Side Show Attractions

Contemporary art is the focus of two small shows at the DAM.

On the first floor of the Denver Art Museum, there always seems to be some kind of blockbuster exhibition. People complain about these shows, but it makes sense that the museum would do them: The DAM needs to crank up its attendance -- and not just to collect more money at the gate, but also because attendance numbers are directly related to funding from both public and private sources.

Luckily for the museum, such exhibits typically bring in throngs of visitors. That's the case with the current one, An American Century of Photography, which highlights the stunning photo collection of Hallmark Cards, the Kansas City-based greeting-card company.

The Hallmark show has definitely been popular with viewers. On a recent afternoon the show was jammed -- and justifiably so, because it's absolutely spectacular. Hallmark curator Keith Davis surveys photography from the 1890s to the 1990s, with examples by many of the most important photographers working during that time.

"Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions," by Moyo Ogundipe, acrylic on canvas.
"Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions," by Moyo Ogundipe, acrylic on canvas.
"Untitled," by Rebecca Bluestone, textile weaving.
"Untitled," by Rebecca Bluestone, textile weaving.

Details

Woven Harmony: Tapestries of Rebecca Bluestone
Through November 10, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway
720-865-5000.

African Renaissance: New Forms, Old Images
Through March 23
Denver Art Museum.

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An American Century closes on September 29, so if you haven't seen it, I urge you to make the effort.

The near-constant presence of these big, important shows is only one part of the modern-day story at the DAM. The other part -- the mostly unsung one -- is the museum's extensive roster of more modest exhibits. While the centerpiece presentations command the first-floor galleries, these other shows are going on in smaller and sometimes nearly hidden spaces on the second through seventh floors.

As might be expected, fewer people see these shows, but attendance would be greater if they were even minimally promoted. There is no apparent signage in the elevator lobby -- or anywhere else that I could see -- listing the special exhibits on display upstairs. Actually, there isn't any indication on the first floor that there are any shows upstairs at all.

Too bad these exhibits fly below the radar, because they're really worthwhile for viewers. They also serve a dual purpose for the museum: In addition to rotating what's available, they give the DAM's curators a chance to practice their craft, which is mostly denied them by the already-put-together-and-in-the-can nature of the blockbusters downstairs.

Woven Harmony: Tapestries of Rebecca Bluestone, in the Neusteter Textile Gallery on the sixth floor, is one of the current intimate shows at the museum. This solo, which examines the work of the contemporary Santa Fe weaver, was organized by the DAM's consulting curator in textile art, Alice Zrebiec. It takes a look at Bluestone's minimalist-style work in woven wool and silk from the last decade or so. Only one of the Bluestones belongs to the museum; the rest are on loan from private collectors or from Bluestone herself. (This underscores another benefit of small shows: With loaned items, objects in the DAM's own collection can be more fully explicated and better understood in an expanded context.)

Zrebiec is a distinguished scholar, lecturer and curator with a special interest in textiles. She received a Ph.D. in art history in 1980 from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Even before she completed her studies at NYU, Zrebiec was hired at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she remained for sixteen years, working with the textiles in the European collection.

While at the Met, Zrebiec came to know current DAM director Lewis Sharp, who also worked in the New York museum at the time. This chance meeting later led to Zrebiec's being hired by the DAM in 1996. Since then, she has presented approximately two textile shows per year -- a pretty swift clip by museum-curator standards. The accomplishment is even more remarkable because it's done long distance: Zrebiec lives in Santa Fe and only rarely commutes to Denver.

Previous exhibits have examined Asian ikats and prairie quilts; Woven Harmony is the first to focus on contemporary weaving.

"I wanted to do a contemporary show," says Zrebiec, "and living in Santa Fe, I knew Rebecca's work, and I understood it." Zrebiec felt that the DAM show would help introduce Bluestone's weavings to a larger audience. "Though she's known nationally, and very well known in the Southwest, a lot of people aren't familiar with her work. Aside from weavers, Bluestone will be new to most of the people who see the show."

Despite the fact that the tapestries recall Southwestern weavings, and that Bluestone hails from Santa Fe and has an Indian-sounding name, she is not a Native American. "It's the most frequent misconception about her," says Zrebiec. "Bluestone, which was changed from Blaustein, is her married name, anyway."

Bluestone was born in 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and graduated in 1976 from Oklahoma State University. She moved to Santa Fe in 1986, and has lived there ever since, though she travels widely, teaching and lecturing. On Saturday, October 12, she'll be in Denver to present a lecture titled "Inspiration of Color, Music, and Line" at the Denver Central Library.

Almost immediately after moving to New Mexico, Bluestone studied with Ramona Sakiestewa, a contemporary Hopi weaver, and the influence of traditional Indian weaving is easy to see in her marvelous tapestries. "She's not, however, doing copies of traditional weavings," notes Zrebiec. "She's quoting or expanding on those traditions."

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