at The Denver Center

by Mona Lott

What makes art, ART? Who decides what art is? When does a graffiti “artist” stop being an artist and start being a criminal? Is graffiti even art? All these questions seem to be at the heart of The Denver Center’s production of THIS IS MODERN ART, although the heart stops beating when pushed for an answer.

The play (co-written by Kevin Coval and Idris Goodwin, the later of whom also directed this production) is based on true events. The events take place in Chicago, where a graffiti posse pulls off their greatest “piece” by tagging the outside wall of the Art Institutes Modern Wing.

In full disclosure this play caused quite the controversy in Chicago when two major newspaper critics panned the show. The critics were called, racists, elitist and out of touch by proponents of This Is Modern Art, though I knew none of this before seeing the play.  Frankly the controversy surrounding the show is far more fascinating to me than the show itself, which is where the bulk of the problem with this particular production at The Denver Center lies.

In a simple rehashing of the true events the playwrights fail to offer any sort of examination of the complexity of what makes modern art, modern art. The characters are two dimensional and never get fleshed out so that we might be challenged with a sense of compassion or empathy for them.

Seven the protagonists of the play, are performed by Robert Lee Hardy who seems to walk through the role with a lack of purpose, seeming more bored performing the piece than I was watching it. The relationship between him and Selena played by Chloe Mcleod lacks any sense of intimacy and falls flat with the dishonesty of two actors who have never met and are asked to read with each other at a call back.

That same lack of chemistry manages to plague this production amongst the other two main characters as well. JC played by Marco Robinson is underutilized and appears to be an oversight by the playwrights even with their J.C. /Jesus Christ nod to John Steinbeck. Jake Mendes as Dose seems to be the only one bringing any life to this soggy story with a comical, more rounded portrayal than any of the other characters are given.

Presented on a colorful set designed by Nicholas Renaud and graffiti artist Robin Munro the cast is given another character in itself. The metal doors being rolled up and down provide an auditory interest that easily conveys the energy of a big city. The lighting design by Katie Gruenhagen is also exceptional, creating different moods of the day as well as conveying the cold of a Chicago night.  

Even if the relationships were believable the story never seems to go any further into detail than the synopsis presented by If only the playwrights had focused more on the questions the drama itself inspired, regarding the victims of graffiti, the moralization of vandalism, the limits imposed upon race and class or the pondering of whether spray painted words constitute art, this show could have been provocative and insightful. As it stands, This Is Modern Art lacks the vibrancy of any spray-painted mural found on a highway underpass.

THIS IS MODERN ART is making their mark on audiences now through April 15th at The Jones Theater of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets or more information, contact the Denver Center Box Office by calling 303-893-4100 or online at



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