Old-school ideas about art and literature get an update in these Denver gallery shows
To best appreciate the work of artist Sherry Wiggins, it helps to know a bit about her process.
In essence, it happens like this: She studies the lives of famous women, real and mythological, then uses costumes and props to inhabit their characters through her own lens, that of a 68-year-old woman living in the 21st century who is well-read and fully enmeshed in both present-day feminism and contemporary art.
Then she finds a setting — in the case of the works on display currently at Michael Warren gallery, a series of outdoor fields in Holland and Portugal — and has someone else take her picture. For the past several years, she has collaborated with photographer Luís Filipe Branco on these endeavors.
The result — the actual art product — is the photo itself, and at Michael Warren, viewers can see her recent takes “On Sappho, Helen and Aphrodite,” as the show’s official title explains.
The images are, as so many of Wiggins’ objects that have appeared in galleries and on social media, captivating at every level. And just to add a few more adjectives: brave, timely, smart and very self-indulgent. Wiggins dreams up these scenarios and gives them everything she’s got.
In some way, they are instructive, a chance to explore the real person that was the poet Sappho and the larger-than-real personas of Helen of Troy and the goddess Aphrodite. Accompanying the photos at the exhibition are texts of poems written by Sappho and translated by present-day scholars. They are passionate odes to love and sacrifice, and deeply felt, and they set the tone for Wiggins’ own extremism in her work.
The photos are also objects to enjoy on a visceral level; they are daring, full of rich colors, careful cropping and so much drama. Wiggins lets her age show — under theatrical lighting, no less. Every wrinkle and sag is on display — and honestly, that sort of bare-it-all, anti-ageism is, let’s face it, rare in our culture.
There is a deflated romanticism about the photos that makes them endearing. These characters are big and sincere, and surely glorified. They surround themselves with roses and wear fancy gowns and crowns. But they do suffer tremendously in the way that classic literature demands. In one humorous photo, Wiggins gives us her vision of “Helen After Troy” — she’s tired from the slings and arrows of wars, kidnapping and lost love; the famous beauty appears as an unkempt, bedraggled and clearly depressed woman of a certain age.
But they also challenge our intellect and blur common understandings about contemporary art. The question that hangs in the air as you gaze at these pictures is unavoidable and consuming: What is it, exactly, that Sherry Wiggins makes?
Photos? Technically, yes, though she is not the one behind the camera. Despite her conception of the scenes and her direction on how she wants things done, it is Branco who frames the image, operates the shutter, and decides when the setting, the light and the mood meet at the precise moment of art-making.
His operation of the machinery would seem to give him the same agency that any photographer deserves over the photos they take. Though the fact that he does it at Wiggins’ command, as a tool of her own artistic vision, confuses the issue. The most obvious art historical reference to Wiggins’ output is the work of renowned photographer Cindy Sherman, who also inhabits odd characters for her work. But Sherman takes her own photos.
Is Wiggins a performance artist? Also, yes. She performs, but it is not like the performance is the goal, nor is there an audience when the costumes and characterizations are on. Often in galleries we encounter photos of performance pieces done by artists, though they are most often there to document the work back when it happened. They are not, at least primarily, the work itself.
Is she an actress? It is hard to tell when we do not see her actually act, or move. Is she a model? That would remove her own agency over the pictures.
And so we fall back on that term that everyone seems to love but no one can fully define. She is an artist, charting her own course, experimenting, collaborating and, most important for the rest of us, exhibiting. Following her singular adventures is a joy.
A second solo
Michael Warren is also presenting a solo exhibition of recent paintings, titled “We Are All Heroes,” by Ann Marie Auricchio. This show, too, has some surprises.
For many artists, it would be hard to compete with the sensationalism of Sherry Wiggins’ photography work, but Auricchio holds her own.
Part of that comes through the power of her own colorful displays. Auricchio paints big — the canvases are as large as 9 feet wide and 7 feet tall — and her works are full of brilliant shades rendered in acrylics. There is a wildness about them, an energy and naturalism.
In some ways, they pay homage to old-school abstract expressionism. The gestures appear to be big and exaggerated. Deciphering their subject matter is not so easy, and they look, at first glance, like landscapes.
But the closer you get, the more precise Auricchio’s marks appear. She is not simply throwing paint at a canvas in a wild rage. Rather, she is deliberately applying colors in a way that creates sharp, crisp lines and deliberate fields of color. That elevates the work from the ordinary messy abstraction you often encounter in commercial galleries to something more thoughtful.
These are not interpretations of flora and fauna as much as they are narratives of the human experience, how we live in, and with, the world around us and process the experiences of daily life. I’m not sure how they would read as individual pieces, but grouped together in Michael Warren’s expansive white space, they emanate considerable energy. This would be an ideal moment to experience her work.
IF YOU GO
Both exhibitions continue through Dec. 2 at Michael Warren gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive. They are free. Info: 303-635-6255 or michaelwarrencontemporary.com.
Ray Mark Rinaldi ([email protected]) is a veteran arts writer and critic based in Denver.
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