Photography shines at Merge, a juried show of Metro State alumni at the CVA

Twenty years ago, Metropolitan State College of Denver opened an off-campus gallery to serve as an outlet for students, professors and the community. Over those two decades, it has gone through a number of changes, the most recent of which took place this year.

First dubbed the Center for the Visual Arts, the gallery occupied the corner of 17th and Wazee streets for several years before relocating a half a block away to 1734 Wazee into the former digs of two galleries, Payton-Rule and Sandy Carson. This spot was right next door to the city's premier gallery, Robischon, which later bought the first floor of the building and became the CVA's landlord.

Though she wasn't the founding director, Sally Perisho came on early in the CVA's history and ran it for more than a decade. During her tenure, Metro inexplicably renamed the institution the Center for Visual Art — a small change, but one that must have been costly considering signage, cards, letterheads and the like. This wasn't Perisho's call; it was simply one of a number of meaningless moves imposed on her by a Metro administrator who eventually forced her out ("Going Down?" January 3, 2002).

"NeoIcons," by Evan Colbert, paint on panels.
"NeoIcons," by Evan Colbert, paint on panels.
"Aquasparktenticle," by Josiah Lopez, acrylics and spray paint.
"Aquasparktenticle," by Josiah Lopez, acrylics and spray paint.

Perisho was replaced by Kathy Andrews, who had expertly run the art program at the Arvada Center for years. But she had barely begun to lay out her program at the CVA when she quit in 2005 over a dispute; her position had been redefined in the budget  ("New Directions," May 5, 2005).

Jennifer Garner later took over as the director, and she's held the position ever since ("Open and Closed," July 28, 2005). 

For a few years, Robischon negotiated with Metro, the idea being that the college would buy the entire space. But the process ended suddenly last year when Metro announced that it had purchased an industrial building at 965 Santa Fe Drive, which opened a couple of months ago ("New Digs for CVA," June 3, 2010).

I'm sorry that the CVA left LoDo, since it was in such a great spot — next to Robischon and just blocks from MCA Denver. But its new home is quite impressive. And though I've said before that the CVA is like a museum — it could be argued that it was the city's first museum of contemporary art — now it really looks like one.

For many years the building was a motorcycle shop, and, after that, a furniture store, so when the CVA got there, it was run-down and grungy. It has now been lightly rehabbed on the outside, while inside it's been totally reconfigured according to a design by the Denver firm of SlaterPaull Architects, the successor to the office of Raymond Harry Ervin, a pioneer of Denver modernism.

The interior is covered by a barrel-vaulted roof that is open to reveal its structural features. The dividing walls stop short of it, giving the spaces an expansive feeling. The heating and air-conditioning vents and electrical conduits have been left exposed as well, providing ad hoc decorative elements below the ceiling. There are a series of handsome galleries as well as classrooms and other spaces. And the size of the CVA is remarkable: The entry area alone is as big as some of the city's private galleries!

A grand opening was held two months ago with a filler show called Mix that was a sort of housewarming for the neighborhood and featured artists whose work is shown at other venues on Santa Fe. But the current exhibit, Merge: 2010 Metro State Alumni Exhibition, is the first major offering there. A juried effort, Merge acts as a survey of the work of graduates of MSCD's art department, which is the state's largest, with more than a thousand students majoring in art. Graduates were asked to submit work to CAFE, an online clearinghouse for art selection run by WESTAF, and then former chair Barbara Houghton (now at Northern Kentucky University) and current chair Greg Watts selected those who would be included. Finally, the exhibit was laid out by director Garner and assistant director Cecily Cullen.

To start, I'd like to make some general comments about the show. First, there are too few inclusions, and large spaces such as the central spine called the Boettcher Foundation Grand Hall are way too empty, meaning that Houghton and Watts could have accepted more artists, or perhaps could have allowed those who were selected to have more than one piece on view. This problem could have also been solved by their having chosen some monumental works instead of the mostly smallish things that are here. Second — and this is probably the most important thing — because so many of the city's art-world movers and shakers earned their degrees from Metro, the show is filled with pieces by well-known locals, Phil Bender and Lauri Lynnxe Murphy among them.

One of the greatest strengths of the show is photography. This, no doubt, has something to do with the fact that both Houghton and Watts are photographers, but it's also because Metro has such a finely developed (pun intended) photo program.

I loved "Judging," a digital print by Gabriel Christus depicting a chorus of seated referees with an inverted man seeming to float over their heads. At first I thought it was Photoshopped, but Garner pointed out that it was actually a diver being judged. Very different is "Presidio," a gelatin silver print by J. John Priola that uses a shot of a sidewalk and a blank stucco wall, resulting in a minimalist abstraction. It's fabulous. "The Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand," a gauzy skyscape by Sean Rozales, is another photo standout; it's done as an archival pigment print. There are also noteworthy pieces by Merlin Madrid, Jeffrey Ball and Kathryn Gregonis.

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