There is no art gallery in Denver quite like Understudy. It is the one consistent place where artists get the space, and the financial support, to experiment with adventurous ideas. Over the past five years, it has emerged as a crucial incubator for new talent, but also a public attraction where things are sometimes confounding but always fully engaging.
Still in some ways, the place is a secret. It sits in an unlikely location, in a street-level storefront in the Colorado Convention Center, not exactly ground zero for visual arts. And it has an unlikely funder, the Denver Theatre District, a business and tourism-minded organization that also sees the wisdom of sustaining this offbeat spot that keeps the downtown area interesting. Any out-of-towner who pops by Understudy during a visit here — often by accident during a convention for whatever national group happens to be convening at the moment — walks away with the idea that Denver is a forward-thinking metropolis.
The current installation, artist LA Samuelson’s “Testing the Mechanics,” is as good as Understudy gets. It’s an interactive, hand-made contraption that explores the way our minds work, how we think and act, and then react, to our own thoughts and experiences.
To be honest, the piece isn’t much to look at, just some boards nailed together to create a wooden floor, which is elevated a foot or so off the actual gallery floor by concrete blocks. The construction is very Home Depot.
But there are things going on below this surface that are captivating, generated by a sound installation that Samuelson created on-site, and which plays in an endless loop.
Visitors access the work by walking up a gentle ramp. Once there, they interact with the piece by laying down, sticking their head into one of a series of square openings that have been cut into the floor, and simply listening. Needless to say, this not the usual gallery experience; it requires a little relaxing.
“I wanted to make a space that felt really still but where there was something underneath that was noisy and rumbling,” Samuelson said in an interview last week when I asked what was going on with this test.
That explains why, from the outside, the piece — about 10 feet square — is rather plain. The only thing visible on the floor of unfinished lumber is a mattress, which also has a hole cut into it, which visitors are also welcome to drop their heads into to hear the sound below.
And it’s not what people hear that is interesting; rather, it is the way they hear it. The sound loops around the piece, moving from place to place. At one point it sounds as if it is right below, other times it is across the room. If you wait, the same sound comes back around to where it started in the first place.
Samuelson wants us to reflect on how time passes through our lives and how ideas float through our heads. These things come and go, they linger, disappear, morph. They are difficult to contain and constrain. Their meaning changes. It is all a mystery.
If that sounds like a lot to consume all at once, Samuelson provides visitors something of a breather by simultaneously giving us a bit of technology to consider. Or, in this case, the lack of high technology that makes the piece magical.
It is a little difficult to explain, but fascinating, so I’ll try.
Working with local sound artist Adam Stone, Samuelson has captured the audio on cassette tapes — the same kind people used to rock out to metal bands in the 1970s. But the pair dismantled the usual plastic cases, freeing the recording tape from its traditional container. Instead, they built a track for it under the floor, using common construction nails as the guardrails.
The tape runs continuously underneath the floor and viewers can see it trail by when they stick their heads into the openings. The holes are lit up to aid in making the visuals easier to see.
There are several tapes running at the same time on different tracks. Some of the tapes pass through audio players more than once. So listeners are able to hear different sounds that were recorded on the same tape but at different points of the recording — as if they can hear the past and the present all at once.
If these sounds are meant to mimic our thoughts, then what they say is that our thoughts are fleeting, but they often come back to our brains when we least expect that to happen.
As far as the actual sound goes, it is a bit enigmatic. Samuelson, who is also a performance artist, recorded it on site, uttering various verbal sounds and words and rolling around the sculpture while wearing a suit of wooden tiles that the artist uses in other performance pieces. The sound is somewhere between murmur and rumble, and the volume is kept relatively low.
If all the mechanics seem confusing, relax. You can just stick your head in and listen. That’s really all there is to participating. If you think of this work as a machine for listening, then know that is is quite easy to operate, and there are guides at the gallery to help out.
Samuelson, who worked here with Understudy curators Thad Mighell and Annie Geimer, has big plans for this apparatus. “Testing the Mechanics” is, as its title implies, a test. The artist is working out the logistics for a bigger sound pieces that take this experiment further. It will reappear in larger form in March, where it will take over the large Project Space at the RedLine Art Center (Samuelson was a fellow at Redline in 2020-22). After that, it will go on display in a new incarnation in Boulder that is being produced by Denver’s adventurous Black Cube Nomadic Museum.
That makes now — this week, since it closes Aug. 27 — a good time to see “Testing the Mechanics.” You can follow the evolution of Samuelson’s own ideas about how we listen as they loop about different galleries, repeat and return in new ways. Getting such an up-close view into the processes of a talented artist is a rare opportunity.
IF YOU GO
“Testing the Mechanics” continues through Aug. 27 at Understudy, 890 14th St. It’s free. Info online: denvertheatredistrict.com.
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