Mile-High Offense

Ignorance is bliss, but in Denver's art world, it's much more than that. These days it's seen as being the best indicator of personal integrity.

A good example of this can be found in the city's approach to public art. In that arena, art disciples are outnumbered more than ten to one by community activists, politicos and contributors to Mayor Wellington Webb's campaign. Artists, collectors, dealers, curators and other members of the art community have been largely excluded based on the belief that since they're a part of the scene, they will invariably favor their friends instead of conscientiously addressing the tasks at hand. As a result of this suspicion, even in the cases where they have been allowed to participate, their ability to affect the selection of objects has been marginalized.

The legacy of this practice is not just the lackluster work that characterizes so much of the city's recently completed public art but the way the process continues to demoralize the city's art scene. Imagine if the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, instead of casting to the four winds the more than $10 million spent in the last few years on public art, had thrown it at the local art market--which, to be frank, really could have used it.

There's a variation on this theme of ignorance equating integrity: the "out-of-town juror," who descends from the mountaintops--or, more likely, Manhattan's skyscraper tops--to tell the rest of us what's worthwhile around here by putting together a juried show. This kind of juror is seen as the best choice for an objective evaluation of the material submitted because he is thought to be free from the prejudices bound to plague any local. But just as it does in the realm of public art, asking outsiders to make the decisions almost always leads to disappointing results.

For proof, one need look no further than the much-anticipated--and virtually scene-shattering--Denver Zip 802, exhibited now in two halves at Auraria's Emmanuel Gallery and the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery. Sponsored by the University of Colorado at Denver, the 802 show is a revival of an exhibit that Emmanuel Gallery director Carol Keller organized in 1985. Keller's idea at that time was to provide recognition for the city's art community, something she saw as desperately lacking. It's a pity that Keller, who routinely puts together better shows than 802, wasn't given the responsibility for it.

Instead, the Auraria Higher Education Visual Arts Committee (including Keller, Lorre Hoffman, Rodger Lang and Patricia Lehman) decided last year to get an out-of-town juror to eyeball the local stuff. They chose nationally known New York-based critic and art historian Donald Kuspit.

If not everyone on the scene could say they had actually read what the good professor had written, everyone had at least heard his name, so a great excitement surrounded the show. Denver artists were invited to submit slides, and nearly 200 of them did. But live by Kuspit, die by Kuspit. It was apparent, given Kuspit's written remarks, that he viewed the Denver scene as second-rate and provincial, and he proved it to himself by putting together a second-rate show.

Many well-respected artists were rejected by Kuspit in favor of lesser-knowns, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it did tend to dash the hopes of established talents who might have anticipated being discovered by the New Yorker. The howl of wounded pride heard especially among many local painters was deafening last spring when Kuspit's selections were announced. And as a result, several artists got together in a snit of activity and created an alternative to the 802 show, the just-closed Zip 802 Declined at the co-op Pirate gallery.

The fact that people felt strongly enough to assemble this protest exhibit underscores the importance that had been attached to Kuspit's choices. The Declined show was modeled after the original "Salon des Refuses," which was created in Paris in 1863 because the regular contemporary survey shows presented by the Academie Francaise often fenced out the Impressionists, among others. Many Parisian artists felt they had been unfairly excluded, so they put on their own show.

Of course, the appropriation of the Refuses tradition by the Pirate crowd suggests a shameless hubris on their part (comparisons to the Impressionists, indeed!). But there's something else the show revealed: that 802 has been viewed by local artists as a substitute for an annual exhibit of contemporary art, an unheard-of concept around here.

Declined was a mixed bag. But it did capture a truth about art in Denver that its more upscale counterpart does not: We have a lot of good painters in town. Some of the better works that were left out of 802--and which the show really could have used--were the signature abstract paintings by Steve Altman and Dale Chisman. Also compelling: the gauzy and atmospheric representational paintings by Tree Laurita and Jennifer Kinkaid, along with the quirky surrealist compositions of Matt O'Neill, Jeff Starr, Eric Zimmer and Steve Batura. Other 802 rejects thankfully salvaged by the Salon keepers included a retro 1950s monotype by Mary Mackey, a heroic charcoal drawing by Bill Stockman, and the slick and conceptual photocopy montages of Roland Bernier and Annalee Schorr.

The Pirate show closed a couple of days after 802 opened, and though the snubbed artists at Pirate made their point, it was accompanied by a qualifier: If Declined was just as good as 802, it also was not any better. It's striking how both shows were stocked half with fine works and half with forgettables.

There is no sequence to the 802 exhibit, so it doesn't matter which of the two venues is seen first. Emmanuel director Keller and DU gallery director Lawrence Argent have ably divided the more than forty objects selected by Kuspit (out of a field of nearly 1,000) into two exhibits that are virtually equal in terms of quality. And through their expert approaches to hanging and installation making, both Keller and Argent have made the show's whole appear greater than its parts.

In fact, despite the Kuspit show's general lack of flair, it does include a number of fine things, though not enough to carry the show through. At Emmanuel, the Cameron Jones abstract "Whore" looks even better than it did at her solo show last summer--and it looked pretty good there. In a very different vein, Paul Gillis meticulously renders a nightmarish cartoon in his painting "The Dark That Was Is Here." Upstairs is another good painting, the expressionist "Airship," by Lanse Kleaveland, a much stronger effort than a related Kleaveland seen in the DU section of the show.

There are some interesting works on paper at Emmanuel, including the oil-and-Xerox effort "Above and Below," by Jill Hadley Hooper, a lyrical charcoal-and-pencil drawing by Elizabeth Buhr and a folkloric watercolor by Barbara Nielsen. But photography is the one medium in which the 802 show may be proclaimed a success. The Emmanuel section features a number of fine photographic works, including "Nymphs of Danube," a shot of buxom nudes by Mark Sink, and "98th Meridian," a pinhole photo montage by David Sharpe. Also assembling multiple small photographs is Sarah Marquis Timberlake, who is represented by "Desire (Variations on a Romantic Theme 1 & 2)," which consists of two grids of color photos, one of clouds, the other of the seashore. Equally strong are John Bonath's computer-generated still lifes and Charlie Roy's two-panel photo enlargement.

Notable sculpture, unlike photography, is hardly seen at all at Emmanuel aside from one tiny piece by Martha Daniels and an even smaller one by Sherrie Ingle. But over at DU, sculptures predominate. Gallery director Argent got an untitled piece in the show, a floor-bound sculpture made of cast iron and bronze that depicts a tub with huge industrial lightbulbs seeming to float on its metal surface. Kuspit-selector Hoffman is represented by two pieces; the one at DU is "Catharsis," consisting of a river rock and a fire-charred oar in individual oak-and-glass showcases. Kuspit has written that he did not pay attention to names, so Argent and Hoffman most likely got in fair and square. And if they had recused themselves--which perhaps would have been appropriate--the show would only have suffered for the noble gesture.

Other fine three-dimensional works at DU include Paul Opsahl's "Father's Eye," a mixed-media bas-relief that combines metal, wood, bamboo, paint and wire mesh to form a medallion. But Virginia Folkestad's installation of metal, rope and dried leaves, "Vital Connections," looks cramped here (a solution would be to give her the whole room at DU some time in the future). So does Erick Johnson's sleek stainless-steel-and-plywood sculpture "You'll Poke Your Eye Out," which barely fits on its stand. But though the floors are crowded with good stuff at DU, the walls aren't; aside from a lithograph by Evan Colbert, a color photo by Barbara Carpenter and a tile piece by Alicia Cayeula, there's not much here to celebrate.

There's no question that 802 is one of the key events in the city's fall season--and that's a real shame. Everyone has been talking about this show, but most of the word is discouraging. Even some participants have privately expressed disappointment. And that may have less to do with Kuspit's selections than with the overhyped expectations that were thrust upon the show--expectations it could never have lived up to and to which it clearly doesn't. This state of affairs will change only with the establishment of an annual contemporary art show at the Denver Art Museum. Then there would be enough room in the city's art scene for an important out-of-towner to bounce around without knocking anybody over.

Denver Zip 802, through November 21 at the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus, 556-8337, and at the University of Denver, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 871-2846.

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