Reality Bites

The CVA's two-part exhibit is a divine look at the human form.

 The Human Factor: Figuration in American Art, 1950-1995, now showing at the Center for the Visual Arts, is every bit as compelling as the Denver Art Museum's current Alice Neel exhibit. In fact, not only do both shows explore late twentieth-century representational art, but Neel even makes an appearance at the CVA.

The Human Factor is first and foremost a traveling show that highlights contemporary figural works from the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Lincoln, Nebraska. While many of the Sheldon artists are probably better known in the Midwestern states where they worked -- Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa -- the collection also includes some of the country's most important artists working over the last half-century. But as she usually does with road shows, Sally Perisho, CVA's award-winning director, has also added a section devoted to Colorado artists, who hold their own against the big-timers from the Sheldon. (Come to think of it, so do those artists from Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa.)

This conscientious, community-minded approach is just one of the reasons that Perisho is regarded as among the region's top art professionals, and it neatly explains how the CVA, which is part of Metropolitan State College, has became a key component in the cultural infrastructure of the state.

"Canoe," by David Park, oil on canvas.
"Canoe," by David Park, oil on canvas.
"Anne, Lizzie and Katie," by Fairfield Porter, oil on canvas.
"Anne, Lizzie and Katie," by Fairfield Porter, oil on canvas.

Details

Through December 15, 303-294-5207
Metro Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee Street

The Sheldon, housed in a landmark 1960s Philip Johnson-designed building, is a midsized museum with an important collection of American art -- but it's marooned out on the Nebraska plains, a world-renowned backwater. Given that inauspicious location, it's no surprise that many of the Sheldon pieces represent some of the most conservative currents in contemporary art over the past fifty years, essentially the date range of the show. Since the end of WWII, American art has been given over almost completely to abstraction and its progeny in conceptual art -- not the kind of representational styles seen in The Human Factor. Even more edgy representational styles from the period, such as pop art and neo-expressionist works, are rarely seen in the Sheldon pieces here.

But while the visiting works in The Human Factor are tame, they're still pretty darned good.

Because the Sheldon portion of the show incorporates a plethora of styles and currents, if conservative ones, Perisho divided up the work according to the various aesthetic affinities that emerged as she unpacked it. She placed all of the Colorado artists in the same gallery space, but if you didn't know about this organizational division, you wouldn't realize it existed. Although each CVA gallery has its own definitive and individual mood, the exhibit flows freely and seamlessly as a single, cogent whole.

In the entry gallery, where Perisho has placed some of the smallest and most elegant pieces, the mood is intimate. Although there's really no historical organization to the show, some of the oldest works are here. One is a characteristic Alice Neel, an oil on canvas from 1968 titled "John and Joey Priestly" that's an early example of her classic mature style. The two mop-haired moppets in shorts and striped T-shirts are sparely rendered, outlined in blue, and staring straight out at us.

The Neel hangs next to a 1965 lithograph by Richard Diebenkorn, accurately described by its title, "Seated Nude." This is one of several prints in the show, and it demonstrates how the Sheldon has cleverly, and inexpensively, filled gaps in its collection. Diebenkorn was a major force in the San Francisco area's figural-abstraction movement, as was David Park, whose "Canoe," a 1957 oil on canvas, hangs on the other side of the Neel. "Canoe" represents Park at his best: Taking an abstract-expressionist approach to the paint, which has been quickly and roughly slapped on the canvas, Park nonetheless incorporates a recognizable scene -- in this case, a couple paddling a canoe on a pond -- which is a very un-abstract-expressionist thing to do. "Canoe" may not be the show's most important piece, but surely it's one of them. Also notable is "Painting of a Smile," a 1950 oil on canvas by Robert Gwathmey, in which black domestic workers are conveyed through a geometric composition that's anchored by the hard-edged white door off to one side in the background.

In the center space stands a quirky and unusual sculpture by Leonard Baskin -- a surprise, since he's better known as a printmaker and painter. Dating from 1956, "Youth" is a male nude made of carved oak. More sculptures are displayed in the large gallery beyond, including a group arranged on a cluster of stands to one side of the room. A small bronze by Joel Shapiro, the 1984 "Untitled," depicts a dancer...I think. Another great sculpture -- I'm sure this one concerns dancing -- is "Fiesta Dancers," a 1985 silicon bronze by Luis Jiminez that shows a festively and traditionally dressed Mexican couple dancing. Also interesting is Paul Granlund's Rodin-esque bronze from 1963, "Lovers Back to Back."

On the wall behind the sculptures is another contender for the show's finest painting: Fairfield Porter's "Anne, Lizzie, and Katie," an oil on canvas from 1958. Like Park, Porter emerged on the art scene in the 1920s and '30s; unlike Park, he didn't respond to the abstract-expressionist revolution that raged in American art during the 1940s and '50s. This Porter was a late entry in the scene-painting movement that dates to a generation before it was painted, reflecting the artist's roots -- and deliberately not reflecting any abstract influence.

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