*Full disclosure: The art magazine I work for published a preview about this show, although I did not write it and there was no sort of review involved in the article.
This past Saturday, Doug Kacena’s revolutionary show Crossover opened at Mike Wright Gallery in downtown Denver. The show is incredibly unique and forces viewers to confront their predispositions about both representational and abstract expressionist art and the messages portrayed by each style.
Kacena, a contemporary abstract expressionist, has been working with 12 of Colorado’s leading realism painters on a year-long experimental project. Here’s what happened: At the beginning of the project, once the participating artists were finalized, Kacena sent each artist one of his original paintings. The other 12 artists sent Kacena one of their original paintings. The idea is that each artist would paint over the received painting to create a new piece of artwork, so that the original style, subject and intent of the painting fades away to reveal something new.
Some of the paintings were valued at more than $30,000. That in and of itself is enough to give any person anxiety, in my opinion.
With this show, the artists not only address the transience of painting and art, but they also must let go of the thing they have personally invested such time and creative energy in creating. The works are also a study in how two styles of art, thought to be so different and separate from one another, can come together to create such nuanced and beautiful pieces.
Walking through Mike Wright Gallery — a small and unassuming gallery sitting quietly on a corner on Wazee Street — viewers are greeted with a few preliminary pieces that were redesigned by some of the 12 other participating artists. In some, Kacena’s vague and foggy brushstrokes become horses or vases. Hanging next to each canvas is a plaque with the original image, the artist who painted over it and the new title, along with prices. Viewers continue through the gallery to the back where several more paintings are on display. There were about 30 works to see that night, and there are more hiding away for now.
In some works, bits and pieces of the original can be seen poking through the new layers of paint, while other images have been pulled out of the original shapes. Because of Kacena’s bold, almost chaotic, style, the results of his reworked paintings are sometimes jarring. Kacena reworked some pieces using more diverse materials including spray paint, neon light tubes and even sculpture. Perhaps the most jarring piece we encountered that evening was “Redacted Memory.” The original painting of a man and woman in a steamy embrace by Ron Hicks became a swirling mass of black and gray with hints of light throughout. The movement seems to hold the woman’s face in the eye of its tornado while the man and the rest of the scene disappears. The original was one of the most expensive pieces to be included in the exhibition.
This was a bit hard to swallow for many viewers, including my husband. And while it is difficult to know that the original painting no longer exists, I thoroughly enjoy the new direction — it seems to speak to the different details we tend to remember about a particularly pivotal moment in our lives. In this piece, would the man remember the venue, the reason they were there, or the woman’s red dress? Probably not, but he’ll definitely remember her face.
Opening night was packed with artists and art connoisseurs alike — all from different backgrounds and persuasions, which is one of Kacena’s primary triumphs with Crossover. This show is able to bring together lovers of realism and representational art, as well as those who favor contemporary abstract art. I heard so many wonderful conversations happening about how each artist chose to confront the painting he was given and how his or her approach (different colors, reorienting the paintings, a new setting) makes us think of old painting in a new way.
I must admit, even as a lover of abstract expressionism, there were several pieces that I simply didn’t understand. For instance, a realistic piece of a buffalo was turned upside down by Kacena and the buffalo’s figure became a vague shape filled with white and rainbow-colored swirls and lines. Yet Kacena kept the original sky-and-field background. I think an important part of this show is realizing that different artists working in different styles have different reasons for creating what they do. And it is not up to the viewer to understand every single piece, but merely to consider and react to it. My husband and I had a wonderful conversation about why abstract expressionism makes some people cry while others think, “Well, I could do that,” and move on completely un-phased. This is a topic I would like to explore in more depth in the future, but my initial thoughts are that it is simply a matter of how one chooses to look at a painting and what one is drawn to in a piece of art.
For example, I am a lover of color and am often moved to tears in the presence of artists like Mark Rothko. Therefore, Kacena’s darker, more intense palette, doesn’t quite hit me in the same way. Similarly, my husband is drawn to people and emotion shown through physical expression. Therefore, he wouldn’t be too moved by many of the pieces included here. Yet he looked, considered, asked questions and so on. Whether reactions are positive or negative, you are still interacting with the art and challenging yourself — a core theme throughout Crossover, and extremely important to the entire experience.
These are the exhibitions I love: ones that really make us think and question traditional thinking about style and context. To me, there are few things more enjoyable than being challenged by a piece of art. And I believe all who attend Kacena’s show will find themselves questioning and analyzing their views of the art world and the constraints we naturally assign to different genres of creation.
Kacena’s show is on view in Mike Wright Gallery until January 14, although it is unclear whether or not works will be changed out during the course of that time. For more information, you may read this article or visit the gallery’s website.
What did you think of Crossover? How does considering different styles of art help to expand our thinking of what art can be? How can realism and abstraction work together in an artwork? Who are your favorite Colorado artists? Let’s talk.