Good art helps us see anew. So after a year at home, surrounded by our own dust-gathering artifacts, museums can be the perfect respite. (Not to mention how refreshing their air-conditioned interiors are on a hot day.)

Just in time for summer, Denver-area museums have produced scintillating new installations featuring well-known and up-and-coming artists. And many of them revolve around objects that might seem boring or banal but, with flair, have been transformed into phantasias of color, shape, thought, and feeling. Here, we’ve picked out seven of the coolest exhibits in town, all of which turn otherwise unremarkable artifacts into meaningful art and history. 

The Object: A dollar bill

“Gordian Knot #2,” Kacy Jung. Courtesy of east window

Displayed in a storefront window on Pearl Street, George Washington’s re-embodied eyes look out at passersby, almost accusatory. Are you separable from your money, from your wealth, they seem to ask. Is your identity a commodity? 

To create the seven-by-four-foot image, Jung printed photos of herself and of one-dollar bills onto chiffon fabric and then she overlaid them. What emerged is a portrait—partially of herself, partially of the country’s first president—that is simultaneously beguiling, androgynous, and uncanny. 

Jung, who grew up in Taiwan and will soon take up a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Northern California, is interested in “how capitalism affects personal decision making, how jobs define people.” Jung herself was pursuing a career in biomedical science before disillusionment set in, and she decided to process that disillusionment through art-making. 

She’s currently working on a new project, which, like Gordian Knot, explores the ways profit-driven thinking leaves us distorted and disfigured. She interviews artists who, like her, used to work in a different field. Then, true to form, she prints out a photo of their headshot and creases it into a strange, eerie sculpture. 

The Object: A bike wheel 

“Iqhawe,” Simphiwe Ndzube. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum

Who or what is “Iqhawe“? In Zulu, it means “hero.” In artist Simphiwe Ndzube’s “pink universe,” it means a man suspended between frigid mountains and fecund soil, riding a mysterious, tentacled creature on a unicycle as it siphons up lost souls. 

Ndzube’s imagined world is a ridiculously vibrant mix of influences, both cultural and personal: post-Apartheid South Africa, Christian iconography and the Biblical Eden, Black street culture, Hieronymous Bosch’s gloriously grotesque Garden of Earthly Delights

The acrylic landscapes are as rife with details as with allusions: He collaged photos of his own eyes onto Iqhawe, for instance, “asserting himself as the creator of this universe,” according to Laura Almeida, a curatorial fellow at DAM. In the background, spray-painted clouds look almost toxic in their neon intensity, dripping with what could be apocalyptic acid rain; but amidst the chaotic climate, the universe’s characters seem to flourish. 

Centuries of injustice in South Africa meant that Black residents had little to no control over where they could live, where they could go, and what they could become. “Through magical realism [Ndzube] is able to give Black bodies freedom, their own language, the authorization to be who they want to be,” Almeida says. Indeed, the bike wheel, suspended below the frame but above the floor, seems like it could take flight, with Iqhawe and his steed in tow.

The Object: Clay beads 

“Every One,” Cannupa Hanska Luger. Courtesy of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art

Half a decade ago, Cannupa Hanska Luger began making beads—one for each indigenous woman, girl, and nonbinary person in Canada who was known to have gone missing or been murdered. As he shaped commercial clay into round, two-inch balls, over and over, the emotional toll grew. So he sought help. He put together a short, simple video about his process and began to crowdsource the project. People from all over Canada and the United States mailed Luger homemade beads. He fired, tinted, and assembled them—more than 4,000 in all—into “Every One,” now on display at DAM as part of Each/Other

If you stand close to the hanging spheres, each particular bead stands out as its own token. As you step back, they cohere into a portrait. The image is based on “Sister,” a tintype photograph of an indigenous woman by Kaska Dena artist Kali Spitzer

Indeed, the interplay between individual and community is a central theme of the exhibit. Sometimes this looks like generative collaboration; sometimes this looks like complicity. As John Lukavic, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at DAM, describes, it’s no coincidence that the abductions and murders happen near the seasonal work camps of extractive industries like oil, gas, and lumber. Luger and Marie Watt, the other Native artist featured in Each/Other, incorporate materials from these industries into their work to reckon with their own culpability in the ongoing violence.

“It’s not about blame, it’s about awareness,” Lukavic says. “Awareness that you’re connected to the land, to animals, to other humans. When you recognize these connections, you can feel a sense of responsibility, and act upon it.” 

The Object: Marbles

“Scatter,” Garry Noland. Courtesy of Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art

The word “art” likely conjures up images of a canvas and paint. But of course it is so much more capacious than that—as are “canvas” and “paint.” For instance, in place of a traditional cotton canvas, Garry Noland rescued giant blocks of polystyrene foam that boaters used to float docks in Missouri lakes. Instead of paint, he decorated the foam with marbles from the dollar store. 

“I saw the color of the marbles as a way to deliver a mark,” says Noland, a Kansas City–based artist. “The surface is so wretched and abused by natural processes, with dirt and debris embedded into it—the marbles bring a glint of luxury.”

The piece is called “Scatter,” an apt descriptor of Noland’s process. He let the marbles collect in the foam’s pre-existing divots and valleys, expressing a form in a new, vibrant way.

Colorado artist and guest curator Kate Petley designed the exhibit to highlight nine multimedia artists who are reinterpreting painterly traditions with a sense of humor and a love for unconventional thought. “There isn’t a cynic in this show,” she says. She hopes the juxtapositions of their work encourage viewers to put aside preconceived categorizations of what counts as painting, and as art more generally, and “be more present with the work.”

The Object: Thread

“Threaded Wildfire No. 3,” Adriene Hughes. Courtesy of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center

So much of the beauty and complexity of the natural world goes unnoticed. Case in point: a forest’s mycorrhizal network, interwoven threads of fungi that connect vast swaths of tree roots together beneath the surface of the soil. In Threaded Wildfire, a suite of photographs of Washington state groves on display at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, San Diego artist Adriene Hughes sought to make the invisible visible, stitching quilting thread over her images in geometric lines to reveal the interconnections between the deciduous trees. 

The intricacies don’t stop there. Hughes used an infrared camera to photograph the trees soon after a wildfire fire had moved through nearby parts of the forest. It captured an unusual kaleidoscope of shades, influenced by smoke as well as chemical changes in the trees’ leaves. 

Hughes, Stephan Jahanshahi, and Brad Temkin (the other photographers included in the exhibit) make work that investigates the ways our climate is changing. Gallerist Samantha Johnston collated their photographs to convey the range of landscapes—from the American West to a Norwegian archipelago to international megacities—that are undergoing unprecedented change. 

The Object: A lamppost 

An I.M. Pei lamppost designed by Howard Brandston. Courtesy of History Colorado

In 1982, the 16th Street Mall opened in downtown Denver, turning a formerly spare section of the city into a bustling pedestrian zone. Internationally renowned architect I.M. Pei designed the space, taking the aesthetics of a diamondback rattlesnake as central inspiration to create a layout of granite sidewalks and lampposts. It’s one of the many turning points in the urban design of our sprawling city that History Colorado’s new exhibit recognizes and contextualizes. Building Denver: Visions of the Capital City takes pains to do right by the complicated history of Denver’s development, in which economic growth and gentrification went (and still go) hand in hand. 

Just as the 16th Street Mall is one cog in a larger historical narrative, the exhibit itself is just one part of a sweeping retrospective that, occasioned in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, considers the city’s long history and (hopefully) long future. Alongside the more traditional history museum exhibit, History Colorado is producing a four-episode podcast, inaugurating a new interactive “makerspace” for wannabe urban designers, compiling a book of essays, and orchestrating a “neighborhood memory project” for the community of Five Points. 

The Object: Old photos

“Shoveling the Mud,” Anonymous. Courtesy of History Colorado

One hundred years ago, an immense flood wiped out most of Pueblo, leaving collapsed houses and countless lost lives in its wake. Now, as climatic disasters become more frequent and more damaging, the town is looking back on the way its residents rebuilt their lives and reimagined their futures.

The exhibit traces the past 150 years of local history through the lens of water management, beginning with the first installation of levees in 1864. Archival photos from the Pueblo City-County Library District are crucial to conveying the extent of the 1921 flood, according to Devin Flores, a digital content coordinator for History Colorado’s Community Museums. 

For instance, the structure in the above photo was likely a home in Pueblo’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, but was ripped off its foundations and floated some four blocks to the intersection of Third and Main streets.

Other aspects of the exhibit pay tribute to the individual heroes who rescued trapped residents and kept phone lines working through the night, as well as the decades-long, community-wide effort to make new lives flourish in the previously waterlogged streets.