Spring Flings

Art's on the way up in Denver and on the way down in Baghdad.

Spring is the traditional season opener for yardwork, since it's the best time for planting trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and, of course, grass. But not this year, at least not in Denver. The drought and that unbelievable March blizzard has left most landscape enthusiasts not planting -- not yet -- but busy removing the damaged and dead things that succumbed to the weather.

Considering this sorry state of natural affairs, it's a good thing that Mark Masuoka, director of the Carson-Masuoka Gallery on Santa Fe Drive, thought to present the extremely seasonal and thereby uplifting Avant-Garden. He converted the gallery's two main front spaces into an imaginary garden, creating an inside stand-in for the missing flora outside. But instead of living plants, he filled the garden with ceramic rabbit-head sculptures by his wife, Deborah Masuoka, and acrylic flower paintings by Las Vegas artist Mary Warner.

Ceramics artist Masuoka is nationally known, and her signature work for the past fifteen years has been monumental sculptures based on the form of huge rabbit heads, all of which share the straightforward title "Rabbit Head." Masuoka suggests in her artist's statement that the unnatural size of the heads make the sculptures menacing, but if that was her aim, she failed. The gigantic pieces do not look like severed Land of the Giants rabbit heads, but rather like nothing other than what they are: contemporary sculptures.

"Rabbit Head," by Deborah Masuoka, ceramic 
"Rabbit Head," by Deborah Masuoka, ceramic sculpture.
"Mom," by Mary Warner, acrylic on black velvet.
"Mom," by Mary Warner, acrylic on black velvet.


Through April 26
Carson-Masuoka Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive

The most impressive of the "Rabbit Head" series are the two that are more than seven feet tall and feature scabrous surfaces of lumps and hollows along with a rich palette of glazes and metallic oxides. The only sculpture in the show that is not from Masuoka's series is "Tree of Life," a work that is indicative of her new direction. Unlike the other sculptures, which are done in one piece, the nine-foot-tall tree topped with a huge bird head was made in three parts and put together after being fired. It was done in Masuoka's Littleton studio, and the kiln there is not big enough to fire monumental pieces in one shot.

Masuoka earned her MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987, studying under Jun Kaneko, whose interest in oversized ceramics surely influenced his student to go in the same direction. Since leaving Cranbrook, Masuoka has had a distinguished career, working as an artist-in-residence at such big-time ceramics centers as the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Nebraska. This year, she's off to Israel to serve as a visiting artist at the legendary Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

Avant-Garden marks the first time Masuoka's work has been exhibited in Denver, despite the fact that her husband is a partner in one of the city's premier galleries. "I know it looks like nepotism," says director Masuoka apologetically. But the truth is that artist Masuoka's sculptures, like those of her mentor, Kaneko, are beyond any question in terms of their quality of craft.

That's also true of the large photo-realist paintings of flowers by Warner, which are arrayed on the many walls that surround the Masuoka sculptures. The scale of these paintings -- done on black velvet with concave and convex surfaces -- suggests billboards, which helps make them strangely compelling. And the very neo-Rat Pack character of both the subject (theatrical versions of flowers) and the tacky material (black velvet) seems just perfect considering Warner's work as the head of the painting and drawing department at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

The pairing of Masuoka and Warner -- old friends, as it turns out -- was an inspired one, and the show's exactly the thing to get a little spring color while keeping your fingers crossed for more rain.

Spring, even in a drought, is a time when things sprout out of the ground. It's too early to say for sure if a new building for Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art will be sprouting up on a plot in the Platte Valley, but the seed for it has definitely been planted. Now the question is, will it germinate?

Last week, hard on the heels of the ceremony celebrating the soon-to-be-constructed Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, the MCA had its own more modest celebration. At the annual meeting, the little-museum-that-could announced that Mark Falcone and his development firm, Continuum Partners, planned to offer the MCA a gift of a lot at 15th and Delgany streets that's worth about $800,000. Raising the money for the construction of a new building will be left to the MCA's board of trustees and director Cydney Payton, but no exact figure has been set as a capital campaign goal. Although a $3 million- to $4 million-dollar price tag is being kicked around, a more realistic figure is probably closer to $10 million. A feasibility study will begin in June. Falcone says there's no deadline on the fundraising but adds that "if, in three years, there's no plan, the offer of the land might be withdrawn."

In no way overshadowed by this news was the presentation that same night of the Sue Cannon Award to beloved arts advocate and donor Nancy Tieken, who has spread her fortune around to art groups coast to coast and has, in recent years, given a lot of money to the DAM.

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