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It is no exaggeration to say that Denver's entire art landscape changed for the better last week when Ron Judish Fine Arts cut the ribbon on its new and unbelievably grand gallery in Highland. The gallery had been located on Wazee Street in LoDo before shutting down in the middle of the summer in anticipation of the move. "Parking was getting impossible down there," explains gallery director Ron Judish. "Here we have our own parking lot."
The new location is on the ground floor of a stunning nineteenth-century Richardsonian-Romanesque church by Denver architects Franklin Kidder and John Humphries. Built in 1890, the church, which used to be called Asbury Methodist, represented a cutting-edge design and expressed the most progressive -- read: anti-Victorian -- architectural currents of the time. It has an incredible linear and graphic quality. On its walls, alternating gray and red stones are used to make checkerboards, stringcourses and interlocking arches. Standing at the corner of Thirtieth Avenue and Vallejo Street, the building is a genuine landmark; its steeple is visible from blocks around. Thus, even if you're unfamiliar with the neighborhood -- which, by the way, is difficult to navigate -- you can find the new Judish gallery.
The exterior is set to be restored this spring, and it really needs it, because a lot of the red-sandstone trim has been degraded through spalling. But the gallery already has a dramatic new entrance on Vallejo, featuring a recessed plaza defined by a curving concrete wall, which somehow works with the old building without damaging either of the principal elevations. The Denver Landmark Preservation Commission approved the design of the new entrance, which was done by Boulder's Winter, Kramer and Jessup, specialists in historic preservation. Eventually, an iron fence will be installed around the new entrance, and a sculpture garden will be built on the hill that rises behind that curving wall.
"I'm so happy we're able to offer something to the community that helps save the building," says Judish, who is a true believer in preservation. "And we plan to treat the outside respectfully when we begin the exterior restoration."
Descending into the outdoor entrance plaza, visitors pass a fabulous new stone-and-steel sculpture created by rising art star Emmett Culligan. "It works so well you'd think we commissioned it specifically for this space, but we didn't," says Judish. "In fact, I never even saw it until Emmett delivered it and put it in place."
The entrance itself is accessed through a pair of doors made of wood with metal hardware. The double doors have a minimalist industrial look and were made by a pair of young Denver sculptors, Jon Stiles and Joe Riché. Though the doors are very heavy, they are perfectly balanced and swing open with ease.
Inside the entry, Judish has hung the original presentation drawings of the church, done in ink on vellum. The delicate and beautiful drawings, which, according to Judish, were found rolled up in the basement, are signed by the architects, Kidder and Humphries. Judish has also hung an unusual, multi-part Bob Coller photo installation from the ceiling. Clear acrylic disks of various sizes float above our heads, held up by steel wire. The disks are reverse-decorated with translucent color photos of kaleidoscopes.
The entry space is a few steps above the main level of the gallery. As a result, the gallery proper unfolds before the visitor, providing a breathtaking vista of the main attraction, Alice Neel -- paintings and drawings. The show, meant to coincide with the Neel show at the Denver Art Museum, is a knockout. In fact, the two galleries full of Neels at Judish look like a continuation of the DAM show.
Asked how he was able to snag something of this caliber for his grand opener, Judish says, "I could not have scripted a better story. I was at a cocktail party last spring, and someone told me about the Neel show coming." As it happened, Dianne Vanderlip, the DAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, was also at the party. "I went over to her and asked how she would feel if we pursued getting a Neel show for our opening exhibit," Judish continues. "Dianne was very supportive and helped me secure the show through the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, which represents the Neel estate. It was really short notice, but the folks at Robert Miller bent over backward to make it all happen in time."
The show, which fills the two main gallery rooms and wraps around into a third gallery, combines a good selection of Neel's signature portraits in both paintings and works on paper; some date back to the 1930s, but most are from the '70s and '80s.
There are several standouts among the portraits, including "Man in a Plaid Shirt," an oil on canvas from 1959, which is hung in the first of the main galleries. In this painting, a young man in a pink-and-purple shirt strikes a tortured, reclining pose that fills the composition with opposing diagonals reinforced by the linear character of the plaid. As in nearly all Neel portraits, the subject stares back at viewers, but in this one, the young man seems to be giving us -- or perhaps Neel -- a dirty look.
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