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Review: “Eamon Ore-Giron: Competing with Lightning” at MCA Denver

Eamon Ore-Giron’s “Competing with Lightning” unfolds like an excellent adventure in sci-fi cinema, starting out as an intimate, character-developing fable and building to something more like an intergalactic space odyssey. As with any great action movie, it finishes off with a spectacular climax.

The exhibition is not so big for the sort of mid-career retrospective it presents itself as, maybe just two dozen paintings spread purposefully across the expansive second-floor galleries of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Denver. But it covers a lot of thematic ground, sampling 20 years of Ore-Giron’s shapeshifting work.

If you go

“Eamon Ore-Giron: Competing with Lightning / Rivalizando con el relámpago” continues through May 22 at the MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany St. Info: 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.

The exhibition is the first, comprehensive museum solo by the artist, with many objects never previously seen in public, and it is arranged with oversized ambition and larger-than-life ideas. It explores grand topics, like the evolution of personal identity in our multicultural Western Hemisphere — in this case convoluted by 500 years of colonial conquest and racial remixing.

Then it moves on to even bigger ideas, challenging basic assumptions of art history itself. The show (along with a paired exhibition by indigenous artist Dyani White Hawk on the museum’s first floor)  attempts to reposition the movement known as Abstract Expressionism — thought of as the great advance of 20th-century Euro-based artists — as something older, with roots in the pre-colonial cultures of the Americas.

Miranda Lash, in her first outing as the MCA’s new chief curator, goes all in as a presenter, not only digging up examples of Ore-Giron’s painting made two decades ago to begin her curatorial narrative, but also by pushing the artist into the future at the same time. The MCA commissioned a number of new works, including a massive, floor-to-ceiling mural painted directly onto a tall, gallery wall, plus a series of six oversized paintings that hang on all four walls of the MCA’s largest room. The latter serves as a sort of immersive — and enthralling — “Rothko Chapel” that brings the exhibition to its sky-high culmination.

Fortunately, Lash starts out small. She separates the show into three distinct sections, beginning with modestly sized paintings that Ore-Giron created during the early 2000s, as he was entering his 30s. These works are figurative, though selective in the level of detail they show. Acrylic on canvas paintings, like 2003’s “Cherry Truck,” resemble the graphic art of comic books — line drawings filled in with solid blocks of color.

These objects introduce us not just to his work, but also to Ore-Giron personally and the blended DNA that influenced his identity and art. His mother is a fourth-generation Arizonan of Irish descent. His father is a Peruvian who came up in the central region of the Andes Mountains.

The family was based in Tucson but traveled frequently to South America, where the artist was able to see both domestic traditions and the folkloric rituals of the region and how those things, similar to his own evolving sense of self, were influenced by both European and Latin American customs and beliefs. This first section of paintings plays out as postcards from those experiences.

As paintings go, they are representational, though they have their share of fantasy and interpretation. One pair of paintings, titled “Cookin 1” and “Cookin 2,”  offers a good example. The pieces show nearly identical scenes — two female figures preparing a meal around a kitchen table. But in one painting, the women are brown-skinned and dark-haired. In the other, the very same women are whiter and blonde.

Using that as a scene-setter for Ore-Giron’s exploration of how cultures blend, Lash propels the show forward to a second phase of the artist’s career, his “Talking Shit” series, where he begins to incorporate the tools of 20th-century abstraction — hard edges, pure geometric shapes  — into his now partly representational works. Here, cultural expressions once again mix together as the artist applies Modernist techniques into depictions of Incan and Aztec deities.

One example: 2017’s “Talking Shit with Quetzalcoatl,” which presents the ancient-world icon — so often resurrected by Latino artists now as a symbol of reclaimed identity — as a series of interlocking loops and circles that slither, tail-to-tongue, down the canvas. This is an ancient scene but reimagined by this artist in a style that is somewhere between pure, 20th-century Modernism and contemporary pop, poster art. It’s easy to see influences of known painters such as Frank Stella, Wassily Kandinsky and Ellsworth Kelly, but also, as Lash points out in the show’s catalog, lesser-known (in the U.S.) artists like Uruguayan María Freire and Cuban-born Carmen Herrera.

These vinyl-paint works are a crucial step in Ore-Giron’s development because they track his break from representation to abstraction, which for so many artists — Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko to name just two — moved them toward greatness.

In the final section of the show, Lash makes her argument that Ore-Giron is poised for his own greater level of recognition at this moment,

showcasing his current series of fully abstract paintings that he calls the “Infinite Regress.” With these works, Ore-Giron expands his idea of cultural blending to incorporate a merging of time and space, as well.

These large paintings, as much as 6 feet or 8 feet in either dimension, combine circular shapes — that resemble planets in orbit — with crisp, clean lines that connect this fantasy solar system into a whole. These lines start out as precise points in the middle of the canvas and grow increasing wider until they hit the edges.

They are, in effect, rays of energy that appear to suck the action into vanishing points on some deep horizon. Or maybe they are just the opposite, points of origin that propel energy outward into the expanding universe. Either way they are full of motion and of a sense that the celestial space we occupy has neither a beginning nor an end. Everything is connected, rotational, repeating.

The paintings have their historic references, shapes that remind a viewer of Aztec architecture or counting systems, and they are rendered in gold, metallic paint, a reference to the sought-after and often-stolen commodity that drove much of colonialism throughout the centuries.

But these objects contains a forwardness as much as they do a backwardness. Exhibited in the context of Ore-Giron’s earlier work, they suggest a continuum for humanity that includes, but goes beyond, geography and race. We are all together in this timeless cycle even if we do not fully control or understand it. No great science-fiction work offers concrete answers, like this exhibit, which suggests big questions are unanswerable.

The MCA has invested significantly in “Competing with Lightning” and in Ore-Giron himself as an artist. Visitors, critics and collectors will decide what comes next. But the universe, given the opportunity, rarely contracts, and that is likely to be that case for this painter’s career, too.

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