Four by Four

There's an old joke about the University of Colorado in Boulder: A visitor to the beautiful Italian-style campus asks a student how to find the art building, and the student replies, "It's the ugly one." Ah, the contradictions of the art world.

Another unfortunate confluence of art and architecture can also be found at Denver's Regis University, which just three years ago launched its O'Sullivan Arts Center with the help of the Boettcher Foundation and the Bonfils Foundation. The art center is located in a rambling red-brick building immediately behind the university's wonderful Old Main, a nineteenth-century pink confection in two-tone stone by Denver architects Henry Dozier and Alexander Cazin, with wings added in the 1920s by the renowned Harry James Manning. By comparison, the art center is a plain-Jane structure that was built in stops and starts over the years--and never, apparently, with any regard for the art of design.

The entrance to the art center is as unimpressive as the building itself, marked by a minuscule sign and a dreary painted-metal door. Inside, the O'Sullivan lays out the minimum physical plant necessary for exhibitions--a shiny hardwood floor, smooth white walls and a high-tech lighting system suspended from a black-painted ceiling. But don't let the looks fool you. Behind the O'Sullivan's lackluster facade, gallery director Willy Sutton, an assistant art professor at Regis, has quietly been presenting an intelligent schedule of exhibits showcasing local contemporary art.

Sutton's current show has the comprehensive if noncommittal title Sally Elliott, Bethany Kriegsman, Jill Hadley Hooper, Beverly Rosen. What the four, who were selected by local artist Virginia Johnson, have in common isn't readily apparent. Asked if the artists were grouped together simply because they're women, Sutton replies that there "might be a way to see all the work as feminine." If so, it's the only connection.

The Boulder-based Elliott, who teaches at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, is chiefly known as an art historian, but she's also a painter who's exhibited around town for nearly fifteen years. She's represented in the O'Sullivan show by a series of gouache paintings on heavy stock paper. Elliott fills the paper with dense compositions in a wide array of pleasingly bright colors. But her pictures are ugly up close. A pointedly amateurish drawing technique, which apes folk or children's art, is used to conjure up difficult subject matter. Together, the crude drafting and weird topics make these paintings hard to appreciate.

"Sacrifice at Sacahuaman," a gouache on paper, features a pile of dead guinea pigs and a couple of scary skull masks. In "Gifts for Pacha Mama," another gouache on paper, a female vampire stands by a river and a huge snake fills the sky. These oddball paintings are said to be the product of a stream of consciousness Elliott experienced after recently visiting South America. Guess you had to be there.

More appealing are the works of Denver artist Bethany Kriegsman, most of which were custom-made for the O'Sullivan space. Kriegsman has been an art professor for more than ten years at the University of Denver and now also serves as the director of DU's School of Art and Art History. Though chiefly known as a printmaker, Kriegsman displays works here that she calls paintings but that are actually bas-reliefs.

"Girl stuff" is how Kriegsman describes her artistic beat--she paints simple images intended as commentaries on specific psychological issues. Little boats, the moon and figures in hats all refer to "the cultural rules, attitudes and behaviors, whether helpful or not, that are the baggage of growing up as a girl," says the forty-year-old artist. Kriegsman describes her work as "quasi-feminist"--a reaction, she says, to the popular magazines of her childhood, in which little girls were depicted as having a "very JonBenet, look-at-me quality."

The only piece not made for this show is also the oldest--"Universal Boat," completed last summer. The multi-part bas-relief is made of carved plywood panels that have been painted with oils. Its form suggests the simple outline of a boat with a smokestack. Kriegsman has chiseled abstract organic forms into the surface of the plywood, at times working with her eyes closed. Her more recent pieces are more geometric. In the oil on wood "Where My Soul Lives," Kriegsman has embellished the edges of the piece with cut metal that recalls the religious art of Mexico and the American Southwest. In "Jumping on My Bed," Kriegsman joins separate rectangles that have been carved and painted into a rigidly vertical composition. The piece is predominantly black and white, but at the top and bottom are lines of brightly colored stripes, which Kriegsman says represent the fringe on her bedspread.

The best piece in the show is Kriegsman's "A Prayer," an oil on wood that has been laid flat on the floor. Squares and rectangles of painted plywood have been arranged into a large Greek key shape, a motif that approximates a square spiral. These plywood elements have then been carved or marked with cartoonlike depictions of objects ranging from twigs and fruits to human body parts. The plywood pieces have been painted in an irregular yet balanced pattern of blues, greens, reds, oranges and teals.

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