Summer and Smoke

The good, the bad and the ugly at the Arvada Center and the MCA.

My eyes have been burning lately, and not just from all the pine-scented forest-fire smoke that's been in town. Rather, it's my typical response to the lighter-than-air offerings that fill local venues in the summer. But this silly off season in the art world has its ups as well as its downs; I call it the good, the bad and the ugly.

First, let's look at the good: It¹s Alive!!, in the upper-level galleries at the Arvada Center, is a marvelous, if crowded, solo show that features the work of Boulder artist Gail Wagner. Well-known in the area for her crocheted installations that alternately evoke sea life or micro-organisms, Wagner has exhibited widely in a variety of local spots over the past dozen years, most recently at Edge and Ron Judish Fine Arts. Many pieces previously seen at Edge and Judish are reprised here, along with a raft of things that have never been exhibited before.

Wagner earned both her BFA and her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her interest in biomorphism is shared by a number of her former teachers and fellow students, enough to constitute a veritable movement, with adherents not just in Boulder but in Denver, too. As is the case with many of them, an interest in feminism underlies Wagner's work. In her statement, she writes, "Women were associated with nature, and by extension, with chaos and disorder." By "infesting and infecting" the "sterile human environment" of the gallery with her work, she continues, she hopes to reconnect "nature and culture." It's a worthy pursuit, and one that, if not fully realized here, is at least realized well enough.

"Cumulus," by Gail Wagner, cotton yarn, dye and paint.
"Cumulus," by Gail Wagner, cotton yarn, dye and paint.


Itís Alive!! and Outside In
Through August 18 and August 25
Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada

Archipelago: An Intimate Immensity
Through September 11
Denverís Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street


Directly at the top of the Center's double set of stairs is an elaborate installation that doesn't so much infest or infect as it does inspire. The eye-catching work, "Conglomeration," from 2002, comprises elements constructed from Wagner's signature crocheted and otherwise manipulated yarn, which has been painted and dyed in an array of reds, purples and oranges. The magical piece shows off Wagner's instinctive sense both for color and for the arrangement of her complicated, multi-part pieces.

Wagner often attaches small novelty charms in an all-over pattern to a particular element or group of elements. In "Conglomeration," she used tiny metal sandals that, from a distance, look completely abstract dangling from a wall-hung part of the piece. The pewtery-silver of the charms is gorgeous against the dusty burnt-orange used for this detail.

In the next space, Wagner has put together a number of related pieces that function as a single installation. The translucent labels used to indicate individual titles are, in fact, the only clue that there is more than one work here. A number of the sculptures are done in a retro palette of orange, green or yellow, or in some combination of the three. These include the very cool "Furcula," the evocative "Bleb" and the over-the-top "Scion," all from 2002. The works hang down from the ceiling above viewers' heads, creating the illusion that you're walking underwater through an aquarium -- an interesting effect, to say the least.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is "Cumulus," which dates back to 1998 and which I've seen before. It's a wall-mounted stack of crocheted cones that hang limply in a tight, rectangular grid. Especially effective is the muted bluish-purple, a combination of paint and dye.

In several works, Wagner incorporates ready-made industrial materials, a technique that doesn't always succeed. The successful pieces are those in which cylindrical conduit and conduit joints have been used. In some, Wagner has combined the ready-mades with the yarn pieces, making it seem as though the sculptures are extruding from -- or are maybe just oozing out of -- the wall or floor. Those pieces in which porcelain plumbing fixtures are used don't really work, however, because they never transcend being what they clearly are: sinks and toilets and the like.

Wagner is unquestionably one of the most interesting sculptors and installation artists working on the Front Range. It's Alive!! is an absolute must-see.

Next up: the bad. Well, maybe not bad, but not really good, either. I'm referring to the exhibit in the Arvada Center's lower-level galleries, Outside In, whose main problem is a failure to function credibly as a group show. Clearly, this is the result of there being only the thinnest tissue of a concept behind the show -- that all of the works have something to do with nature.

Most of the artists selected for Outside In are very good, however, so I decided to approach it as several separate presentations instead of a single-themed show. I recommend that you do the same, because the parts are much greater than the whole.

The first section, installed in the entry gallery, is filled with abstract paintings by Chad Colby, a young artist who came to the area a couple of years ago to teach in the art department at Metropolitan State College.

Colby's paintings are all related and appear to have been created through the use of multiple landscape images laid over one other, but include totally abstract elements as well. In "Blueprint," an oil on canvas, jagged yellow passages stand out on a background that's mostly swimming-pool turquoise, with accents in forest green. It's hard to discern any recognizable subject in this painting, but for some reason it suggested a mountain landscape to me.

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