The Faculty Triennial documents Colorado's art history as it races by

While writing this column over the years, I have frequently thought about how my chief calling is to compose a rough first draft of the art history of Colorado done right as it races by. This kind of instant historicizing has a following in the scholarly world, and someone who embraced the philosophy — and whom I admired very much — was Stan Oliner, who sadly died last month at the age of 73.

In the 1990s, Oliner was the curator of books and manuscripts at the Colorado Historical Society, where he greatly expanded the institution's archives. He did this by gathering up old files and clippings, but also by collecting contemporary materials as though they were historic ones. It was Oliner, for example, who led the effort to immediately preserve the elements from the makeshift shrine at Columbine High School after the shootings there. But he also sought out ordinary artifacts, and would even come to Westword to collect discarded press releases, invitations, cards and other ephemera to record Colorado's culture as it was happening.

When Oliner left his curator's gig in 1999, someone at the CHS told me that he'd left the archives in a mess. I countered that he was actually a genius who had invented the archive. The organization was surely poorer without his talents — and still is.

"Yellow Narco Submarine," by Rafael Fajardo, assembled cut paper.
"Yellow Narco Submarine," by Rafael Fajardo, assembled cut paper.

Another person whom I admire for his historicity is Dan Jacobs, the director of the Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver. Since taking the job seven years ago, Jacobs has transformed the gallery into a vibrant place by cataloguing, researching and documenting — often with the help of students — DU's wide-ranging art collection and the many different artists who have taught there. The current exhibition, the Faculty Triennial, is part of his continuing program to "document and to stimulate Colorado's art history," he writes. Since the art department there was founded by Vance Kirkland in the 1920s, the faculty has included many of the state's most worthwhile artists.

See more photos from the DUFaculty Triennial

To a large extent, a show such as this is self-defining, since it only includes DU faculty. Nor did Jacobs have the thematic or stylistic control that would have strung the pieces together into a coherent whole. That's because the art teachers on the faculty already have their own established approaches, mediums and styles. Still, Jacobs has come through with an interesting exhibit that hangs together despite its diversity. This surely has a lot to do with the handsome installation. Jacobs has hauled out many of the temporary walls used to cut the large space into a warren of smaller rooms. This allowed him to clearly delineate and separate works that would be incongruous if he'd put them next to one another.

In prepping for the show — the third triennial in the school's history, and the second to have been put together by him — Jacobs discovered that part-time teachers who were full-time artists have always made up a large portion of the art faculty. For this reason, Jacobs included the work of lecturers and adjunct instructors as well.

As exemplified by Kirkland, DU often hosts the best-known artists in the area. In the Faculty Triennial, clearly the most famous is Lawrence Argent, who teaches sculpture. Argent, of course, is the creator of "I See What You Mean," that Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center that has become one of the most frequently reproduced symbols of the city. One feature of the piece that's little known is that it was generated by computer programs, which precisely determined its form, down to the smallest detail.

Work with a similar digital aspect is included in the Myhren show, but in this case, the pieces differ from the Big Blue Bear in a number of ways, most notably that to produce them, Argent sent the digital files to China, where the pieces were then handmade by artisans. There are two of three stone elements from a monumental public sculpture, "Your Move," that Argent did in Houston. The elements are based on the shape of gourds; the surface of one is faceted, while the other is grooved. They're quite beautiful. Argent is also represented by "Drape 1," a pulled-handkerchief form made of shaped stainless steel; it's a study model for a not-yet-created piece.

Work like this, which combines computer technology and real-world materials like stone and metal, is being called "trans-media," and it's definitely hot right now. Witness Susan Meyer's three acrylic, concrete and metal sculptures, in which topographical shapes are computer-cut from sheets of colored plastic. The cut shapes have been stacked to make miniature environments occupied by tiny little models of people. Also combining different media is a found-object installation with a camera and a computer by Kevin Curry. In his "Conjunction," viewers may step on pads and have their pictures taken; the pictures are then put online.

Jeffrey Keith is another fixture in the Denver art scene who's on the DU faculty. He's made a name for himself with abstract paintings that are something like a cross between abstract expressionism and constructivism. Keith's "Gone" is a four-panel piece done predominantly in a glossy red. Though it is quite different from his established oeuvre — the super-limited palette, the shiny surface — it still bears a relationship to his signature work, in which rectilinear smears of paint are the basic building blocks.

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