Summer Breaks

Big changes are coming up in Denver's art and architecture ranks.

Mark Masuoka, director of the Carson Masuoka Gallery, has put together the very impressive Ambient Lux, a group show featuring installation art that can be readily compared to the installation-filled biennial now playing at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. As many will recall, Masuoka launched the MCA's biennial series with his own back in 2001, which was also installation-heavy. But here's an even more uncanny parallel between the biennial and Ambient Lux: Masuoka quit his job right after both shows opened. At the end of the month, he's moving to Omaha to take over the directorship of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Masuoka has been in Denver for less than five years, but in that time, he's managed to hold three significant positions in the art world -- all of them in quick succession. In 1999, he ran the once-mighty Emmanuel Gallery, but he left with little notice in 2000 to take the director's job at the MCA. The timing couldn't have been worse for Emmanuel, because when the Auraria Campus pulled its funding shortly after Masuoka's departure, there was no one there to argue its case. The gallery is no longer an important venue, but when Carol Keller ran it for nearly two decades before Masuoka took the reins, it was one of the most significant exhibition spaces in town.

In 2001, over a dispute with Sue Cannon, then the president of the MCA's board of trustees, Masuoka abruptly left the museum and immediately formed a partnership with art dealer Sandy Carson, creating the Carson Masuoka Gallery. Unlike Emmanuel, the MCA continued to prosper after he left, and Carson Masuoka has presented some of the best shows in the state during the two years he curated there, notably the spectacular Jun Kaneko solo last winter. And now Masuoka is changing jobs again.

"Nomos," by Martha Russo, glazed and pigmented 
porcelain on board.
"Nomos," by Martha Russo, glazed and pigmented porcelain on board.
"Ovals and Rectangles," by Mary Cane Robinson, 
pastel on board.
"Ovals and Rectangles," by Mary Cane Robinson, pastel on board.

Masuoka has his shortcomings -- setting up the demise of Emmanuel, for example -- but he also has his strengths. He can put together a thought-provoking and elegant show, with Ambient Lux serving as his most timely example -- and his ad hoc Denver swan song. He also has the ability to uncover unknown talents. Ambient Lux features Gwen Laine, one of a number of Colorado artists he more or less discovered and introduced to the art public.

Laine is among the four artists whose efforts Masuoka assembled for this wonderful show. Her piece, "The Place in Which," is a construction made of unfinished wood and natural-colored steel rods with dozens of framed silver gelatin cloud prints mounted on it; it's attached to the canted wall across from the gallery's entrance. Laine is one of only two local artists in the show; the other is Martha Russo, whose "Nomos," another wall installation, is in the corner behind the information desk. "Nomos" is made of glazed and pigmented porcelain forms evocative of intestines impaled onto spikes on a thick, industrial-strength foam-core board. With hundreds of individual parts, the work is an amazing feat that visually claims the space it occupies, which is exactly what a successful installation should do. But I do have to say that the biological references are sort of creepy and, in that way, unwelcome.

Much more conventionally decorative are the works by the other artists in the show: John Garrett, who lives in New Mexico, and New York's Christopher Romer. Garrett makes fiber-based installations by weaving metal sheets and wires into curtain-like wall pieces and pendant-like ceiling-hung pieces. Romer carves wood into seed shapes and then paints them with simple abstract patterns, hanging them on the wall in an all-over pattern.

Romer's inclusion was the idea of gallery assistant Jeremy Stern, who studied with Romer at New York University. Now, with the departure of Masuoka, the directorship of the gallery (which will very shortly not be called the Carson Masuoka Gallery) will pass to Stern, who formally takes the wheel August 1. "People underestimate me," says the ambitious twenty-something. "Just wait until they see what I'm capable of." Well, I know I'll be tuning in.


On July 9, Mary Cane Robinson, a nearly forgotten modernist painter from the annals of Denver's art history, died in Boulder at the age of 92. Robinson was born in New York in 1910 and showed an early proclivity for art that was no doubt encouraged by her mother, Florence Cane, a distinguished art educator who operated her own school. In 1928, Robinson traveled to Munich and spent more than a year studying with abstract artist Hans Hofmann. After returning to New York, she attended the Pratt Institute and studied there with Jean Charlot, a figural abstractionist who would later make his own brief appearance in this state's art history.

Robinson moved to Denver in 1947 and was most active from the 1950s to the 1970s. During that time, her work was exhibited at the Denver Art Museum, the Boulder Center for the Visual Arts (now the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Jewish Community Center.

Everybody was in a retro mood in the 1990s, and art-show organizers were no exception, which is how I first became aware of Robinson. Pieces of her work, which could be described as abstractions based on the figure and the landscape, were exhibited at the Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery that used to be in Cherry Creek North, and in a scholarly group show curated by Jack Kunin at the Mizel Museum of Judaica.

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