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MCA Denver's (not too) likable  showcase of Joel Swanson and Ian Fisher

By  Ray Mark Rinaldi Denver Post Fine Arts Critic


Posted:   01/26/2014  12:01:00 AM MST

Updated:   01/26/2014 11:14:33 AM MST


"Atmosphere No. 38, 2012," oil on canvas, by Ian Fisher. "Atmosphere No. 38, 2012,"  oil on canvas, by Ian Fisher.

(Provided by Museum of Contemporary Art Denver)


Artists don't want to be liked too much. A little fawning, that's just fine,  especially if it leads to selling work. But anything close to  widespread appeal  can ruin a career, and fast.

Contemporary artists are expected to challenge the way we think and see, to  make us uncomfortable, not win us over with warmth. Like IRS auditors,  journalists and beauty-contest judges, we want them to call out the ugly, expose  the truth at the expense of personal popularity.

So, with some caution I encourage you to enjoy the work of Joel Swanson and  Ian Fisher, each with a  show at the  Museum  of Contemporary Art Denver. But resist its ability to make you very  happy.



The title of Joel Swanson’s 2011 "Lady Gaga’s Twitter Feed Translated into Morse Code," explains the piece well. A peanut-size beacon The title of Joel  Swanson's 2011 "Lady Gaga's Twitter Feed Translated into Morse Code," explains  the piece well. A peanut-size beacon flashes what the pop singer puts out on  social media.

(Provided by Museum of Contemporary Art Denver)


The artists work differently, but both offer a raw delight.  Fisher,  because his paintings of giant clouds colliding in the skies tend to knock  people out with their beauty.  Swanson, because his plays on  language use plain English and deliver a solid punch line.

Of course, both minds run deeper than they first appear; their humor and good  looks are a byproduct of their attempts to give us a shake. Each invites the  same sort of delamination, and you can see why MCA curator  Nora  Burnett Abrams made the user-friendly choice of exhibiting  them at the same  time.

Swanson's "Left to Right, Top to Bottom" plays out like a crossword puzzle.  The artist gives us a word or symbol, then a clue, and lets us take it from  there. He hangs a 3-foot, sideways "V" from the ceiling and sets it rotating on  its string. As soon as you make it out to mean "greater than" it spins around  into "less than." Language, we come to understand, is fluid, unstable and we  interpret it from our own point of view.

For "Sincerely," he simply isolates that single word — a cursive sign-off  from an actual hand-written letter — and blows it up to fill a full, 36-foot  wall in the museum. Does its size make it more sincere or less? Does it have any  meaning at all at such proportion?

It isn't just words Swanson explores but the way language itself is assembled  over time. His " Lady  Gaga's Twitter Feed Translated into Morse Code," delivers the pop star's  actual social-media messages via a bullet-size beacon, set on a waist-high  podium, that flashes on and off in real time. In a de-evolution of languages,  ones and zeroes become dots and dashes and we see how communication takes on  structure.


Ian Fisher’s "Atmosphere No. 50 (Follow You Into the Dark), 2014." Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in. Ian Fisher's "Atmosphere  No. 50 (Follow You Into the Dark), 2014." Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 in.

(Provided by Museum of Contemporary Art Denver)


These aren't deep thoughts necessarily. Like a lot of conceptual art, once  you get the gist of a Swanson work, the thrill dissipates. All that flashing,  spinning, writing requires a lot of effort to deliver a single thunk. This is  where its likability comes close to taking it all down.

But Swanson is a complex thinker, and the accumulation of objects here adds  up to   a deep and enjoyable trip through  an unusual mind. At 35, he's built an  impressive résumé, which includes his current job as  Director of the  Technology, Arts & Media Program at the University of Colorado in  Boulder,  as interesting and complicated a place as you will find.

His work is just weird enough to keep you on edge, and the grand effort  required to present it makes it both complete and compelling. For "Ampersand,"  Swanson hand-wrote the "&" character 25,000 times in a grid directly on the  wall. It's a marvel of human labor and a rich consideration of an everyday  symbol that goes on & on & on & on. All at once, language is a  pattern, a drawing, interpretable, mysterious and thrilling.

Fisher's thrills take less brain power, but require a longer look. He paints  clouds in turbulent, skyscapes full of color, puff, swirl and organic drama.  Clouds knock into clouds, sharing, overlaying, infiltrating each other's  airspace. This is nothing you want to see during takeoff or landing at DIA, but  tamed and contained on large canvases, it can be stunning.


Joel Swanson’s "Sincerely," stretches about 36 feet along the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In the foreground at right is the Joel Swanson's  "Sincerely," stretches about 36 feet along the wall of the Museum of  Contemporary Art. In the foreground at right is the piece "Ampersand,"  consisting of 25,000 ampersands that the artist hand-wrote directly on the wall.

(Ray Mark Rinaldi, The Denver Post)


This work has a commercial side that makes it suspect. The MCA shows a lot of  art, and almost none of it is as pretty as Fisher's. Not yet 30, the painter is  already repped by prestigious  Robischon  Gallery. His oil paintings have a Western, big-sky quality that fetches  serious money in these parts.

But ordinary painters don't end up at the MCA or on Robischon's roster.  Fisher takes us into the deep space of our heads by pairing the categorical with  the abstract. His "Atmosphere No. 50" combines true clouds of white, orange and  blue with almost artificial, black, cloud-like shapes. In "Atmosphere No. 51" he  focuses on too much sky, commanding a look at the bigger picture above us.

He lets drips of paint turn the canvas unpleasant for "Atmosphere No. 35,"  creating an abrupt, fasten-your-seatbelt moment that reminds us we are looking  at a painting and not a photograph —  at art and not  an advertisement for air  travel.

In the same way that Swanson wows us with effort, Fisher interrupts our  peaceful journey by showing his own hand. Stopping the natural affability of his  scenery in its tracks, adding a layer of wonder and interest.

Viewers will fawn over both shows, until they don't, and the place where they  stop will determine just how good they think this work is. Likability in the  eyes of the beholder, just where it ought to be.


Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540, or


Read more: MCA Denver's (not too) likable showcase of Joel Swanson and Ian Fisher - The Denver Post