Insults and Injuries

Mary Chenoweth, who died on January 14, at the age of eighty, was one of the most important and accomplished artists to ever have worked in Colorado. But that's not the impression you'll get from the ineptly arranged and incompetently organized memorial exhibit Mary Chenoweth: Collage of a Life's Work, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Put together by CSFAC staffer Judith Burdick and crammed into the center's too-small Garden Gallery, this show is an unmitigated disaster. It makes one wonder what it was that Chenoweth did to deserve this disrespect.

Is it simply that Chenoweth was a woman? Perhaps.
Is it that Chenoweth spent most of her fifty-year career in Colorado Springs--rather than somewhere more glamorous--teaching at Colorado College and was one of the city's own? More likely.

Is it the fact that curator Burdick was in way over her head? Without a doubt.

It was Burdick who selected the pieces in Collage, and it would be generous to label her choices as bad. They reveal not only that she is ignorant of the course of Chenoweth's career, but also that she is a stranger to the broad currents of contemporary art from the last half-century.

Instead of trying to find the stylistic pattern that connects the various paintings, prints and three-dimensional works in Chenoweth's oeuvre, Burdick apparently went looking for "zebras," those uncharacteristic pieces that every artist does. In addition, she left out, almost entirely, important bodies of characteristic work. For example, no one seeing this dreadful show will realize that Chenoweth was mostly known for her geometric abstractions carried out in the woodblock medium.

And instead of laying out Chenoweth's career in a chronological progression, which would have allowed viewers to follow the twists and turns of her artistic development, Burdick arranged the included pieces without rhyme or reason. Over here is a 1940s composition; over there is one from the 1970s. Then it's back to the 1950s, and so on.

In this way, Burdick makes Chenoweth look like a Sunday painter rather than the artist whose example inspired numerous former students--such as Janet Lippincott, Michael Duffy, Dale Chisman and Emilio Lobato--to go on to become major regional figures.

Collage was hastily thrown together. Originally scheduled as a retrospective, it became a memorial when Chenoweth died suddenly. Had she lived, the artist herself would have been directly involved with the show, and we may assume that we'd have been spared this confused and disdainful presentation.

Worse than Burdick's poor choices are the falsehoods promulgated by the show's catalogue--chiefly, that Chenoweth was derivative. These observers are obviously much more sophisticated than the rest of us, since most viewers will immediately see, even from the examples in this sorry show, that Chenoweth was a true original.

One of the most egregious lies put forward in the catalogue is that Chenoweth's abstractions owe their aesthetic to the work of colleague Emerson Woelffer, the onetime head of the art school once associated with the CSFAC and the man who first hired Chenoweth as an art teacher. This prevarication has been picked up by some naive commentators on the show and seems to be believed by those who are incapable of synthesizing visual material--except, that is, for Woelffer himself, who is quoted in the ugly catalogue to the effect that Chenoweth was a remarkable talent who could have made it in New York but chose instead to dedicate herself to her work and to her students.

One reason that the idea that Chenoweth was a copyist has been accepted is because Woelffer's work is unfamiliar and little known around here (he moved to Southern California more than forty years ago). Another is that Burdick left out abstract pieces by Chenoweth that were done before she even met Woelffer in 1953; their inclusion would have put the matter to rest permanently. But the real reason it has taken hold is sexism. After all, how could a woman be the inventor of her own style? There must be a male role model in the woodpile. This is hogwash.

Burdick isn't the only one culpable of this crime against culture. The CSFAC, which has long given short shrift to local talent, is responsible, too. Why wasn't Collage given proper gallery space in the beautifully appointed CSFAC? Surely, Martin Schreiber: Something in Common, a pedestrian show of uninspired photos of cowboys that currently fills the center's handsome East Gallery, could have been moved--or not presented at all.

The point of this review is not just to bury Burdick and the CSFAC, however, but to praise Chenoweth. Collage may be unfortunate and have a deleterious effect on Chenoweth's memory, but the artist had such an expansive talent that it was impossible to keep everything worthwhile out of it.

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1918, Chenoweth relocated with her family to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while she was still a child. She began her art training in the late 1940s at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and completed her bachelor's degree at New York's renowned Pratt Institute. (So much for those who have labeled her provincial.)

Chenoweth's work from the 1940s featured recognizable images done in a modernist, hard-edged linear style. "My Studio," a marvelous oil on board from 1947, is typical. It's a portrait of the artist's home in which the palette is dominated by muted browns and grays set off by shades of black and red, a type of tonal juxtaposition seen in many of Chenoweth's pieces over the next fifty years. Her future as an abstract artist is also foreshadowed in the piece, since the major pictorial elements are composed of the shifting effects of light and the checkerboard tablecloth in the foreground. By 1948, Chenoweth had broken from representation and was creating entirely abstract pieces. Unfortunately, none of these early abstractions, which have been exhibited elsewhere in recent years, are included in the hapless Collage.

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