DENVER — Kim Dickey produces subjective dilemmas in her new survey, Words Are Leaves, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. The more than 60 works spanning 30 years pivot from functional objects to theatrical spaces to conceptual installations. The exhibition, which is heavy on ceramics, subtly and surprisingly highlights the influence that objects and architecture have in shaping perception. Dickey choreographs interactions between the body and the surrounding that expose desires and discomforts.
The earliest works in the exhibition are biological in form and functional, such as the Lady J series. These intimate ceramic objects resemble seed pods. The shape of “Lady J (Model #4)” (1994/1999), for instance, mimics the canoe-like form of a thistle seed, pinched on two ends and widening at the middle with an opening on the topside, while the petals of “Slipper” (1996) fan out from the central stem, like a milk-weed pod. Photos illustrate how the small vessels can be used by a woman to urinate while standing. Nearby, the two-piece series Nursing Bottles (for Men) (1997) allows men to nurse babies via small ceramic vessels that mimic breasts. The intimate works enable a person of any gender to perform another gender’s biological function, and they introduce a common thread in Dickey’s art, the concept of containment— human bodies, plants, and structural enclosures are all receptacles.
More recently, Dickey has moved from singular objects to environments. “Parterre” (2012) is a 15-foot-square aluminum support covered with more than 12,000 painted ceramic leaves. The sculpture is mounted on the museum wall like a tapestry, and the individual leaves coalesce into a large image of a formal garden maze. The garden features hedges and paths in concentric circles punctuated by fountains. Photos on adjacent walls, like “Expanded Field (Villandry)” (2007), show the dizzying patterns of actual French gardens. The gardens at Chateau de Villandry, which Dickey photographed, are arranged based on medieval and Renaissance designs, each charged with symbolic meaning. Vegetable gardens are arranged to represent bodily needs; ornamental gardens reflect emotions such as love; and water gardens symbolize spirituality. But does the human mind necessarily interpret the pleasurable redundancy of a perfectly pruned boxwood as an encapsulation of love? “Claustrum (Cloister)” (2015) is the climax to the exhibition and the answer to that question.
Twelve white ceramic figures stand on plinths arranged in an oval shape around the center of a gallery. The figures are covered in leaves like topiaries. The sculptures range from animals in a natural state, such as the hare scratching its front shoulder with a hind leg in “Time Out (When in Doubt Wash),” to domesticated ones such as the camel in a harness in “Traveling Companion (Endurance).” The majority of the sculptures in the installation depict animals that are either idealized or anthropomorphized, like the fox that has pinned a rabbit flat to the plinth in “Deadly Force (The Predatory).” One of the fox’s front legs is swung back, like a human arm, preparing to strike the rabbit with the staff in his paw. The staff is topped with a quatrefoil, reminiscent of the leaf shape in “Parterre.” The oval arrangement of the installation produces a path for the visitor like the theatrical gardens in Dickey’s earlier work. From the center of the oval, the visitor gets a better view of the drawing of medieval patterns that spans the four walls of the gallery. A cloister (from the Latin “claustrum”), is a quadrangle, an architectural enclosure of outdoor space most commonly seen in monasteries. Claustrum is also a biological term, referring to a sheet of neurons in the brains of all mammals that divides the two hemispheres of the brain. The combined effect of the ceramic figures and the wall drawing in “Claustrum (Cloister)” is unsettling.
The installation does not have the same functional applications as the Lady J and Nursing Bottles series, but it too takes up the concept of containment. The environments in which we find ourselves can alter our perceptions of our social reality and crystalize routes through a self-referential maze that entices, confuses and controls. Under its art historical layers, “Claustrum (Cloister)” — like so much of Dickey’s work — illuminates the spaces in the mind that can be isolated.