There's a fort in the FAC Modern. It's made of quilts. Outside the fort, a plastic fire blazes. On a video projection against the gallery room's eastern wall, the moon passes through its many phases, repeatedly, in intervals about three seconds long.
Inside the fort, microcosmic views of cells on one screen and celestial bodies on another undulate to the quiet sound of a distant pulse and occasional thunder. The stars brighten and explode. Under all this, artist Matthew Barton has laid down enough AstroTurf and blankets for at least a half-dozen viewers to sit or lie and watch the videos.
The piece, "Affects of the Effects of Gravity," is one of three art installations in the new show Altered Space: 21st Century Installation Art.
Curator Blake Milteer describes installation art as a medium in which "the focus on an individual work of art is essentially abandoned in favor of a multiplicity of objects, images and perhaps most of all, an enveloping experience."
According to Milteer, the medium debuted in the late 1950s with collaborations between musicians, performers, actors and visual artists aiming to "engage larger expanses of space."
Milteer labels French painter Yves Klein a forerunner of installation art. In one of Klein's installations, he removed everything from the gallery, so all that remained were white walls and empty cases. Klein called the show The Void and let people in few by few. While they were waiting in line outside, he served them a drink that reportedly stained their urine blue for weeks.
Altered Spaces, which opened Feb. 1, won't give you blue pee. But the installations are noteworthy. For one thing, they're the first that curators Milteer and Tariana Navas-Nieves have prepared on their own for the FAC. Plus, they comprise the first all-installation show to grace either the Modern or the Fine Arts Center main building.
To make Altered Spaces a reality, the curators called around for suggestions from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Colorado College as well as galleries throughout Denver and the Springs.
Barton, who recently got hired to teach 3D art making at UCCS, remembers where he was when he got his call.
"I've done a lot of taxidermy on roadkill," he says during a phone interview from his home near UCCS. "I went to get this cat ... I'm talking to Tariana, checking for cars, putting a dead cat in this garbage bag ..."
Barton often juxtaposes taxidermy with stuffed animals in his shows. Sans either, "Affects of the Effects of Gravity" employs juxtaposition as well. Barton says he wanted to create a "beautiful end of the world." One of the video projections shows meteors hitting mountains, starting fires.
"It's really about mixing reality and dream," he says. "It's kind of like, "Shit's going down, but it's really pretty.'"
Barton believes viewers could find many ways to interpret a children's-style fort, dropped into a surreal apocalyptic scenario. One possibility he offers: "Maybe it's more akin to the way dreams merge things that don't make rational sense to the waking mind but seem perfectly normal within the dream state."
The Wednesday before the show opened, Barton wheeled in a dozen fake trees and several boxes of electrical equipment on a small cart. Artist Gwen Laine, whose installation sits in an adjacent room, moved aside five of her silver balloon sculptures to make way for his equipment.
The two spoke amicably as they maneuvered through the space, and Barton commented that the two pieces worked well together. To reach his apocalyptic vision, viewers first have to walk through Laine's room packed with 36-inch, silver Mylar balloons.
"Passing Through" also evokes childhood dreaminess, albeit within a different, separate environment. The Denver-based artist tied the balloons to white cord with silver accents and threaded each cord through the center of four to six photographs. The photos, approximately 5 inches apart, feature upturned palms.
"As people move through the room, the balloons react," explains Laine. "Each image will adjust and shift."
Laine hopes that even viewers who came to the opening will return later, to see how the balloons change and the images collapse when common gasses replace the helium.
Across the FAC Modern's main hall, Christina Marsh's piece contrasts with the intensity of Laine and Barton's work.
Marsh, a Riley Scholar at CC, has placed white-chocolate picture frames on one wall of her room. Their smell lingers faintly in the air. On an elaborate wooden table at the far side of the room sit luggage and folded clothes.
The sparse piece, called "The Things We Carry," works as a meditation on transience. Marsh, like Barton, recently moved to the Springs after landing a teaching position.
"I have the conundrum," says Marsh, "of not having a connection in Colorado.
"My first perception driving [into town] was being amazed at how many motels were here and how many people were living in these motels."
A back wall in her exhibition bares the phrase, "My grandmother chose to move back. We chose to move forward."
The Victorian style of the frames and furniture suggest a studio apartment of someone with New England values. The whiteness of the clothes and chocolate might grab the viewer's attention. But anyone would be wise to give themselves over entirely to the space Marsh has created.
"When you think of traditional art, the viewer's outside the work," explains Navas-Nieves. "But with installation art, the viewer's inside and allowed to become a participant ... part of the artistic process."
"Installation art is one of the most essentially contemporary art forms developed over the last 30 years," adds Milteer. "It's really still evolving."
Altered Space: 21st Century Installation Art
FAC Modern, 121 S. Tejon St.
Show runs through April 26; open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission for nonmembers: $6.75-$7.50. Visit csfineartscenter.org or call 477-4308 for more.
For more on this, see Alternate Personalities