Crack Pots

The fine arts almost never get sucked into mass culture's real Internet--television. And when art does land in the TV spotlight, it usually suffers.

Typically, there are three circumstances in which an event in the world of the visual arts will arouse the attention of the networks and CNN: the sale of a precipitously expensive painting at auction; the death of a painter whose paintings were precipitously expensive at auction; or some act by an artist that offends the sensibilities of just about everyone.

This final category, the outrageous artist's act, is by far the most common--and the one that does the most damage to art's popular image. When a record price for a painting is cited, or when an artist who painted such a work dies, the electronic media's focus on the bottom line tends to degrade the art. But at least it implies a grudging respect, even if it's for all the wrong reasons. When an artist pulls some ridiculous stunt, however, it just makes everybody look bad.

How sad, then, that the two most widely disseminated Colorado art stories so far this year are the snot-nosed CU art student who revealed both his depth of shallowness and his severely limited technical gifts in a tasteless mural about JonBenet Ramsey, and the local drifter and former male prostitute who took pictures of corpses with party hats and then followed up that contemptible act by stealing the morgue-log page with JonBenet's name on it.

Perhaps this sad state of affairs helps explain all the excitement surrounding American Visions, an eight-part PBS series chronicling the history of American art from the perspective of Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes. Apparently we've all forgotten that Hughes is completely free of even the hint of an insight--which he proved the last time he was on TV with PBS's Shock of the New, in 1981. In that series--which, by the way, never winds up being shown during pledge week--Hughes tackled the modern movement and revealed in the process that it was an indecipherable riddle to him.

Hughes is an opinionated dimwit --a dumb know-it-all. And like the college kid's mural and the drifter's morgue photos, American Visions is an affront to the spirit of bella arte. Hughes is the bull in the china shop of American art; he kicks and bucks his way through. For example, in an upcoming episode of the series, he will discuss the abstract-expressionist movement while leaving out no less a figure than Arshile Gorky. This is a major gaffe. Though not quite comparable to presenting a history of Italian art without Michelangelo, it is like forgetting Raphael. And only a world-class barbarian such as Hughes could dismiss Barnett Newman, the pioneering spirit and guiding light of New York School minimalism.

Even the most tolerant art lover will be tempted to zap Hughes with the remote and seek more satisfying diversions on the local scene. What they'll find at the Foothills Art Center in Golden is a good show that, like Hughes's television excursion, represents a lost opportunity. The problem is that Colorado Clay 1997 is a juried show, meaning a designated expert from outside the gallery was hired to decide what should and shouldn't be included.

There is a place for juried shows. But they have a way of being thoroughly irksome. And though Colorado Clay includes some truly excellent work, it still illustrates the pitfalls of the juried format.

Given the high level of ceramic production in Colorado, this annual should be an invitational and not a juried event. That way, it could be a showcase for the state's greatest clay talents. As it is, it only reflects the taste and judgment of the lone juror.

This year the juror was ceramic sculptor Paula Winokur, a professor at Pennsylvania's tony Beaver College. The selection of Winokur illustrates a widely accepted idea in the art world--the concept that only an out-of-towner can, without prejudice, evaluate the work of locals. But it's comparable to hiring a Los Angeles real estate agent to find a house on Capitol Hill.

Another problem with Winokur is the fact that she's a practicing artist. And much as they may deny it, artists are ill-equipped to eyeball the work of other artists. They always have an ax to grind, championing their own approach over the approaches of others.

In the first gallery off the entryway at the Foothills Center are two impressive examples of Winokur's sculpture. In "Earth Split/Shift III," a porcelain wall relief, Winokur has placed three raw and scratched white slabs against the wall; an ash-black form that looks like a small rock is placed in a niche on the largest slab.

It should come as no surprise that the pieces Winokur selected from other artists are nothing like her own. None of them, after all, could possibly live up to the standards that Winokur long ago set for herself. (And that's why artists shouldn't be jurors.) As a result, Colorado Clay is chock-full of pottery vessels--not sculptures. In fact, this year's show has fewer actual sculptures than any of its predecessors in memory. I'd love to see a list of the rejectees.

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