Now and Then

While Studio Aiello presents new work, RMCAD buys an old campus.

Studio Aiello, under the direction of Tyler and Monica Petty Aiello, is set to grow into a full-scale art center over the next few years. In an old commercial building and on an adjacent lot in the far north reaches of the downtown railroad yards, the Aiellos plan to hold classes and workshops and rent out studios and equipment -- in addition to the capacious gallery that's already here and open to the public.

Since it's not a commercial enterprise, the Aiellos focus on artists they find interesting rather than those whose work would readily sell. As a result, Studio Aiello is a showcase for emerging and hitherto unknown artists as well as more established talents whose work is rarely seen in the area. This includes Mark Travis, the painter given top billing in the gallery's current offering, which has the very straightforward title of Mark Travis, Cordell Taylor, Marius Lehene. Travis was a household name in the local art world until he essentially dropped out almost ten years ago. But a decade is a long time to hide, and many have forgotten him; many more have never even heard of him. It wasn't until Studio Aiello's inaugural show last year -- a juried exhibit, of all things -- that he re-entered the scene.

It's strange for an artist of Travis's accomplishments to subject himself to a jury -- sort of like seeing Jason Alexander pitch for KFC -- but the artist's humble move paid off, and the jurors selected a couple of his fabulous black-and-white paintings.

Those two pieces turned out to be teasers of what was to come, and Travis's art career is going great guns again. Not only is his work seen in depth at Studio Aiello, but he's a featured artist in an exhibit opening at the newish Walker Fine Art in the Golden Triangle on Friday, January 10. When it rains, it pours, I guess. Unlike in other professions, artists can come and go as they please with no apparent negative consequences.

Though Travis is listed first among the three artists included in Studio Aiello's very unified group show, painter Marius Lehene's work is seen first in the large, double-height front gallery just inside the entry and up a short flight of stairs. The Travis paintings, which go very nicely with the Lehenes, are hung in the even larger back gallery, with sculptures by Cordell Taylor spanning both.

Lehene, a Fort Collins resident and Colorado State University art teacher, was also represented in Studio Aiello's inaugural exhibit; unlike Travis, however, he was completely unknown at the time, as he had just moved here from Dallas. The current show marks his first major presentation in Denver, although his work has been widely exhibited since the early '90s in Romania, where he was born, and in Texas, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics and an M.F.A. in painting and drawing from Southern Methodist University.

Lehene's style is abstract-expressionist with an expected European slant, and there are passages that recall the work of the old masters. Though it's hard to discern any recognizable subject matter in his paintings, figures and other objects are clearly there underneath the flourishes of thick paint; it's just hard to make out what, exactly, they are. Such is the case in the beautiful "Styx," an oil on canvas. The River Styx and Charon, the mythological boatman, are subjects for most of this show's Lehene paintings.

Lehene's obvious strength is in his painterly approach, in which he lays the pigment on thick and fast. In the mammoth "Male River," for example, a group of organic forms recedes into the background, and Lehene lays on diagonal brush strokes -- brown at the top and acid yellow at the bottom -- to further obscure them.

The organic shapes of indeterminate type seen in all the Lehenes link them, at least theoretically, to Taylor's sculptures. Taylor, who lives in Salt Lake City, is first and foremost a sculptor, but he is best known around these parts for his namesake Cordell Taylor Gallery, situated just northeast of downtown. His specialty is the transformation of brass and copper industrial parts into abstract sculptures using hammers, molds, torches, nails and quite a bit of polish. He uses a lot of prefabricated metal mesh, which he weaves into a basket-like effect. By finishing the metal and attaching the pieces together with steel hardware, Taylor contrasts the steel's shiny, cold sheen with the warm tones of the polished yellow brass and mellow orangey copper. In the assembly and finishing of his sculptures, Taylor turns the hard metals into evocations of soft flesh, as in the anatomically correct wall sculpture "Adam & Eve," which is hung in a niche that connects the front and back galleries.

The abstraction of the figure is also seen in those eight incredible Travis paintings, done in acrylic and mixed media on canvas. They finish out the show, lining three walls in the enormous back space at Studio Aiello. All are the same size, a monumental five feet by six feet, and all are similar views of female nudes -- although one male is included -- carried out in black and white, thus encompassing a wide range of grays. Each also incorporates collage elements using found paper, some with print.

The new work is reminiscent of Travis's efforts of a decade ago -- he's always loved to use found objects as collage elements in his paintings -- but it is markedly different, too. It's completely unexpected, for instance, to find him using the figure and limiting his palette, since he was, as I remember, a formerly non-objective, when-in-doubt-paint-it-red sort of artist.

Among the new paintings is "Untitled No. 1," a cheesecake view of a seated woman revealing her shapely legs. Another is "Untitled No. 8," in which a corpulent woman is seen from the rear. In most of the paintings, the head is obscured with black while the torso and legs are highlighted with white. "Untitled No. 4" is distinct from the others, because the female is held in the arms of a powerfully built male. The pair strike a pose that's right out of a ballet or, perhaps more to the point, a porn magazine. Though it's very abstract, there's no hiding the erotic content, and that goes for all of these Travises.

That eroticism is also unexpected from the artist. Of course, come to think of it, it's unexpected to see work by Travis at all. But I'm glad, as I'm sure many others are, that he's back at work at the easel -- and apparently not a bit rusty -- after being away for so many years. I guess painting must be like riding a bicycle: Once learned, it's never forgotten.

Mark Travis, Cordell Taylor, Marius Lehene at Studio Aiello works on two levels: While it functions as three stand-alone solos, it's also a cogent, sharply focused look at three related though distinct visions of organic abstraction. I believe we have the keen eyes of the Aiellos to thank for that.


Driving out in the western suburbs the other day, I decided to check out the AMC Cancer Research Center on Pierce Street a block north of Colfax Avenue. Why? Well, it turns out that the facility will soon be the new home of the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, which is currently housed in a cluster of characterless buildings on East Evans Avenue at Oneida Street.

Now, I thought I knew all the important buildings in the area -- and I've written about a lot of them -- but I was thoroughly unprepared for what I found beyond the shabby landscaping and crumbling driveway that comes off Pierce in this neglected corner of Lakewood.

As I drove up, what I had at first believed to be the front of an insensitively remodeled historic building turned out to actually be the back. As I proceeded around on the serpentine drive, the facade came into view, and I caught my breath as I looked around. Done in dark-red brick and cream-colored terra cotta, it is essentially original, with the insensitive changes on the back and side of the building invisible from this vantage. And this handsome building is just the beginning: Arrayed in front of it is an elaborate and elegant complex of many architecturally distinguished buildings.

One striking component is a grass-covered mall lined with small buildings, exemplifying a range of architectural styles that reflect the period of their construction, roughly the turn of the nineteenth century up to the 1930s. It's like an authentic version of the Ninth Street historic park at Auraria, which was assembled. Another notable element is the tiny early modernist synagogue in stucco and terra cotta with a stepped dome that's just off the mall to the southwest.

Wait a minute. A synagogue?

It then dawned on me: This must be the old JCRS -- as in the Jewish Consumptives' Relief Society -- campus, a tuberculosis sanatorium dating back to a time when Colorado was a world center for the treatment of the disease. I'd heard of the place, but I'd never investigated it. Actually, I thought it was long-gone, like most of the others of its type. A cursory research check reveals that Denver's premier architects of the early twentieth century, including Harry Manning and the firm of Fisher and Fisher, designed buildings for the JCRS campus.

RMCAD paid more than $6 million for the property but will lease back a portion of it to the AMC until the cancer center can relocate to the University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora, where it will merge with CU's cancer center.

As I drove away from the place, two thoughts crossed my mind. First, that the whole thing was magical despite its somewhat creepy history. Second, that I hoped RMCAD wouldn't screw it up and damage the historic fabric in order to satisfy the school's functional needs.

RMCAD plans to spend $4 million upgrading the campus, which is the scary part. Surely the place needs quite a bit of work, but a lot of damage could be done with that kind of money if the wrong decisions are made. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that carries with it no restrictions on changes, and Lakewood has no preservation policy to speak of. It is therefore incumbent upon the decision-makers at RMCAD to do the right thing. Let's hope they do.

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