Chewed Until Sugarless 

A thought-provoking collection of contemporary art sets the wheels in motion

Giving an overview of the work included in the Collecting Contemporary Art: One Point of View exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is a bit like drawing comparisons between the work of Jan Vermeer and Jackson Pollock. It's all art, and it's all well done, but you could spend a lot of time trying to divine other similarities.

Perhaps that is why this show, encompassing 17 pieces from the collection of Donald R. Mullins Jr., is characterized as more about collecting art than about any common theme. The works in the exhibit run a gamut from the photographically realistic "Art of the West" by Bill Davenport to the very much tongue-in-cheek creations of "The Art Guys," Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth.

However, because all of the art in the collection is contemporary, there is a unifying factor beyond the commonality of ownership. Every piece in the exhibit is intended to make the viewer think about what the artist is trying to accomplish. And even if that thought enters your head in the form of "Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?" you will be inclined to spend a few minutes considering the intent behind the pieces in Mullins' collection. In fact, if the benchmark of good contemporary art is its capacity to provoke thought, then this show ranks among the finest.

For example, one of the most striking articles in the exhibit is Dario Robleto's "Untitled (sweetness I was only joking)." On the surface, the work is a 10-pack of Wrigley's "Big Red" cinnamon gum, the old five-stick packages that have become increasingly hard to find in recent years. There is a clear cellophane wrapper with a label extolling the fact that you are saving money by buying 10 gum packs at the same time. It's the kind of thing you might have seen a hundred times while waiting to pay for gas at the 7-11.

But the exhibition label reveals a not-so-subtle difference -- hopefully. "Purchased and unpackaged gum, chewed until sugarless, reshaped to original form and repackaged." Indeed, that description alone would be sufficient to get most of our wheels turning about what the artist was thinking. One of the points Mullins makes about collecting art is the importance of getting to know the artist. As it happens, this is a piece with more of a history than you might expect.

According to Fine Arts Center Director David Turner, Robleto was the victim of "artist's block" while attending a seminar at a prestigious Eastern university. His mother routinely sent 10-packs of cinnamon gum to her son to help keep him busy. Robleto furiously chewed the stuff while he was ruminating about something creative for his seminar, replacing the wads of gum in their packaging and squishing them back into shape when he was done. By the time his project was due, Robleto had produced two replicas of the cinnamon gum 10-packs, one of which he replaced on a sales rack at the local store, and the other which is on display at the Fine Art Center.

While the other pieces in the show may not carry the same kind of evocative historical baggage, there are many pieces that have the same potential for intriguing explanation. One of the most compelling is a well-worn and oddly shaped suitcase with cutout letters. "Corn/Hubris" by the Art Guys features yellow and blue lights that shine out through the stenciled words. "Hubris" in blue appears on the front while "Corn" in yellow flashes rhythmically on the wall behind the piece. "Despite its silliness," Mullins said, "it has meaning for me which I will refrain from explaining due to the fact that it will likely offend farmers from Kansas who might read your paper."

There are less whimsical pieces in the collection as well, including a terra cotta sculpture by Lisa Ludwig, titled "Cake," and an acrylic-pencil-and- varnish-on-paper work by Don Ed Hardy, called "Ancient Exercise II." Ludwig's conically shaped piece features an array of baby corn ears and icing roses melded into a half-wedding-cake, half-religious-icon form. Hardy's painting presents a human heart form against a desolate landscape; only upon close inspection, one sees it's a frighteningly flexible devil engaged in a tantric pose -- a devil with his head up his ass.

Mullins recognizes and appreciates the difficulties in interpretation that many of his purchases present. "I enjoy being challenged by interesting art in the same way that other people seek out difficult literature," he said. "I love a beautiful, well-crafted work as much as anyone, but I need content, whether theoretical, political or personal, to challenge me."

True to the title of the show, there are also lessons for the viewer to access concerning the strategy of collecting modern art. According to Turner, Mullins has been good at seeking out artists in their formative periods and buying their work before the prices go up. "Many of these pieces were done early in the artists' careers," Turner said, "or they represent new directions in an older artist's career."

Mullins sees collecting as a reciprocal, albeit conflicting, pursuit. "Some people play golf. I pursue art, because I think that gives back. It's a hobby where I am able to help young artists, enhance my home, travel and challenge myself," he said. "I consider it conflicted because I have always felt it strange to buy other people's ideas and hang them on your walls, and yet I do it."

Although this sophisticated exhibit may not appeal to the most traditional among us, it is one not to be missed by those who feel that good art is something designed to elicit intellectual response. "Are there more Don Mullinses out there?" Turner asked. "I hope so and I hope that they will give me a call."


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