DENVER — Define monument art. Is it distinguished by its material, size, or relationship to a specific event? The nonprofit art center RedLine’s annual resident artist exhibition, Monumental, challenges the monument’s power to remake cultural identity, space, and a record of time. Curated by Marisa Lerer, it challenges viewers to recognize and reconcile certain absences not addressed by a genre of art steeped in tradition. Place, memory, and national identity are not static, yet to memorialize is to make the abstract concrete and a moment shared by many singular.
Daisy Patton’s “Untitled (Five Patterned Women)” is a large, mixed media painting in which she applies oil paint onto an inkjet print of a found photo. Bright colors and busy patterns breathe life and overwhelming energy into the black-and-white image. Patton conceals the original context of the figures as she paints large, wallpaper-like swatches over the photographic evidence. Gazes are left vacant by eyes painted over or cut out. The five women in the image shed their identity and place. Only time leaves its stamp by way of their clothes — 1950s cardigans and A-line skirts. A rootless ivy with abstract berries and flowers climbs the front of the image in starts and stops. The vegetation stands between the viewer and the anonymous women. Despite the fluorescent pinks and welcoming, warm yellows, the painting is melancholy. Patton creates a new narrative by hiding the figures’ place, faces, and, arguably, their humanity. Does a monument stop the clock? Does it demand the viewer to remember, to fill the gaps in the story? It is uncomfortably sad to consider that when the story becomes unfamiliar, it is lost altogether.
Scale and beauty cannot produce a meaningful substitute connection for the viewer once the original is lost. If Patton’s visual strategy is to exaggerate what is missing, Sarah Fukami’s approach is to bring hidden narratives to light. In “Wakeme (Partition),” Fukami presents historical photographs, newspaper clippings, and a handwritten letter all addressing Japanese American internment camps in the United States during World War II. One photo features an American Main Street with snowcapped mountains looming large over the town. A newspaper clipping bisects the mountain, outlining the “subversive plot” that could be hatched by “Americanized Japs.” To the right of the clipping is a vertically oriented photo of internees picking potatoes within a camp and another photo of two individuals surrendering to be interned. A handwritten letter bridges the two photos. It details the author’s separation from family members amid constant transfers between camps in three different states. Interrupting the view of the entire work is a chain-link fence rendered in black Plexiglas. What monuments speak for silenced and marginalized communities, Fukami’s piece seems to ask, and how do these moments of prejudice and the dehumanization of fellow citizens brand a nation’s history and identity?
“America is neither dream nor reality,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in America. “It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved.” Libby Barbee’s Baudrillardian installation, “Astral America,” is a nod to the concept of a monument as a place, or rather an idea of a place. Wooden cutouts of Arizona’s Monument Valley rock formations in Crayola yellow, teal, purple, and pink are framed by a wall installation featuring a motivational poster and a backpack with camping gear and one of the iconic sandstone cliff cutouts strapped to it. Barbee’s work underlines how the memory of America’s frontier, or the idea of it as a reality today, is edited, romanticized, and Disney-fied, becoming a copy with no original to reference.
Rather than reveal the shortcomings of monument art, Suchitra Mattai and Jennifer Ghormly successfully disrupt the expectation of the monument. Ghormly’s “Verge Trace” features a life-size figure with strong thighs and buttocks, the figure’s post evoking Michelangelo’s “David.” The flesh-like softness of the work’s surface is achieved not with marble but by stitching together multiple layers of translucent trace monotype that build up to the final image on the surface. The figure stands high above the viewer and reveals, with an over-the-shoulder gaze, that this monument to the human form is female. The piece’s powerful dynamics of material and gender undermine the idea of classical art historical monuments.
Mattai’s “Her Early Gains” features embroidered needlepoint on canvas mounted atop a pixelated print of the same image that appears in the needlepoint. The angled lines in both versions of the forest landscape image highlight its two-point perspective and vanishing points. The viewer can follow these lines, which resemble the pulsing readings of a heart monitor, to detect spatial manipulation in the original landscape composition. The pixelated reproduction of the needlepoint image gains authority in its size, but loses clarity. The lines converging to reveal depths of space are initially confusing and distracting from the pastoral scene, until their function becomes obvious. Through manipulations of material, scale, and symbols, Mattai’s work highlights how monuments can create quick, consumable triumphs, silencing the casualties of the preceding struggle.
With a topic so large and such diverse contributions, Monumental teeters on the edge of feeling scattered. However, what the artists achieve is a stretched definition of the monument. Arguably, if monument art acts like a bookmark in a nation’s history or a mirror to a cultural identity, the results should be nuanced. These artists challenge us to imagine what kinds of monuments might offer more balanced narratives.
Monumental: RedLine’s Annual Resident Artist Exhibition continues at RedLine (2350 Arapahoe Street, Denver, Colorado) through March 27.