Drawn In

The Metro Center for the Visual Arts snags an impressive road show.

Under the direction of Sally Perisho, the Metro Center for the Visual Arts on Wazee Street has, more often than not, offered museum-quality shows, and this summer's 20th Century Drawings and Objects, on loan from the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, is no exception. But wait a minute: What in the heck is the Arkansas Arts Center? Perisho says she had never heard of it herself until a couple of years ago, when a curator friend gave her a heads-up about it. "People who have come in have been astounded by the quality of the show," she says, "and with how many of the artists in the show are important names in the contemporary art world."

Perisho was delighted to get the traveling exhibit, even though it's up during the traditionally slow summer season. "This is an extremely fine show," she says. "So I regret that it's on in the summer, when traffic is lighter than it is in the fall, but I had no choice." But if there have been fewer viewers -- and there have -- than could be expected had it been presented a couple of months from now, those who have faced the heat and come out to see it have been impressed and fascinated, and the show has garnered a lot of positive word of mouth.

Drawings are one of two major collecting areas for the AAC -- the other being decorative arts, which are displayed in the center's own museum, the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, one of Little Rock's antebellum mansions -- and some of the pieces in the museum's collection date back to the 1600s. The idea to collect drawings and decorative arts was initiated in the early 1970s by AAC director and chief curator Townsend Wolfe. The appeal of both was cost: Works on paper are much cheaper than paintings or sculptures, and the same is true for vases and chairs. Thus the modestly funded institution was able to acquire examples by big-name artists.

Wolfe is obviously an old-fashioned connoisseur, as revealed by the fineness of so many of the inclusions in the Denver exhibit, most of which date from the 1980s and '90s. But he's no fuddy-duddy, and he's made a real attempt to be aesthetically and politically correct. The show is rich in first-rate examples by women artists and those belonging to ethnic and racial minorities. This angle of the AAC's collection was surely a part of the appeal of the show for Perisho. Like Wolfe, Perisho has attempted for many years to reconcile the demands of art with the mandate of diversity, and also like her colleague in Little Rock, she's been mostly successful at it.

This political feature of Drawings is manifested immediately as viewers enter the CVA, where drawings by three African-American artists -- Charles White, Diane Edison and Warrington Colescott -- are among the half-dozen large works on paper that fill the intimate entry gallery.

The Colescott, "God Destroys Bourbon Street," a watercolor done in 1995, is the strongest of the three and one of the best things in the entire show. It is striking both for the artist's bold palette and for the complexity and density of his composition. The somber subject -- winds that are destroying the famous New Orleans thoroughfare -- is unexpectedly carried out in a whimsical and cartoonish way. Nude figures, signs, a paddle-wheel boat, a suspension bridge and even the cathedral are all about to be swept away in the gale. As a result, the piece is part religious picture, part political cartoon.

Colescott, who was born in Oakland, California, spent most of his career in Wisconsin, where he was chiefly known as a printmaker. He has no known relationship to the internationally famous artist Robert Colescott, who is also from Oakland and is also represented with a drawing in this show. Both attended the University of California at Berkeley, though Warrington did so in the 1930s, about fifty years before Robert.

The younger Colescott's drawing, "Dark Continent," an acrylic on paper, is seen in the CVA's large back gallery. In it, the artist smears black paint to form a rudimentary portrait of a black man. Almost hidden beneath this face is another face, that of an African warrior holding a knife. The implication is clear: In the man's mind lies Africa.

Across from "Dark Continent" is the mural-sized drawing "Inside a Passage Structure," a 1986 watercolor, charcoal and graphite on paper by New York artist Robert Stackhouse. The drawing depicts a building in skeletal form that recedes into infinity at the center of the piece. Stackhouse's palette is compelling, though it's essentially limited to umbers, grays and the creamy off-white of the paper.

In the niche off to the side are two drawings with similar subjects -- nude figures interacting -- but each was done employing a very different technique. "Five Figures," a 1984 pencil and graphite on paper by New York artist Nancy Grossman, is delicate and precise. The artist juxtaposes tight representational images, like a realistic dog, with abstracted figures, such as a couple of seated men and their vaporous shadows. Viola Frey's "Untitled," a 1988 mixed media on paper, is bold and expressive. Here the nudes are placed on top of one another; some are tiny and some are large, but all of them occupy the same pictorial space. Frey's handling of the figure is retrospective in that it refers to the post-impressionists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially Cézanne, though her awkward composition is more readily connected to the neo-expressionists of the 1980s.

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