Looking Back

It's hard to imagine, but at one time regional growth meant something more than the grand opening of another shopping center or the umpteenth big-box hardware store. In the 1970s, new construction also meant a cultural coming of age for metro Denver.

The decade began with the completion of the Denver Art Museum's shimmering new building in 1971. Soon after, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts was constructed, and so too was the Auraria campus. The cultural building boom even extended to the suburbs--well, at least to one of them.

Twenty years ago this summer, the city leaders of Arvada unveiled an ambitious addition to the local cultural horizon--the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Built on a hillside overlooking the town, the original building housed theaters, galleries and classrooms. This wonderful building is still there, though it has been swallowed up by the insensitive additions tacked on a few years ago.

Arvada's status as the cultural leader of the suburbs has never really been challenged since. Sure, Aurora and Littleton and even Greenwood Village have their own tiny museums, but the facilities in Arvada are in a league all by themselves.

Among many events being held this year to celebrate the center's twentieth birthday is the ambitious group show 20/20 Vision: An Anniversary Exhibition, closing this weekend after a too-brief run. Organized by Kathy Andrews, who has worked as a curator at the center since 1984 and became gallery director three years ago, the show highlights the quality and diversity of 48 artists whose work has been presented at the center in the last two decades.

Space constraints prevented Andrews from staging a truly encyclopedic survey. But as she began looking through the files, she detected a trend: From the start, the center has encouraged the local art scene. "We're proud of what the center has done for Colorado art and really feel we have the responsibility to keep it up," Andrews says. She's right to be proud. The Arvada Center presented the first major Hispanic art show in the region and organized the first exhibit to track the history of local women artists, along with many other firsts.

But Andrews was committed to more than just reflecting ethnic or gender diversity. She also was interested in featuring the wide range of art forms presented at the center and in reflecting the passage of time. So she chose artists whose work was displayed at the center in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and then asked them to submit recent samples, many of which are just a few years--or months--old. As a result, the viewer has a chance to see what artists have been up to in the decade or so since their work was last seen at the center. (Regular gallery-goers may not have quite as much catching up to do--a number of the featured articles have been recently presented elsewhere.)

20/20 Vision occupies the ungainly maze of spaces that inhabits the upper galleries at the Arvada Center, the uncompromisingly non-functional character of which is the legacy of the recent remodeling. It's impossible to really make sense of these confusing spaces--which thankfully are scheduled for some remodeling themselves--but Andrews has done her darnedest.

One of the most obvious lessons of this new exhibit is that painting and drawing stand head and shoulders above other media as the forms of choice for most of the best artists working in the Denver area. The paintings and drawings in the show reflect a wide range of styles from representational to abstract and everything in between. Since the thrust of the show is contemporary art, traditional work has allegedly been excluded, though Don Coen's "The Goose Hunters," an acrylic-on-canvas from 1994-95, comes pretty close. Only Coen's method of applying paint with an airbrush is truly contemporary; the composition itself, which depicts a trio of hunters on a snow-covered field, is reminiscent of historical views of the same scene.

That's also the case for Fran Metzger and David Mesple, who have long worked in what might be called hyper-realism. Both artists reveal an almost unbelievably fanatical attention to detail in a pair of dense drawings. Metzger captures a close-up scene of a table set for lunch in 1993's "Black Beans and Polenta for John," which looks almost like a photograph but has actually been created with colored pencils. Just to make it more daunting, Metzger has set the perfectly done plates of food and glasses of wine against a blue-and-white checkered tablecloth. Her handling of the transparent glass and the rumpled napkin constitutes an amazing technical feat. Mesple takes a similar approach in "Incandescent Visions of a Dark Earth," a 1996 pencil drawing on a gigantic gessoed canvas. But instead of the photographic accuracy of Metzger, he distorts his figures into fantastical and magical beings. Using only the black of the pencil against the white of the gesso, Mesple is able to uncannily capture the play of reflected light.

Other artists take a more expressive approach to the rendering of recognizable subjects. In the 1995 oil-pastel-on-paper "Retreat," Jerry Johnson presents a lyrical Western landscape, conventionalizing and simplifying his view of a mostly brown and green tree-covered hillside. Judy Lightfield's 1996 acrylic on paper "Replicant" is stylistically compatible with Johnson's piece, though instead of a scenic overlook, Lightfield zeroes in on just a pair of trees. Her palette, like Johnson's, relies on earth tones.

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