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A must-see ceramics retrospective fills DU's Myhren Gallery

"Pedestal Piece," by Paul Soldner, high-fire stoneware.

Dan Jacobs, who's been the director of the Victoria H. Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver for a couple of years, has really brought the place around in a short time. Before he was hired, there was an ad hoc quality to the gallery. There was no real program, because there was no real director to guide the schedule.

To make the Myhren relevant, Jacobs has apparently been a workaholic, curating most of the shows, writing essays for the accompanying catalogues, designing the elaborate installations and, in general, doing an excellent job of overseeing the whole thing. As if that weren't enough, he's been tracking down and accounting for the various works of art scattered around the DU campus. Oh, wait, I almost forgot: He also teaches classes. I'm exhausted just thinking about it, and I can't image how daunting it must be for him to keep all those balls in the air at the same time.

The current exhibit emphasizes how well Jacobs does. Paul Soldner Ceramics: A Master Teacher at Work, is definitely a significant event for the history of ceramics in Colorado, even if Soldner, now 87, was only a part-time resident, spending most of his time in California. The show even comes with a catalogue documenting Solder's distinguished career — before it's too late to get his take on things.

Most of the impressive pieces here were loaned by the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, which has an in-depth collection of Soldner's oeuvre. (The founder and president of AMOCA, David Armstrong, was directly involved in this exhibition.) The idea for the show was born when the Denver Art Museum's Gwen Chanzit traveled to AMOCA to look at the Soldners there; she was preparing to acquire one for the DAM from Armstrong's nearby gallery. Chanzit, knocked out by what she saw, told Jacobs about her experience and suggested an exhibit. So Jacobs and DU ceramics legend Maynard Tischler went to Pomona to see for themselves. Both were incredibly impressed by the work and by a meeting with Soldner.

There are dozens of works on view at the Myhren, dating back to the 1950s and '60s and ranging from diminutive to heroic in scale. Down the middle, Jacobs has arranged sets of display stands set at different heights and intersecting in zigzags. They have a mid-century-modern look, achieved by laying sections of the moveable walls onto metal sawhorses painted black — as Soldner himself might have done.

Soldner got turned on to ceramics in a summer class at the University of Colorado at Boulder taught by Katie Horsman. This was his first connection with Colorado, but he would strengthen those ties over the years, buying land near Aspen where he set up a studio and returning frequently over the years on a regular basis; he eventually became one of the founders of the Anderson Ranch Art Center.

Having quickly hit his stride after mastering the fundamentals in Horsman's class, Soldner went searching for a mentor and found one in Peter Voulkos, then teaching at what was known as the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. Voulkos was breaking all the ceramics rules in his work, and he encouraged his protégé to do the same. One outcome of this relationship was Soldner's famous series of "floor pots," a handful of which are in the DU show. Soldner attempted to throw pots as tall as possible by periodically adding slabs of clay as he toiled at the wheel. They're incredible, not only because they're so big, but because of their striking profiles of stacked shapes that bulge in and out. In some of these early pieces, Soldner has distorted the wheel-thrown forms, making them seem more organic, and sometimes he even pierced or tore the pieces while they were still wet.

This leads us directly to Soldner's theatrically shaped sculptures of the last decade and a half or so. Interestingly, these impressive pieces are more akin than the "floor pots" to what Voulkos ultimately did. The sculptures are all similar and all different. The sameness comes from the idea behind them: smashing together a concretion of slabs and distorted vessels into a single statement. But because they've all been done more or less spontaneously, each one is distinct.

The problem that arises when trying to talk about them, however, is that all of the pieces are untitled and can only be told apart by using their dates and brief descriptions. Nevertheless, every one is sensational, with most perched on a narrow foot with the body rising and spreading out from the center. Several include tentacles or other appendages that are clearly wheel-thrown vessels that have been worked while they were still pliable.

This show — a must-see — closes in just a few days.

Now I'm going to play six degrees of separation. Soldner worked with Voulkos. Years earlier, Voulkos had studied at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana when he was still an emerging artist. Many years later, another emerging artist, Ryan David Anderson, also studied at the Bray Foundation. Anderson is now being featured, along with Aaron Jones, in Inner Circle, a smart-looking exhibit at Space Gallery.

Like Soldner, Anderson pushes at the margins of accepted practice, and though he teaches ceramics and continues to make them, his main interest is in paintings that share certain attributes with the process of working clay. The pieces cover a broad range of pictorial concerns, with some being all-over abstractions made with exotic paints that produce unusual optical effects when dry. The tour de force of this type is "Altered States," an installation of a score of painted cigar boxes that are scattered across the wall. I'd love to see this displayed alone in its own dedicated area instead of being in and among the rest of the show. In other works, Anderson employs injected plastic, which he shapes by using a potter's wheel. The most amazing of these is "White Half Sphere," a dome covered in pearlescent circles, which has a monumental character.

In addition, Anderson does pieces that have recognizable elements, with several featuring reduced renditions of boats and even figures.

It might seem strange, given the ceramics-related techniques used in Anderson's paintings, to pair them with the work of a photographer. But Jones's photos are abstract, even if they are based on things found in the real world. Many are dominated by circles or curved shapes — hence the show's title — and use strong colors, including saturated reds, greens and yellows. They're very smart-looking and strikingly eye-catching.

In the small back gallery — and spilling into the main area — is an informal group show made up of pieces by Mark Castator, Haze Diedrich, Sarah Fox, Michael Burnett, Lewis McInnis and Stephen Shachtman. It also looks good with what's up front.


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