Under the Influence

Beauty at Cordell Taylor, ties at RMCAD, trouble at Mizel and an insult hurled at the DAM.

When the Cordell Taylor Gallery opened its doors in Denver in the fall of 2001, its specialty was contemporary art from Utah, and all of the represented artists were holdovers from the days when the business was located in Salt Lake City. These out-of-state artists were unknown around here and generated little interest -- a situation that, coupled with the whole 9/11 thing, caused the gallery to get off to a very slow start. To combat the problem, director Ivar Zeile began recruiting Denver artists, and the first one to show at Cordell Taylor was a bright, then-emerging art star named Karen McClanahan. Although she moved away this summer, McClanahan is now back -- figuratively speaking, anyway -- with the elegant and intelligent Synesthesia: New Paintings by Karen McClanahan.

The show is made up of recent works that are closely related to McClanahan's earlier efforts but also mark slight formal and conceptual changes. In her older paintings, McClanahan broke with classic minimalism by adding unexpected organic shapes to otherwise geometric compositions. In these new pieces, she still riffs on '60s minimalism, but she violates the tenets of that earlier style even more than before. She includes visible brush work, even though old-fashioned minimalism calls for paint that is fanatically flat and evenly blended, and, in a related move, defines different surface depths with the paint so that some areas are built up higher than others. This last characteristic is difficult to see straight on, but it catches the light when the paintings are viewed from the side.

McClanahan was born in Flagstaff, Arizona, and studied at Northern Arizona University before going to England and later coming to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. There she became a protegé of one of Colorado's best-known modernist painters, Clark Richert. She graduated from RMCAD with a degree in painting in 2001, and last month entered Hunter College in New York to pursue a master's in fine arts.

"cant," by Karen McClanahan, acrylic on canvas.
"cant," by Karen McClanahan, acrylic on canvas.
The beleaguered Mizel Center.
The beleaguered Mizel Center.

The show's title, Synesthesia, is a term typically used in art to suggest that colors make perceivable sounds or that sounds can be perceived as colors. But that's not how McClanahan uses the word -- even if she does describe the geometrics in her paintings as being "silent." Instead, she wants to effect a physical sensation in viewers through the visual. Simply speaking, for example, "synesthesia" is how she would describe the way one color in a painting can make another vibrate when two opposite shades are juxtaposed.

As revealed by this theoretical underpinning, the paintings in Synesthesia are very sophisticated aesthetically. McClanahan calculated everything in order to make the biggest visual statement possible -- wonderfully refreshing in the art world today since, amazingly, many artists are more interested in telling stories than they are in creating a visual experience, which is pretty weird when you think about it. "I'm not promoting any narrative," McClanahan says forcefully. "I want viewers to bring to the paintings whatever their experiences are. They could be affected by the colors, shapes or forms; I'm not trying to lead them in any way."

The Synesthesia paintings represent a new method for McClanahan. Before, she would get an idea, sketch it out and then paint over the sketches, but for these new ones, she painted directly on the canvas, working intuitively. She began with the geometric shapes, outlining them with tape, and then, when they were finished, overlaid them with the organic shapes. Like many artists, McClanahan works on several pieces simultaneously. "I'll do one step on a big piece and then work on the smaller ones; otherwise I'd get bored," McClanahan explains. "The processes I need to do are so different for the different sizes. With the big ones, there's the physical act of making the brush strokes, and I have to move in front of them -- versus the more meditative experience of doing the small ones, where I just sit and paint."

One striking thing about the paintings is their exaggerated horizontal shape. This is true not only of the large paintings, but also of the studies, which are only vaguely related. McClanahan believes that this horizontality suggests the landscape and gives the paintings the illusion of having perspective, but I don't agree. Rather than conventionalized landscapes, they appear to be non-objective compositions. The results, as in "fled" and "cant," are eye-dazzling in their simple and engaging straight lines and rounded shapes. Appropriately, considering the spare compositions McClanahan prefers, her palette is also extremely limited. She employs only three shades for each painting, but those custom-tinted colors are out of this world. The powdery purples, musty chartreuses and saturated reds -- plus several other spectacular hues -- come across just right in the unexpected combinations the painter conjures up in her works.

Although McClanahan is no longer a Denver artist, she intends to continue her relationship with Cordell Taylor and thus remain a part of the local art scene. She was in town for only a few days last week -- she even missed her own opening -- but it was a real homecoming, with her many pals from RMCAD going to see the show.


Speaking of RMCAD, did you hear the one about new president Steve Sumner asking the male faculty and staff to wear ties? Gee, I wasn't sure he was the right guy for the job, but I didn't realize that he was completely unfamiliar with the realities of the contemporary art world.


On a more serious note, here's some unsettling news: Last week, with only a few days' notice, Joanne Kauvar, founding director of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, was "laid off" by the executive committee of the board. The committee is led by Paula Herzmark, who also serves as CEO of the Jewish Community Center, the Mizel Center's host institution. Kauvar's departure is said to be the result of budget shortfalls that have caused widespread layoffs at the JCC.

Whatever the reason, the decision to ax the gifted Kauvar strikes me as strange. One of the most puzzling things is why Herzmark would do this now, when a new board is to be assembled soon and when she'll be stepping down herself in a few months.

Even stranger than the decision itself is the fact that Kauvar does not hold Herzmark personally responsible for it, though it was obviously the JCC director who made the call. "Paula hired me in the first place," Kauvar says, "and she was always supportive of the arts program at the Mizel Center. Without it, we couldn't have made it this far. It's been a good ride for nine years."

Kauvar has been in the art business for a lot longer than that, beginning three decades ago at what was then called the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities. She was the original administrator for both the Art in Public Places program created by the Colorado Legislature in 1974 and for the Colorado Artist Registry in Boulder. In 1986, Kauvar joined the staff of the Mizel Museum of Judaica, where she worked until she joined the Mizel Center in 1994.

As she looks back, Kauvar observes that she was most proud of the programming at the Mizel Center during her tenure. "The most interesting thing we did was the interdisciplinary programs that became a signature for us," she says. "We were in a position to take advantage of our wonderful facilities to present interdisciplinary events, having a theater and a fine-art gallery. Together, they gave us a lot of latitude."

The sudden departure of Kauvar is not the only controversy surrounding the Mizel name. In the spring, the Mizel Museum, at the time the Mizel Center's twin-sister institution, made newspaper headlines by giving Governor Bill Owens an award for his contributions to the arts in Colorado! This was an outrageous gesture, considering that Owens had all but zeroed out the state's arts budget. Then the Mizel Museum did something else outrageous: It split with the Mizel Center and took its multimillion-dollar endowment with it.

Because of the split, plans for a new museum to house the combined facilities went up in smoke even though they were in an advanced state of design, with models having already been done by David Owen Tryba.

When I wrote about the divorce of the Mizel Museum from the Mizel Center, I hinted in my column that things were going to get tough at the Mizel Center, but in my wildest dreams, I did not imagine that Kauvar's job was in danger. Her last day was Friday, September 19.


A show that originated at the Denver Art Museum earned a review in the New York Times and was then the subject of a correction, which was followed by an "Editor's Note" -- sort of a mega-correction. Shades of Jayson Blair!

Here's what happened: In a pretentiously moronic August 8 review of the groundbreaking USDesign 1975-2000, showing at New York City's Museum of Arts & Design, writer Ken Johnson impugned the integrity of organizer R. Craig Miller, a curator at the Denver Art Museum. Johnson suggested that Miller was in the bag for Target, a show sponsor, and therefore included numerous Michael Graves pieces, since his designs are sold at Target stores. Johnson ponderously intoned that "the harmonic convergence of Mr. Graves and Target is not so felicitous, because it undermines the intellectual credibility of the whole show."

There were several problems with Johnson's observation -- most notably that it wasn't true. Target wasn't an original sponsor of the Denver show; the retailer came on board only when USDesign traveled to New York. The Times ran a limp correction on August 22 that sidestepped the fact that Johnson had made up the story, then offered a more explicit explanation on September 5 in the form of the aforementioned editor's note.

I bring this up because it's so unfair to Miller, a real connoisseur of the old school. It makes me angry that he was so unjustly smacked in a bogus story in the New York Times.

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