In Black and White

Great photos by John Cohen at Singer, and quirky scratchboards by Jason Needham at Zip 37.

Simon Zalkind, the director of the Singer Gallery, does such a good job that I often forget that the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, where the Singer is housed, isn't an art museum, but rather a community center. This was brought home big-time last week when I saw a number of Angelo di Benedetto abstract roundels piled up carelessly against the wall in the main lobby -- something that wouldn't happen in even the worst-run art museum.

The modernist pieces are made of copper, and there are eighteen total, a number that represents life in Judaism. The roundels were originally installed on three exterior walls that enclosed a courtyard. But the courtyard was filled in with an addition in the early '90s, and right before construction, the di Benedettos were taken down and reinstalled in the main lobby and the theater lobby next to it. It was a shame that the courtyard was lost (and the pieces looked so gorgeous hanging there), but at least the people in charge at the time knew not to get rid of the di Benedettos.

So what are some of them doing sitting on the floor now?

Franz Kline portrait by John Cohen, black-and-white 
photo.
Franz Kline portrait by John Cohen, black-and-white photo.
One of "Three Large Clowns," by Jason Needham, 
scratchboard drawing.
One of "Three Large Clowns," by Jason Needham, scratchboard drawing.

Details

5{ eye: Photographs by John Cohen
Through August 28, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360

Scratchboards by Jason Needham
Through August 28, Zip 37, 3644 Navajo Street, 303-477-4525

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Well, it turns out that a staff member who's also an amateur interior decorator is reworking the theater lobby, and she doesn't like the roundels. She even went the extra mile by coming up with the idea of splitting up the group and selling some of them off! Thankfully, that's no longer under consideration. The current plan is to either put them in storage or find some other place to hang them, which is the better idea of the two. But I have to say, I'm sure that if Joanne Kauvar were still director at the Mizel, nonsense of this sort would never have gotten this far.


More in line with what I expect from the Mizel Center is the show in the Singer Gallery, there is no eye: Photographs by John Cohen. I'm sorry I put off seeing it until the end of its run, because now there are only a few days left for you to do so. I waited because I'd never heard of Cohen, so I didn't know how good he was.

Luckily for me -- and the rest of us -- Singer director Zalkind did know who Cohen was. "I first became aware of John Cohen when I was a teenager and was involved in what today is called the folk-music revival of the early 1960s," he says of the man who is best known as a musician and a musicologist, having co-founded the pioneering folk group the New Lost City Ramblers.

Cohen was born in New York in 1932 and attended Yale University in the early 1950s, where he studied with painter Josef Albers (the show includes a photo of Albers instructing a group of students) and photographer Herbert Matter. In 1957, Cohen moved back to New York; he formed the New Lost City Ramblers the following year with Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, and toured nationally with the group over the next decade.

During that same period, Cohen found himself at the center of many of the cultural earthquakes that rocked New York in the '50s and early '60s. Abstract-expressionist art and pop art were developing, new directions in jazz were being explored, Beat poetry was on the rise, and folk music was being revived. In key moment after key moment, Cohen was present with his camera.

In his photographs, Cohen reveals several stylistic influences, including the pictorialists of the turn of the last century and the street photographers of the mid-twentieth century. Despite such a range of aesthetic sources, the photos have a unity and an individual stylistic signature, with everything interrelated.

The show has been divided up into sections: A short survey of Cohen's different types of work is followed by areas devoted to each of his subjects. In one part are portraits of folk musicians; in another are images of vanguard visual artists; in another, the Beats are displayed; and so on.

Some of these photos will be instantly recognizable to viewers, as they've become famous over the years. There's the 1962 shot of Bob Dylan smoking a cigarette, and the 1964 image of Roscoe Holcomb, a backwoods banjo player whom Cohen discovered and promoted. Cohen met Holcomb in Kentucky, where the folk musician had gone to record the indigenous music of the Appalachians. His photos from Kentucky have an exotic look, not unlike the ones he took on an earlier trip to Peru.

Back home in New York, Cohen photographed many of the most important visual artists of the day, including Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, Philip Guston, James Brooks, Red Grooms, Lucas Samaras and several others. A lot of these photos were taken at the legendary Cedar Bar, arguably the hothouse for vanguard art in the 1950s. In these pictures, the place looks a lot more upscale than its rough-and-tumble reputation would suggest.

The photographs of famous people are surely an important draw, and they give there is no eye an added dimension. If you do go to the Mizel, be sure to check out those Angelo di Benedetto bas-reliefs scattered around the lobby before they get shoved into a closet, where they'll wait for more enlightened leadership to bring them out again.


On the topic of enlightened leadership -- or at least the illusion of it -- we need to run over to old downtown Aurora, on and around East Colfax Avenue between Dayton and Havana Streets. These are definitely some of the meanest streets in the suburbs. A few years ago, city leaders hatched the notion of using the arts as a tool for economic development, and the area was dubbed the Original Aurora Arts District. As could be expected considering the established character of the neighborhood, the idea has never worked.

Not that millions haven't been spent to spark a commercial rebirth. There's the new Martin Luther King Library, a sleek neo-modern design at 9898 East Colfax Avenue by Michael Brendle, and the considerably less-well-thought-out Florence Square, by RNL, across the street at 9801. Though only a few months old, the square has already seen the murder of a resident in the parking lot.

But city officials are committing another kind of crime: They've decided to demolish most of Victor Hornbein's 1955 Aurora Municipal Center, nearby on 16th Street. The wonderful Usonian-style complex includes a fire station, a police station, a city hall and a library, all of it now in disuse. The library, which is freestanding, is the only element that will remain, but it might be screwed up through remodeling. A new fire station with an undistinguished design is to be built on the site.

This decision indicates how wrongheaded the plan is, because logic dictates that the first thing that should have been done was a survey of the existing resources to identify the best of them for preservation. For heaven's sake, the dingy town's lucky to have been graced by anything Hornbein ever did, let alone one of his major projects. Why isn't the complex to be put to a new use as, oh, I don't know, an art center to anchor that would-be art district?

One positive step in bringing art to artless Aurora is Downtown Aurora Visual Arts, or DAVA, a public-supported entity that presents art shows and has an extensive outreach program. A recent example of its leaders' efforts is the group of five murals on the side of the Aaron's furniture store that faces Florence Street. The murals were orchestrated by Denver artist Jason Needham but were conceived and executed by neighborhood kids. Needham had a six-month DAVA residency and led fifty middle-school students in art classes. For the murals, he had the students draw their impressions of the area and then incorporated the specific imagery they came up with.

The two largest murals depict scenes of East Colfax and are done in Needham's cartoony reductivist style, which resembles the illustrations in children's books. This strikes me as a perfect fit when you consider that children carried it out.

If you visit the murals, don't miss the series of light boxes with abstract compositions done in monochromes arranged along the lines of a prism. These pieces, on the side of Pacific Loans, are by well-known Colorado artist Susan Cooper. Their location is only a couple blocks west of where the Needhams are.


Way across town at Zip 37 in northwest Denver is Scratchboards by Jason Needham, a nice companion experience to those murals. The scratchboards, as well as a handful of similar clay boards also on display, are done using an X-Acto knife to cut into the surface of the boards. This is like the reverse of a traditional black-on-white drawing, as the cut lines stand out white against the black fields of the background.

The knife method relies on a steady hand, because once a line is cut, there's no erasing it. "For every piece in the show," says Needham, "there were two I threw in the trash." Despite the inherent problems, Needham loves doing the scratchboards. "I get into a groove where I jam to these things," he says, explaining that he can do a couple of scratchboards a day, whereas a painting may take forty to fifty hours.

In most of the scratchboards, Needham uses an all-over pattern of waves and then puts a figure or two in the middle of it. Angular depictions of Santa are a favorite of his. Somewhat different are several surrealist portraits, such as the group "Three Large Clowns," which, despite the title, are actually only five by seven inches each.

The style of Needham's pieces, whether scratchboards, prints, paintings or murals, always remind me of early modern art from Europe. But more important for him is the example of American artist Philip Guston, who was a pioneer in bringing the attitude of comic books to the arena of serious works of art.

Scratchboards by Jason Needham is very elegant-looking, and I wasn't surprised to see that several pieces had been sold right after it opened. Get over to Zip 37 before the show closes this weekend.

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