Object Lessons

Objects of Personal Significance is a loosely organized theme show that handsomely fills the recently relocated and expanded Center for the Visual Arts on Wazee Street, the LoDo gallery of Metropolitan State College of Denver. The exhibit, which has a too-short five-week run, comprises a traveling section organized by Exhibits USA (a division of Kansas City's Mid-America Arts Alliance) and a homegrown response to that section assembled by center director Sally Perisho.

The local element, which adds a great deal to the show, wasn't originally intended to happen at all. Like several others, this show was planned before the center moved into its larger home, compelling Perisho to add to already outlined exhibits. As she did with the recent Picasso display (in which a traveling poster show was augmented by prints from the Denver Art Museum), Perisho demonstrates her keen curatorial skills by intelligently--though not seamlessly--enlarging an existing exhibition.

The original Objects of Personal Significance was put together by Janet Marquardt-Cherry, a Charleston, Illinois-based curator. Given the poetic title she chose for the exhibit, it's not surprising that Marquardt-Cherry apparently adhered to few rules in gathering varied artworks in an array of techniques. She did, however, limit participation to women. In some of her choices the artists depict objects; in others the topic is objectification.

The current generation of women artists are the heirs of the campus feminism that arose in the 1970s, a movement felt widely in the art world when women with BFAs confronted a hostile environment and few opportunities to exhibit their work. If feminist art activists sometimes delivered their message obnoxiously and championed the second- and third-rate among them, they were absolutely right about the fact that for centuries artists were routinely dismissed if they happened to be women.

The story is different now, though, and the need for women-only shows is not as urgent as it once was. Maybe that's why Marquardt-Cherry avoided filling the show with message images presented in political contexts and instead chose participants whose pieces--even when the topic is feminism--are part of the broad current of contemporary American art. What is surprising is how conservative Marquardt-Cherry's choices are. The show is dominated by painting and drawing in representational styles ranging from neo-traditionalism to photo-realism.

This mood is set the minute the viewer enters the center's front gallery, which is adorned with examples of realism. On the large main wall hangs a striking monumental piece by Carolyn Brady of Oklahoma. Her 1991 "Castor and Pollux/Versailles" is a large, traditional watercolor of a decorative sculpture in the gardens at Versailles. Brady places the sculpture's two lyrical male nudes in the foreground, then puts a rigidly conceived and thoroughly draped female caryatid in the background. Brady's point--that women's roles have been narrowly defined while men's have been more flexible and free--is clearly made.

Across from Brady's watercolor are two meticulous lithographs by Chicago artist Jeanette Pasin Sloan, 1978's "Silver Bowls-State I" and 1979's "Silver Bowls." The composition of both prints is identical--a group of silver articles are laid on a striped tablecloth--but the older one is in black and white, while the newer one is in color. Even when she's accurately recording reflective surfaces (the old-hat standard of the photo-realists), Sloan demonstrates her supreme technical skill by detailing every element of the still life with photographic precision.

There's more recognizable imagery in the three large rooms across the back of the center. First is a large portrait that has been paired with a broom and a framed but blank slate. The painting, "Virgin/ Vessel," a 1990 oil on canvas by Chinese-born California artist Hung Liu, takes up the topic of turn-of-the-century concubines. Liu bases her paintings on period photographs in which these women were advertised as commodities, and just so the viewer does not get caught up in romantic nostalgia, Liu makes sure the concubines' bound and deformed feet are right in the front of the painting.

Less disturbing is the expressively painted and beautifully hued oil on canvas "By the Sword," a 1990 work by prominent New York artist Janet Fish, one of the few big names in the show. Fish lays out a horizontal still life of flowers, votive candles and fruit around an upturned sword. Fish uses these specific images in thick paint to suggest the life of Joan of Arc, but this is so subtle that most viewers will not see it unless it's pointed out to them.

In the center of the gallery is "Simple Acts," one of the show's few three-dimensional pieces, a 1996 installation by Kathleen Browne of Kent, Ohio. Browne takes four antique ironing boards and arranges them into a four-pointed star. On top of each, an antique iron is set at rest, revealing a scorch in the ironing-board cover. The scorches display the words "appearance," "labor," "order" and "care." Finally, Browne attaches synthetic hair to the end of each iron's electrical cord; these ends are fanned on the floor between the ironing boards. "Simple Acts" represents a type of feminist art in which the topic is kitchen work, and the piece, which is conceptual and narrative, is one of the most compelling and intelligent in this show.

In the small back gallery is more evidence of painting's dominance in Objects of Personal Significance, with more notable examples of realism. In the enigmatic oil on board "Still Life With Puppets" (1992-1993), Santa Fe artist Carol Mothner covers most of the panel in glossy black, with the exception of a rectangle at the top that depicts a room with marionettes. The puppets, and the checkered tile floor on which they sit, recall the work of Italy's Scuola Metafisica, a kind of early-twentieth-century surrealism. Susan Jane Walp also plumbs the depths of modern art history in a gorgeous, small oil on linen from 1992 that has the highly descriptive title "Eggs in a Green Bowl With Thread, Knife, Button and Fork." The work pays homage to 1930s precisionism as, using an awkward and stilted perspective, Walp elegantly fits her simplified and conventionalized pictorial elements into a geometric, puzzle-like arrangement.

In another back gallery is the show's only abstract painting, an autobiographical mixed media on canvas by New Mexico artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. In "Mixed Blood," a large, nearly square painting from 1992, she places a line drawing of a hand across a field of red that includes newspaper clippings and the image of an American flag. As usual, Smith's subject is her struggle as a woman who is part Indian in America.

Among the last works in Marquardt-Cherry's portion are two realist paintings. The foreground of "Mother and Child," a 1990 photo-realistic pastel on paper by New Englander Janet Monafo, shows a sulking teenage girl who looks away from a scowling older woman; it's as though they've paused while arguing. Chicago artist Lorraine Pelz lines up long-stemmed yellow roses, many of them wilting, and lays them against a luscious gray field in the marvelous 1994 oil on canvas "Graph No. 2."

Perisho's section of Objects of Personal Significance, which is devoted to work by local women, picks up in the center's two side galleries. Perisho took an approach distinctly different from Marquardt-Cherry's, and though many of the locals lack the technical polish of their national cohorts, they more than make up for that with artistic courage. Perisho has selected many conceptual artists, several abstractionists and quite a few who work in three dimensions.

One of the first things the viewer encounters in this part of the show is the 1996 sculpture "Dance of the Eleven Veils," by Virginia Folkestad. Though her considerable reputation has been built by her critically acclaimed installations, lately Folkestad has turned to sculpture. Here Folkestad creates a table made of a plank of basswood supported by two sets of metal legs. On top of the plank, Folkestad lays pencils that have been sharpened into nubs and wraps them in white thread that unravels in piles on the floor. The work seems to vaguely address the oppression of women.

Nearby is another sculpture by an established talent, Lorre Hoffman. For the 1998 "Daily Bread," Hoffman successfully uses a slice of bread cast in clear glass and placed on a wooden plate. The unexpected use of materials, especially the glass, puts a new slant on this otherwise common sight.

Elsewhere, Carley Warren, who's been getting a lot of play lately, displays two figural sculptures. Each includes a man made of carved wood, one standing and one seated, in a wooden cage painted black. And Ellen Sollod uses found objects both as elements and as sources for her quirky wall-mounted sculptures. In "La citta dell' a'nimo," from 1996, Sollod has taken a squash, split it in half, cast it in bronze and steel and hung the two halves on the wall side by side. Her rich, dark patina on the cast metal is particularly nice.

Several of the artists in this part of Objects of Personal Significance use soft materials such as fabric to create sculptural work. Linda Herritt's two wall-hung reliefs from 1996, both titled "Form Fatale," are made of pink-colored sequined material. In 1997's "Her Passion," Susan Meyer Fenton, who, like Herritt, is known as an installation artist, hangs pink fabric from the ceiling in a dress-like form with a black velvet gash at the bottom.

Though sculpture abounds in Perisho's portion of the exhibit, there's no shortage of first-rate paintings and drawings. Standouts include Shelley Hull's diminutive, acrylic-on-paper depictions of engine parts, Helen Rageb's abstract watercolors and Kristen Peterson's eerie still-life paintings of cloth-draped tables. Also well-done is a 1998 multi-part grid by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy (who sometimes contributes illustrations to Westword). "Polygenesis" is the type of painting that's appeared nearly everywhere in recent months, and deservedly, Murphy is rapidly becoming one of the city's art stars. Unlike Murphy's, Jean Schiff's work is rarely seen, but she makes a big contribution to Objects of Personal Significance with her dense and delicate 1997 mixed-media drawing "High on Thai," which uses a shadow puppet from Thailand as a taking-off point.

Though it's a women's art show, Objects of Personal Significance does not make clear how women's art is different from men's except, perhaps, thematically. Maybe that's the point Marquardt-Cherry and Perisho are making.

Objects of Personal Significance, through October 14 at the Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207.

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