Promises and Threats

Beauty takes over Robischon, but things look pretty beastly at RMCAD.

The Pfaffs at Robischon combine found imagery -- photos, maps and charts -- with handmade drawn elements, some of which are done with colored waxes. The tissue-thin papers on which the images are applied are transparent or translucent, so that images on the lower layers "bleed" through to the top layers and appear as ghostly, vaporous marks. The imagery Pfaff prefers is rife with naturalistic things, especially leaves, but there are also a lot of straight lines and other things that look mechanized. And even though many of the objects depicted are recognizable, the overall effect is essentially abstract.

The drawings have been arranged in groupings in which compatible works are notched into one another like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This approach nicely reflects Pfaff's history as a pioneering installation artist. Another interesting feature of these pieces are the drawn and painted elements on the artist-made frames, literally allowing Pfaff's imagery to extend beyond the margins of the papers and onto the walls.

Rarely do I see two shows in the same place that work well together; to find three complementary ones is virtually unheard of. The two solos, Jae Ko and Judy Pfaff, and the group effort, Ross Bleckner, Terry Maker, Brad Miller, are the kind of rare pleasures that absolutely no one interested in contemporary art in Denver should consider passing up.

"Different Way #1," by Brad Miller, burned-plywood 
"Different Way #1," by Brad Miller, burned-plywood "drawing."
"JK 192," by Jae Ko, ink-infused paper sculpture.
"JK 192," by Jae Ko, ink-infused paper sculpture.


Through February 21, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

The Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design has produced more than its share of notable local artists during the past several years. There are a whole slew of them making big contributions to the ongoing vitality of Denver's contemporary-art scene. The list of RMCAD alums who've made names for themselves, based wholly on the high quality of their work, include Bruce Price, Bryan Andrews, Mary Ehrin, Karen McClanahan, John Morrison, David Mazza, Warren Kelly, Zack Smith, Jonathan Stiles, Michelle Gonzales, Colin Livingston, Addrienne Amato, Jason Patz and a half-dozen others. It's an impressive track record, especially when compared with other colleges and universities in the region.

In spite of these glittering successes, RMCAD's immediate future is starting to look pretty dim. The word is out all over town about the problem: Stephen Sumner, the new president of the college.

Sumner got the top job at RMCAD in the spring of 2003 and came on during the summer. Over the past several years, he's been quite the gadabout. Before taking the helm at RMCAD, he was provost for less than two years at the New World School of the Arts, a high school in Florida; prior to that, he taught at the University of Tulsa.

Sumner is very formal, which puts him at odds with the very informal art world. For one, he's made it known that he wants the men on the faculty to start wearing ties. For another, he wants to be addressed by employees and students alike as "Mr. President." (No, I am not making this up.)

More serious than these gaffes is the way he has demoralized the people who work there. He's been unable to develop a meaningful rapport with most of the faculty and staff -- you know, the folks who are responsible for RMCAD's success. Sumner served notice to all that they needed to watch their step when he forced RMCAD's popular provost, Neal King, to resign two weeks ago. In an all-campus meeting on Thursday, January 8, the news was announced to the stunned crowd, with no explanation. The next day, Sumner gave the dispirited employees what could be called a reverse pep talk, telling them that "things need to change" and that he "plays hardball." Implicit in his remarks is that if staff members don't do what they're told, heads will roll. (Gee, I know whose head I'd roll if I were in charge.)

I have many fond memories of teaching classes at RMCAD between 1999 and last year. (This period predates the Sumnerian era.) When I was there, Steven Steele -- he wanted everyone to call him "Steve" -- was the president. The accessible Steele spent his entire adult life treating RMCAD like a treasured family heirloom, which is what it is to him: His father, Philip, founded the school more than forty years ago.

Stay tuned. Hopefully, for the sake of the art community and the well-being of the people who work there, RMCAD will flourish once again. But only if Sumner can be convinced to stop shooting himself in the foot. Or, failing that, do what he's done many times before: Go out and find some other job.

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