Holiday Package

The Colorado History Museum hosts Vance Kirkland and friends.

The Colorado History Museum rarely presents exhibits that concern the fine and decorative arts. The museum's philosophy is more attuned to promoting what's called "material culture" -- a broad field that includes things like pickaxes and ski lifts. This is all well and good, but for those of us interested in the visual arts, it does decidedly limit the appeal of the place.

Right now, though, we've suddenly lost all our good excuses for not going over there, because Vance Kirkland: A Colorado Painter's Life -- Early Works and Beyond occupies almost the entire main floor. The full-tilt presentation takes a big-picture view of the middle decades of the twentieth century in Colorado, and the late, legendary Denver artist's paintings are used as the guiding light. The occasion for the show is the centennial of Kirkland's birth, which is coming up in 2004.

CHM curator Judy Steiner co-organized the exhibit with Hugh Grant, the director of the Kirkland Museum, which loaned all the Kirklands and most everything else. This was necessary because, sadly, the CHM has relatively few examples of the fine and decorative arts in its collections; fortunately, though, the Kirkland Museum has scads. It's a convenient affair for both, because the little museum -- which sits just blocks away from the big institution -- is crowded with art, while the CHM is mostly devoid of it.

"Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," by Vance 
Kirkland, oil on linen.
"Yellow Clouds and Red Mountains," by Vance Kirkland, oil on linen.
"Woman," by Bill Joseph, fabricated metal.
"Woman," by Bill Joseph, fabricated metal.


Through April 4, Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 303-866-3670

Steiner and Grant established a number of ideological threads that they've used to examine Kirkland's oeuvre. The show grew beyond what would normally be found in a solo offering, and it includes lots more than the efforts of a single artist. Though Kirkland's work, which is hung throughout the show, is the dominating presence, it's seen in the context of Denver art in general, having been supplemented by other local artists' pieces. Not only that, but the subject of international modern design is also brought in.

As is obvious, these themes make Vance Kirkland very complicated and thus hard to follow at times. Sometimes the text panels are out of sync with the objects they're attempting to explain, which makes the situation worse. The effect is not unlike seeing a dubbed Japanese movie. This complaint is definitely minor, however, considering all the marvelous strengths of the show. And I hate to make even this negative observation, because the installation by David Newell, the CHM's exhibition designer, is otherwise wonderful.

When they enter the show, visitors will want to turn left to enter the gallery in which the earliest objects are on view. In this space, Kirkland's watercolors and works on paper dating from the 1920s and '30s are put together with pottery and furniture from the early twentieth century. The first thing anyone will notice is "Oklahoma Land Rush," a full-sized mural sketch of the U.S. Post Office in Sayre, Oklahoma, that's hanging directly across from the entrance. The sketch depicts pioneers on foot and horseback and in wagons, literally rushing to grab some free land in what had been Indian territory.

Stylistically, "Oklahoma Land Rush" is regionalist, and it closely relates to the contemporaneous murals by Colorado's old master of the medium, Boardman Robinson. This kind of realism was of interest to Kirkland for more than twenty years, and the first and second galleries include several additional examples, most in the form of velvety watercolors. Many are examples of regionalist hybrids that reflect the influence of various abstract approaches. The curators have dealt with this mixture by calling the hybrid-styled paintings "Designed Realism"; that label refers to watercolors such as "Nevadaville," from 1931, and "Central City Opera House," from 1933. In them, Kirkland employed a cubist conception of space combined with more typically regionalist conventions of literal representation.

Cubism wasn't the only modernist style that Kirkland explored. The watercolor "Railway Tracks" is precisionist, while several other works reference scuola metafisica, the Italian precursor to surrealism. Kirkland often traveled to Italy, and it was surely there that he became aware of what was then a fairly obscure movement.

The decorative-art pieces are arranged on platforms with clear plastic shields in front to protect against possible theft. The presence of the plastic is annoying but necessary. The furniture and pottery in the first two galleries are older than the art, but the pairing looks good. There is one serious problem, though: A table from the CHM's Byers-Evans House is purported to be nineteenth-century but is actually much newer -- or at least the top is -- so it shouldn't be on display at all.

Ignoring this boner -- and it really is a big one -- there are many standouts in this section, including two absolutely drop-dead-spectacular monumental vases by Artus and Anne Van Briggle, who worked in Colorado Springs at the turn of the century. Artus died in 1904, but Anne was teaching at the University of Denver when Kirkland arrived in 1929, and she introduced him to their work before she died later that same year. As a result of this meeting, Kirkland began to collect Van Briggle pottery before just about anybody else. Of the two Van Briggles in the show, the CHM owns one, the vase "Despondency," which is quite fine. Even though the CHM has several Van Briggle vases in its collection, I daresay none is so fine as this one.

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