Miller Time

Putting together a credible exhibit takes three things: space, money and an organizing concept. But in the art world, it's often those curators or gallery directors with the least space at their disposal--and even less money--who come through with the biggest ideas and the best shows. The latest case in point: Craig Miller, curator of the Denver Art Museum's Architecture, Design and Graphics department.

Compared to DAM's Modern and Contemporary department, the permanent galleries entrusted to Miller are tiny, even cramped. Architecture, Design and Graphics shares the old mezzanine--now called the second floor--with the Northwest Coast Indian totem poles. Since the mezzanine is half the size of most of the museum's other floors, Miller has been left with only two real gallery spaces to work with. This is hardly enough room, of course, so with the help of longtime DAM exhibition designer Leland Murray, Miller has carved out two additional spaces. One is in the freight-elevator lobby and the other is on the balcony.

It's not just Miller's clever invention of ad hoc galleries that sets his work above the crowd. It's also the way he makes sense of the shows he organizes. Miller, for instance, understands the simple elegance of arranging things chronologically. It's a virtually effortless way to add the sweep of history and the course of stylistic development to nearly any show--even one in which only a short passage of time is surveyed. Think how much better those changing (and interchangeable) exhibits featuring selections from the DAM's permanent collection would be if Modern and Contemporary curator Dianne Vanderlip took this approach instead of the instinctual one she prefers. After all, what kind of art-history lesson does a viewer get when exhibits are arranged according to which pieces look good together, or because their colors complement one another?

The three shows Miller unveiled last month well illustrate his strengths. In the freight-elevator lobby, there's June Morris Schwarcz: The Art and Craft of Enamelled Metal; in the back gallery, it's Borek Sipek: Auratic Architecture and Design; and on the balcony and in the front gallery is New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996.

Schwarcz, a Sausalito-based crafts artist, was officially declared "a living treasure of California" back in 1985. But she was born and raised in Denver, where she launched her art career. In fact, Miller says it was in adult art-education classes held in the early 1950s at the DAM that Schwarcz first learned from Terry Touff to work with enamel on copper. Schwarcz was a quick study, and within a few years she was producing museum pieces such as the 1957 "Leaf Platter," an etched and enameled copper tray featuring the basse taille technique. "Leaf Platter," a gift to the museum from Touff and her husband, David, is the only one of the show's fifteen pieces that is in the DAM's permanent collection; the others have been lent by Schwarcz herself or by a handful of private collectors.

"Leaf Platter" is a shallow, pointed ovoid that is covered with dense geometric decorations. A beautiful piece, it demonstrates Schwarcz's proficiency in the traditional techniques of the enamel medium. But within a decade after making it, Schwarcz broke with convention entirely and began producing the kind of work that would make her, according to Miller, "one of the leading metalsmiths of her generation." In the 1969 piece "Bowl," made of copper foil with an electroplated design, Schwarcz courts disaster for an enamel artist by working in ways that seem to defy the nature of the medium. Since the enamels themselves are in a powdered form before they are kiln-fired, most of this kind of work is flat, or nearly so. But with "Bowl," Schwarcz has chosen a complicated and expressionist three-dimensional form and has then encouraged her enamels to drip and run. The resulting piece looks as much like a work of ceramics or art glass as it does an enamel.

The iconoclastic approach indicated by "Bowl" came to define Schwarcz's endeavors in the medium. "Harlequin Piece" (1995), a crumpled foil vessel that has been electroplated, is a technical triumph that cuts against the conventional grain. As the triangular surface planes intersect, the colors change along the margins, leading to the harlequin effect of the title.

Schwarcz is a modernist whose work is part and parcel of the abstract expressionist movement, and that can create a conundrum for viewers. In the decorative arts, modernism is often seen as being the same thing as functionalism. But isn't functional art-metal an oxymoron? And therefore, isn't Schwarcz's work actually postmodern?

Well, maybe--and then again, maybe not. But in the case of Czech-born, Amsterdam-based furniture and decorative-art designer Borek Sipek, it's no close call. Miller says Sipek's great gift is his ability to merge the non-functional with the functional--which is, of course, a veritable definition of postmodernism. The curator adds that although postmodernism seems to have run its course in this country, where a revitalized modernism has displaced it in design and architecture, it's still vital in Europe.

Sipek is well-known in Europe, where his work is displayed in major museums and galleries. The Denver exhibit, however, marks the first museum show of his work in this country. More than sixty articles have been selected by Miller, including art glass, metalwork, ceramics, furniture, architecture (in the form of models) and graphics.

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