Changing Scenes

LoDo's been a work in progress for a long time. Torn-up streets and sidewalks have been a neighborhood standard for the past decade--as have those many hooded parking meters around the ubiquitous construction zones.

But nothing's been worse than the situation that has confronted patrons of the CSK Gallery, which, along with the other businesses on the 1600 block of Wazee Street, has been virtually inaccessible because of sidewalk widening and other construction projects. "It's been going on since June," says gallery co-director Kent Shira with a sigh that's audible above the din of power tools. For the last couple of months, a ten-foot chain-link fence has even blocked access to the front door, forcing visitors to enter from the alley. Luckily, things have nearly gotten back to normal for the current show Mark Dickson: Luminous Landscapes; at least the front door is open again.

The exhibit marks the fourth time CSK has featured Dickson in a solo presentation. As with those past shows, the new display includes paintings, mixed-media works and monotypes. Also as before, the monotypes have been pulled downstairs in the graphics atelier that is a part of CSK.

Born in Boulder in 1946, Dickson is a well-known figure on Denver's art scene. He received his BA at Metropolitan State College in 1969 and four years later earned his MFA at the University of Denver. In the 25 years since, he has exhibited widely in Denver, Aspen and Vail, as well as in such far-flung locales as Chicago and Seattle.

The signature piece in the new CSK show is the large oil-on-linen painting "Mesa Country," a highly abstracted view of a pair of mesas above which float three conventionalized clouds. Dickson divides his picture into three stacked bands that serve as shorthand symbols for the landscape. A large bottom band painted in varying shades of green with smears of yellow stands in for the prairie of the foreground. The middle band, which sketches out the mesas, is all blazing red, searing yellow and icy purple. Across the top is the gauzy blue band of the sky, complete with the eerie clouds to which the viewer's eyes are invariably drawn.

Dickson simplifies the scenery even more in another oil on linen called "Sand Hills." In this case, he divides the picture with a single horizontal line suggesting--what else?--the horizon. And as in "Mesa Country," Dickson uses toned-up colors. Lots of strong reddish hues show up both in the sky and in the rugged hills of the title.

In addition to landscapes, the show includes Dickson's geometric abstractions, which are, to say the least, distinctly different. These mostly untitled pieces, which appear in a soft palette of blue, yellow and cream, incorporate hard-edged forms that have been smeared and smudged. Surely less commercial than his landscapes, the abstractions nonetheless quietly steal the Luminous Landscapes show.

Just a block up from CSK on Wazee Street is another solo outing from a Denver artist known for combining representational and abstract imagery. The self-titled show Patti Cramer is currently featured in the front and back spaces at the 1/1 Gallery. As is usual for the highly sought-after Cramer, the show's been a great financial success, with many of the paintings and still more of the monotypes already sold. Some have even been removed prematurely from the show by their happy new owners. "She has an unbelievable following," says 1/1 director Bill Havu. "She can barely keep up with the demand for her paintings."

Cramer has built a formidable reputation with work in a quartet of traditional genres: the portrait, the sporting picture, the narrative figural group and, lately, the landscape. But her technical approach and her palette separate her paintings and prints from their ancestral sources. They are not neo-traditional but clearly contemporary.

The biggest and most important paintings at 1/1 are the narrative figural groups inspired by the Italian Renaissance. Cramer takes scenes from contemporary life and lines up her characters across the picture just as the Florentine old masters did in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (It's not surprising, given this feature of her work, to find that she has studied in Florence, is a frequent visitor to the city and is, in fact, on a working vacation there right now.)

Cramer fills the frame of these figural paintings with people interacting socially--on the street, at the beach or at a party. In "Much Ado About Something," a large acrylic on canvas, she captures the hustle and bustle of a crowded city sidewalk. Although there are more than a dozen people depicted, two women, one briskly walking a pair of white terriers, overshadow the rest. Cramer's idiosyncratic style features a flattening of the figures that's somewhat abstract, with the faces conventionalized and most often seen in profile. The abstract quality is enhanced by the bold colors she prefers, especially her generous use of red.

Cramer's creamy landscapes are painted more expressively than her figural works. In "Land Sakes," an acrylic on canvas, a scene of rolling hills unfolds in billows of white, purple, yellow and green. Cramer has avoided all detail, allowing the effects of her brushwork alone to fill in the pictorial blanks. Scribbles of green paint suggest trees, a gestural line a meandering creek.

Cramer also dispenses with details in the marvelous acrylic on canvas "County Cork III," substituting splashes of color and blended smears of paint for literal elements. The effect is to transform the Irish countryside into a blaze of fall colors, which in this case have been stretched to include pink and blue in addition to the expected red, yellow and orange.

These Cramer landscapes have their origins in her sporting pictures, in which they served as mere backdrops for horses and riders. In the last couple of years, though, she's allowed these backgrounds to come to the fore, and they're a welcome addition to her ever-increasing repertoire.

Smack dab in the middle of the Cramer show but on display at 1/1 only through this weekend is a group of sculptural scale models by nine local artists. The artists were asked by an ad hoc committee of the Mayor's Commission on Art, Culture and Film to submit proposals for a new sculpture to be erected in Burns Park. That triangular park is the gateway to Denver's Hilltop neighborhood, dotted with trees and defined by the busy streets that bound it--Colorado Boulevard, Alameda Avenue and Leetsdale Drive. The tentative plan is to add as many as five new sculptures to the park--one a year for the next five years. They would join the several large modernist sculptures that already reside there, the weather-beaten legacy of the Denver Sculpture Symposium held there in 1968.

Those older sculptures haven't fared well at their Burns location. Originally, nine painted plywood sculptures were erected at the park, but since they were initially intended to be only temporary, four were removed almost immediately. The remaining five stood for decades until one of them, Dean Fleming's "Magic Cube," was deemed irreparable by the city and was demolished in 1995. Then, this past summer, Roger Kotoske's untitled bright-red sculpture of three joined cubes was set on fire by vandals and the charred fragment subsequently removed. An insurance settlement may allow for reconstruction of the Kotoske, or, in a less desirable outcome, the artist may be asked to create an entirely new piece.

This leaves only three of the nine originals: the black-and-red Wilbert Verhelst, the white-and-yellow Angelo DiBenedetto (now swathed in hazard fencing) and the black Tony Magar. All possible effort should be made to preserve these pieces, but that's not what's planned. Instead, the three survivors plus the Kotoske--and any of the newer pieces now being auditioned at 1/1--are to be temporary only and will be removed after a prescribed period of nine years. What a terrible idea.

The threat of eventual demolition has fortunately not deterred the nine artists whose works are on view downtown. (No doubt the $1,000 fee each received was a powerful incentive, as was the fact that the winning design will receive a commission worth nearly $15,000.) Several of the suggested sculptures are quite good and would be highly compatible with the existing pieces. This is especially true of Bill Gian's "Untitled," in which a group of looping forms have been clustered. Each individual form has been painted a different color in a pleasing array including red, purple and green. Dean Fleming's "Magic Cube II," four unconnected planes each painted a different color, would also fit right in. And since his original piece was demolished, he's surely a sentimental favorite.

Also noteworthy are Erick Johnson's "Beacon" and Chuck Parson's "Steeple," though neither is very close in spirit to the existing Burns Park sculptures. But then again, neither is the untitled sculpture from Bob Mangold's "PTTSAAES" series, which qualifies as the best proposal for several reasons. Mangold is the city's premier modern sculptor and was one of the original participants in the Denver Sculpture Symposium (his piece was one of the four that were quickly removed from the park). And perhaps most significant, Mangold is practically giving his piece away. The sculpture, were it to be accepted, would essentially represent a gift to the city by the artist, whose works of this size commonly sell in the $80,000 range. It would be foolish--and insulting--if Mangold were rebuffed.

Mark Dickson: Luminous Landscapes, through January 10 at the CSK Gallery, 1637 Wazee Street, 436-9236.

Patti Cramer, through January 4 at the 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee Street, 298-9284.

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