Devon Dikeou’s Mid-Career Smear in downtown Denver is a mid-career retrospective that examines “in-between” spaces with keen observation and irreverent humor.
I’m not sure why it’s been so hard for me to start this profile on Denver artist Devon Dikeou. I think part of the reason is that the more I learn about her, the more there is to learn. There are more tendrils to follow, more shows and exhibitions to research, more galleries to investigate (and go to), more people I want to meet.
Dikeou is an artist, collector, and publisher who lives in Denver, Austin, and New York. She oversees an open-to-the-public, private art collection—the Dikeou Collection, which she started with her brother, Pany, in 1998—on the fifth floor of downtown Denver’s Colorado Building, 1615 California Street. She’s the founder and publisher of zingmagazine, a thick, colorful publication exploding with art in every issue.
She shows her work all over the world, from the New Museum and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to artist-run spaces like Margaret Lee’s 179 Canal and galleries such as James Fuentes and Postmasters in New York and Icebox in Athens, Greece.
Mid-Career Smear is Dikeou’s latest exhibition and first retrospective—the giant show is currently up at the Dikeou Collection space. Cortney Lane Stell, executive director and chief curator of Black Cube in Denver, curated more than sixty of Dikeou’s works that span nearly thirty years.
Her work fills the entire floor. The rooms and hallways go on and on like a curious, wonderful rabbit warren of the mind. In one room, several security gates line the walls—the kind you roll down over the front door of New York City stores at closing time.
In another room sits a gawdy planter box teeming with fake vegetation and flowers like the ones found in malls (actually it’s a reproduction of the planter in the lobby of Trump Tower save for the fact that the foliage is fake) to make them feel less like behemoths of consumerism and more like what? Natural habitats?
Another room houses Tricia Nixon: Summer of 1973, a re-creation of the urban myth that Nixon had a White House fireplace burning while she simultaneously ran the air conditioner during the summer of the 1973 gas crisis.
Meanwhile, and very on purpose, Ring My Bell sits in an adjacent room. It reimagines an American gas station, complete with a radio broadcasting coverage of the Nixon impeachment and Pentagon Papers, and a nearly extinct rubber hose attached to a bell that alerts the attendant that a new customer awaits.
These are just a few of the smart, intricate works on view—Mid-Career Smear is an incredible testament to Dikeou’s artistic life, not to mention her work ethic, as well as an astounding curatorial feat by Stell.
Dikeou has an incredible memory, which serves her sweeping, large-scale (both spatially and temporally), conceptual art pieces well—as well as her interviewers! I gave her a call to ask about her work and her many roles in the art world.
“My work really addresses the spaces ‘in between’ and the spaces you don’t necessarily see, whether it’s the planter in a mall, whether it’s the wall behind the UN speaker, whether it’s a gate on the street, whether it’s a comedy curtain behind a comedian,” Dikeou says.
Similarly, as an artist, collector, and publisher, one could say her life lies “in between” as she moves through these roles gracefully, purposefully, and with humor.
“They’re like Venn diagrams intersecting. I started thinking about the role of the critic, and so that’s how zingmagazine started. As I invited artists to do artists projects [for the magazine] and had the opportunity to see a lot of art firsthand in studios before it got a group show, much less a one-person show, I saw the role of the collector and the opportunity to make the magazine more three-dimensional. That’s how the Dikeou Collection started,” says Dikeou.
“It seemed like Denver was a great place to do that and the space at the Colorado Building is one of those perfect spaces for viewing art. It’s not a white cube, it’s basically an old office building. I always call it a bricolage of art deco and mid-century modernism, with a touch of Dragnet. It’s lots of little offices and hallways. It’s [also] an ‘in between’ space.”
I asked if having these many roles shaped her art or is it the other way around? Does art teach us how to live or does life teach us how to make art?
“I don’t know. I’m not going to say, ‘I’ve always been an artist’ or something like that,” she explains. “Yes, everyone hopefully has a tendency towards what they do, otherwise they might be miserable. You kind of try to follow the leads that life gives you. But I always say to people that I teach or mentor, ‘Make all the things you do build a system so that what you do gets you to the place you want to go next.’ That’s what I’ve tried to do. I had jobs and experiences that led me further down the arts road.”
Every piece in Mid-Career Smear centers human experience in some way. The porch swing that purposefully hangs too close to the wall so that with each swing one’s knees collide with it. DO I KNOW YOU?, a collection of her personal (or swiped) Rolodexes each sitting atop its own plinth and squeezed into a room so small it’s almost impossible to scroll through them (and scroll you must because look who’s in there)! Each Rolodex is filled with the addresses and phone numbers of friends and acquaintances she’s met over the years. The piece makes you think of who you know, who’s important, and who knows you.
Dikeou’s work is so rooted to human-created worlds that at first glance her pieces seem devoid of nature. But a deeper look reveals plenty of nature—though of course through the gaze of human beings. For example, PLEASE, a photographic series in which the flower arrangements in Édouard Manet’s last sixteen flower paintings are painstakingly recreated.
“When I grew up in Denver, the places that you could go were the Denver Art Museum, the library, and Tattered Cover [Book Store]. There weren’t that many places that were inspiring. There weren’t galleries,” says Dikeou. “The Denver Art Museum was it, and the Natural History Museum. Everybody would say, ‘Oh, you’re from Colorado! The mountains!’ And I would say, ‘Yes, the mountains are beautiful, but they’re beautiful on a postcard, too.’ Which is Walter Benjamin. The postcard is just as good as the real thing.
“So, I was very interested in those ideas [of human, mechanical reproduction] very early on and that was kind of hammered in at Brown [University, where Dikeou studied]. If you’re in Hawaii or California you say, ‘See you at the beach.’ If you’re in Colorado you say, ‘See you on the slopes.’ If you’re at Brown, you say, ‘See you in semiotics.’ That’s where you learn these things. The planters are just as much about nature, or lack of nature, as the plant itself, and the piece is talking about those relationships.”
“At the beginning of my career,” Dikeou continues, “I was speaking with two artists that helped me install the security gates. I was seeing the gates as a kind of landscape or modernist painting, and that the gate is ‘in between’—a thing that you look into like a landscape or a canvas like a modernist painting. And I said to them, ‘Well, I really see the gates as Monets like the Water Lilies.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, god. This girl’s the devil.’”
“It’s really hard to get thirty years of TV Guide or thirty years of work. It doesn’t happen overnight.”—Devon Dikeou
Mid-Career Smear, like Dikeou herself, takes humor, often absurdist, very seriously. PAY WHAT YOU WISH, BUT YOU MUST PAY SOMETHING, the piece you encounter as soon as you exit the elevator, is an installation comprised of accurately reproduced donation boxes from fourteen museums around the country. When I visited the exhibition, Dikeou gave my friend and me a handful of coins to deposit into whichever box we wished. Periodically she empties them and sends the collected money to the museum. I love imagining her putting $13.43 in an envelope and sending it to the Andy Warhol Museum.
The show not only reflects her artistic life but just her life. Period. So much of her work involves collecting or accumulating. So much depends on the very fact that time passes. On display are tremendous collections of TV Guide, business cards, ATM receipts, faxes, chairs—actually, friarleros, seventeenth-century orange “monk chairs.” This kind of work requires tenacity. I wondered about the most challenging part of mounting such a vast exhibition.
“I signed up for a class before I entered into college that kind of pushed me into psychology, and in it they said, ‘You’re not a fully formed person until you’re like sixty, sixty-five, like Eleanor Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? I think I know everything now. I think you guys are full of shit.’ Sorry for the language.
“But I really did,” Dikeou says. “And now as an older person looking back you see that you didn’t know everything, and that life is a cumulative exercise. We’re talking about time and that is very important for my work. While I was making these big gates, I was inviting people over to my studio and showing them 100 business cards. They’re like, ‘So what? Everyone has 100 business cards.’ Well, it’s harder when you have almost 5,000 business cards. It’s really hard to get thirty years of TV Guide or thirty years of work. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
What does success look like for Dikeou? She tells me about attending the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 where Damien Hirst, a contemporary of Dikeou’s, showcased his massive, ten-years-in-the-making, and widely critically panned artwork, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable. “It goes against everything that his work is traditionally about except for one thing,” she says. And what is that?
“He does everything to the ultimate end, and so exquisitely. That’s his greatest strength,” Dikeou says. “And I thought to myself, as I was working on the retrospective at the time, ‘That’s the goal, isn’t it? To do everything as best that you’re able to do it, and to present it the best way because if you at least do that, then that’s an accomplishment.’”
“But if these pieces, which are hard pieces for people… who wants to look at business cards? Not even businesspeople. They’re trying to constantly throw them away! I’m not doing things that are necessarily easy things for someone to digest. So, if I at least do it well enough for these ideas to be captured, then I’ve succeeded. And if I do it with a sense of humor then I’ve succeeded.”
Mid-Career Smear is currently on view by appointment Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 am-5 pm, through March 20, 2023 at the Dikeou Collection (1615 California Street, fifth floor). Upcoming events include a Brandon Johnson and Devon Dikeou zingmagazine talk at Dikeou Pop-Up: Colfax (312 East Colfax Avenue) on Tuesday, November 9, 6-8 pm; a Dikeou and Cortney Lane Stell artist and curator conversation at the Dikeou Collection on Thursday, November 18, 6-8 pm; and a winter solstice reception at Dikeou Pop-Up: Colfax from Tuesday, December 21, 6-8 pm.
Correction 11/22/2021: An earlier version of this story stated that the Tricia Nixon incident may have been a factual event that happened during her summertime wedding rather than an urban legend that may or may not have occurred during the 1973 oil crisis. Additionally, the Ring My Bell installation features a radio broadcast of the Richard Nixon impeachment rather than news of the 1970s gas crisis.