spe­cialty is por­trai­ture, of her­self and ac­quain­tances, and each picture stares the viewer di­rectly in the eyes, invit­ing an in­ti­mate ex­change.

There’s a frank­ness that per­vades her work here. She’s con­cerned with like­ness but not ap­pear­ance. Her sub­jects are fully ren­dered with skin im­per­fec­tions and hair­styles that could use a comb. They’re just or­di­nary white peo­ple for the most part.

Mor­gan is, without a doubt, a highly skilled oil painter and able to say a lot with well-edited brush­strokes and light lay­ers of pig­ment. She has a way of blend­ing the hy­per-real with the sur­real; her paint­ings are pre­cise but she holds back on key de­tails to leave a lit­tle sus­pense.

In­stead, she fo­cuses on the in­te­rior of her sub­jects, us­ing color to bring forth some­thing more soul­ful than what you can see on the sur­face. She might add harsh reds to skin­tones, sur­round a face with a glow­ing yel­low aura, turn a pelvis blue or add a shadow across a jaw.

That she is able to sell these paint­ings — of her own friends and fam­ily — says a lot about them. They are ul­tra-per­sonal, though full of a coded mys­tery that a viewer wants to un­der­stand, to ac­tu­ally live with.

But the same thing that makes them com­mer­cial re­veals lim­its to the work in this show, and to the ex­hibit it­self. Mor­gan has pretty much fol­lowed the same path for the last decade — there isn’t that much dif­fer­ence be­tween her early works from the mid-2000s to the ones she turns out to­day. The show’s state­ment talks about a turn to­ward ab­strac­tion, but ab­strac­tion seems to have been a part of it all along.

The way her work is set up at the MCA makes it look for­mu­laic, and that is a trap that a lot of com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful artists fall into. When buy­ers are re­spond­ing and deal­ers are cheerleading, it’s easy to keep re­fin­ing and ex­plor­ing the same ideas rather than ex­per­i­ment­ing with new and in­ter­est­ing con­cepts (see Adam Mil­ner, above).

We’re used to see­ing museum shows that tell us how artists grow and change, that re­late a story. The MCA is par­tic­u­larly skilled at that as re­cent ca­reer ret­ro­spec­tives of Kim Dickey, Mar­i­lyn Minter and Mark Mothers­baugh have shown. “Skindeep” feels more like a (re­ally, re­ally) good gallery ex­hibit. It doesn’t take us on a jour­ney. It cov­ers too much ground to high­light a spe­cific body of work, but not enough ground to be one of those fas­ci­nat­ing ret­ro­spec­tives.

It’s hard to un­der­stand why the MCA chose to do the ex­hibit now and not 10 years from now (though the fact that it was funded by one of Mor­gan’s big­gest col­lec­tors could be part of the rea­son; that’s an­other thing these shows tell us about how the art world works).

Artists have to fol­low their muses. There’s no other way for them to pro­duce au­then­tic work, but how that work gets to the pub­lic, builds their rep­u­ta­tions, feeds them, is not al­ways in their con­trol. Ac­tu­ally, it rarely is.

Pro­vided by David B. Smith Gallery

“Cabinet” at David B. Smith Gallery in­cludes 100 ob­jects by dif­fer­ent artists. It was cu­rated by Adam Mil­ner.

Ray Mark Ri­naldi, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Jenny Mor­gan’s “Shadow Play,” on the wall at the MCA Den­ver.

Pro­vided by David B. Smith Gallery

Adam Mil­ner’s “Let­ting” are sheets col­ored by his own blood.

Ray Mark Ri­naldi, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Jenny Mor­gan, “I Am But One Small In­stru­ment” at the MCA Den­ver. Many of her paint­ings de­pict nu­dity, which the Den­ver Post opts out of show­ing, so this G-rated im­age tells only part of the story.

Pro­vided by David B. Smith Gallery

Adam Mil­ner’s “Weak Con­tainer” fea­tures two suits dyed with blood.

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