Through the Lens

Putting changes at the Denver Art Museum in to focus.

Some major changes are being wrought at the Denver Art Museum. No, I'm not referring to the new wing that's set to go up sometime in the near future. Rather, I'm talking about the shifting staff in the Modern and Contemporary department. In this game of curatorial musical chairs, there's good news and bad news.

First, the good: Nancy Tieken is back. A gifted curator and art historian and one of the greatest benefactors in the history of the DAM, Tieken had been an adjunct curator before leaving town a couple of years ago. At the time, she told me she'd return if the museum expanded. True to her word, with the expansion in the bag, she's rejoined the DAM staff, this time with the title of associate curator.

Since the position is a new one, created specifically for Tieken, she's not replacing anyone. This is an important detail because Tieken's return has nothing -- I repeat, nothing -- to do with the bad news: the departure of Jane Fudge, the department's longtime assistant curator, who in recent years has been in charge of the DAM's photography collection, an interdepartmental entity. Fudge, who was set to retire on June 15, was forced out of her office last month and is completing her work from home.

"View From the Right Palm, Zen Koan #751 (self-portrait)," silver print.
"View From the Right Palm, Zen Koan #751 (self-portrait)," silver print.
"Passage," silver print.
"Passage," silver print.


Through May 28


Aperture Gallery, 3208 Tejon Street

It's unclear why Fudge, the consummate company gal and loyal DAM foot soldier, has been treated in this shabby way, especially since her much-anticipated swan song, Colorado Masters of Photography, is set to open at the beginning of June. But if Fudge was hurriedly given the bum's rush out the door, Michael Johnson, who has long been standing in the wings, was just as hurriedly put in her place. Queries concerning Selections From the Michael and Judy Ovitz Collection, a photo show about which little is known and for which there was not much prior notice (I learned on May 1 that the show had opened on April 29), are already being directed to Johnson. The Ovitz show is on the seventh floor, which used to be partly devoted to the Wolf Collection of turn-of-the-century photographs. The seventh-floor photo gallery was one of two areas Fudge was formerly charged with administering; the other was the Merage Gallery in the Stanton rooms.

Certainly, there is no one, and especially not me, who would expect an official museum explanation for Fudge's hasty retreat -- at least not one I'd believe. Public-relations people claim (convincingly) that they learned about it after members of the media did, and that they have no idea why it happened. Fudge isn't talking, either. As for whoever was behind the clumsy affair, there is one lingering question: Would it have harmed anyone to let Fudge quietly retire on her own schedule? Six weeks isn't much to ask after so many years of distinguished service.

Other questions include whether Johnson will administer the photo collection at all. And if so, will he oversee both the historic photos, like those in the Wolf Collection, and the modern and contemporary photos, as Fudge did, or will the collection be split up? If the historic photos are separated from the modern and contemporary ones, where will they wind up? Surely, by definition, they don't belong in the painting and sculpture department, the only other DAM division that is even remotely relevant.

We'll have to wait and see.

If the photographic horizons at the DAM are presently clouded, a tiny, if intense, ray of light has appeared in a newish place devoted to the medium, the modest Aperture Gallery, which opened without fanfare last fall. Launched by transplanted Midwesterner Matthew Ryan, Aperture didn't pop up on the city's art radar at first. With more than a hundred shows being presented simultaneously somewhere in the greater Denver area, it's hard to rise above the crowd, especially as the new kid on the block -- and one hawking material by unknown artists.

Ryan obviously recognized this fact and decided to do something about it. Instead of obscure talents, he booked a show by a known quantity, a name people would recognize. The result is the densely installed and visually rich John Bonath: selected images 1970-2000. And you know what? It worked. People are starting to notice Aperture.

The gallery, in northwest Denver, is the product of Ryan's lifelong dream. Born in Chicago and raised in Wheaton, Illinois, Ryan attended New York's Columbia University, where he studied photography for six years. "I took every photo course they taught," he says. After graduating, he returned to Illinois, working nights as a photojournalist and days as a bike messenger. He moved to Denver last year and, with his savings and a lot of physical labor, converted an abandoned building near 32nd Avenue and Tejon Street into Aperture.

Bonath, the subject of Ryan's show, also relocated from the Midwest. Born in Ohio in 1951, Bonath began his art training in the 1970s at the distinguished Cleveland Institute of Art. Later, he earned an MFA at Western Michigan University and in 1978 was hired to teach photography at the Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he eventually earned tenure. "I built the program, I taught many classes and had many students under my direction," he says.

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