Darker sides of valley life revealed in Aspen exhibit
October 21, 2010
ASPEN – In early August, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent ran a story about panhandling at the intersection of Highways 82 and 133, the effects on commerce and livability in Carbondale, and the legal and practical problems associated with addressing the issue. Aspenite Shelly Safir Marolt believes the article overlooked one essential ingredient: the panhandlers themselves, whose perspective was absent. “They never asked any of the homeless people: How did you get here?” Marolt griped. (A story in yesterday’s Post Independent about a meeting between the homeless and downvalley officials did focus on the experience of several homeless men.)
With numerous newspapers, magazines and TV stations, the Roaring Fork Valley can’t remain blissfully unaware of its more unseemly facets. But Marolt’s complaint points up a reality of life that might be more pronounced here than most places: We avert our gaze and keep our distance from things we’d rather not live with. We know these elements are there, and yet try to suppress this knowledge.
“It’s not that we don’t see them. We choose not to think about them,” Marolt said. “People don’t come here to see these things. This is the land of plenty and fun, and the people who live here have to keep that up to give visitors their perfect vacation.”
Marolt and her fellow artists in residence at Aspen’s Red Brick Center for the Arts, as well as the nonprofit organizations housed at the Red Brick, are taking the lid off such issues. The group exhibition The Concealed Revealed, showing through Sunday, Oct. 24 at the Aspen Art Museum, brings to the surface aspects of valley life not featured in marketing campaigns: suicide, poverty, extreme wealth disparity and pollution, as well as homelessness. The show is the first in a series of exhibitions by valley arts organizations in the Art Museum’s 970.org project. The exhibitions – by Carbondale Clay Center, Colorado Mountain College Ceramics Studio, Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities, Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts, SAW (Studio for Arts and Works), the Aspen Chapel Gallery, and founders and staff members of the Aspen Art Museum – open, one a week, through late November.
Visitors to the exhibition are greeted by Marolt’s installation, “Sleep Well,” made with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. It comprises a wall filled with the actual signs asking for food, money and assistance held up by panhandlers at the Carbondale intersection, and a video of a man talking about his experience of homelessness. For Marolt, a painter who often makes images of people with ambiguous expressions, this is as straightforward as it gets, and the directness conveys her seriousness about the subject.
“I was totally changed by this whole experience,” said Marolt, who paid the panhandlers $10 per sign, and gave them cardboard and a pen so they wouldn’t be left sign-less. “I was able to put a face to this problem and not just see these people and give them some money. These are people’s fathers and daughters. I have so much more compassion than cynicism, and can see how it can happen to anybody. It could be any of us.”
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The Concealed Revealed came out of meetings among the Red Brick artists and nonprofit organizations as they planned their work for the Aspen Art Museum exhibition. Marolt said the artists, who show their art frequently in the Red Brick Gallery, decided to use the museum show as an opportunity to alter their standard approaches.
“Were we going to do the same things we always did, or something different? The idea for a maze came up, and I said, ‘That’s not saying something. It’s just a maze. We’re being given the museum, let’s say something about the valley, and let’s not be separate, but really collaborate,” Marolt said, adding that Debra Muzikar, the executive director of the Red Brick Council for the Arts, was instrumental in shaping the exhibition. “When you go to the museum, a lot of the art is not face value, not just a painting. It’s not a still life of lemons and a knife. It’s always about something bigger.”
Among the more vivid examples of both collaboration and of using art to address an issue is “Hope Central,” a sprawling installation by Red Brick artists Dasa Bausova and Jennine Hough and the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation. The piece looks at suicide; the repeated appearances of the word “hope” come from the Hope Center and the Hope Line, AVMF services for people contemplating taking their lives. “Hope Central” juxtaposes uplifting and downbeat elements: “hope” rendered in cheery colors, skeletons, police-scene outlines of dead bodies, song quotations including “As Long As You Live You’ll Be Dead if you die,” by Mildred Bailey.
“Jennine and I are such different artists – work differently, think differently,” noted Bausova. “I tend to go for opposites – one thing and its extreme opposite – whereas Jennine thinks in similarities. It was a chance for us to combine all these different perspectives.”
What Bausova aims to uncover is not the Aspen of the dream vacation, but as a place where dreams are often unfulfilled. She noted Aspen’s often high rate of suicide.
“A lot of people come to Aspen with false hopes, unrealizable hopes – glamour, easy, a lot of money. And they find themselves working five jobs and not being able to make it,” she said. “But also, there’s incredible generosity here. There are a lot of people who make a difference on a large scale. So you have these two opposites, and then everything in between.”
The exhibition also includes “How Big Is Big Enough?” a collage by Elizabeth Farson, Betty Weiss and Georgeann Waggaman that addresses the gap between old, modest cottages and new monster homes; “Down But Not Quite Out,” an installation by Jonathan Martin and Theatre Aspen that replicates an elaborate, but offbeat camping scene, with high-end magazines, an American Express gold card, and several references to Hunter S. Thompson; and “One Can Make a Difference,” a sculpture made of tomato sauce cans, by Lucy Tremols and the Buddy Program. All the collected cans will be donated to local organizations that alleviate hunger.
Especially effective is the sign made for the exhibition by Muzikar, the Red Brick’s director, with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation and Shere Coleman. An oversized book made of newspaper stories, the piece points to how things can be both revealed and concealed at the same time.
“I think all the installations show you what’s happening under our noses,” Marolt said. “So we know it’s there, but we shelter ourselves from it.”