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Again and Again

Two images from "Self Series II," by Jason Patz, C-print enlargements.

Repetition is a key to all human endeavors, from music to math to the sciences, from the spoken word to the written one. And don't forget history and the social sciences, which are all about repeating things. In the fine arts, too, repetition is basic and, as far as I can tell, essential.

Every accomplished artist works in series. They create groups of pieces in which each subsequent creation is visually and conceptually built on the previous one. Sometimes artists will work with a specific visual language for their entire careers, repeating the same ideas over and over again. Here's a good example: The Denver Art Museum owns the 172nd version of Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic"!

Since repetition is so common in artistic practice, it's an obvious theme on which to structure an art show, which is exactly what Simon Zalkind, the director of the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, has done in Repeat Offenders: Serial Works by Colorado Artists. "This show allowed me to include pieces by artists I'd been interested in for a long time but hadn't been able to include in a show," Zalkind says, "and to include artists whose work I hadn't seen in a long time, and I wanted to see what they were up to.

"It's also a safe context for me to take a couple of risks," he adds, referring to his inclusion of emerging artists hung cheek by jowl with established ones. "If there is someone who is not up to my usual standards, there are lots of people who are."

Zalkind's right: There are a couple of artists whose work doesn't stand up, but I'd say it's a great show anyway, with more than enough to recommend it. In fact, it could be compared favorably to Dianne Vanderlip's scene Colorado/sin Colorado at the DAM, which is a nice companion exhibit, since both are focused on local contemporary art. Zalkind's Repeat Offenders is more modest than scene Colorado, but not by much: The Singer show has nearly thirty different artists in it, while the DAM's has just over forty.

When I first received the notice for Repeat Offenders, I was shocked to see how many artists were included, and I expected to find a cluttered atmosphere reminiscent of an over-the-top extravaganza of the co-op scene type. Of course, we're talking about Zalkind, so I shouldn't have been concerned. "I'm amazed that it all fit," Zalkind says. "I was very frightened when we unwrapped everything. This motley assortment of unrelated things -- and, I thought, too many of them. But somehow this room accommodates anything I want to do." Looking at this show and recalling all the wonderful ones he's done at the Singer over the years, there's no way to argue with him about it.

The DAM's Vanderlip and Zalkind share a great strength in their ability to assemble disparate material into a coherent exhibit, but it's also their greatest weakness. So while this show is a successful visual spectacle, whatever content there is in it -- and there's quite a bit -- is hard to see. In Zalkind's case, however, he really had no choice -- not if he wanted to include as many artists as he did. Some of them are represented only by a pair of related pieces, while others have at least six on display.

Zalkind's installation is brilliant as usual. He alternated vertical stacks with horizontal groupings and interspersed them with grids. The works of each artist are clearly separated from those by others, allowing viewers to contemplate individual series. Zalkind says the established artists were there to provide the show with a firm foundation, and it's safe to say that they do a darned good job of it. Considering all the ready comparisons to the DAM show, it's no surprise to find that there's actual crossover between the two exhibits in terms of the artists who were featured. Five artists have work in both scene Colorado and Repeat Offenders: Stephen Batura, Andrea Modica, Jeff Starr, Sushe Felix and Roland Bernier.

Batura starts off Repeat Offenders with two easel-sized paintings from his "Flood" series, which are hung just inside the front door. Like his better-known train-wreck paintings, these flood pictures are based on historic photos and have been done with casein. On the topic of historic photos, Modica's studies of American Indian women set in the landscape, hung immediately next to the Baturas, look like they could date from the turn of the last century, especially given their picturesque qualities.

Across the room on a stand are pieces from Starr's "Inclusions" series, a group of Sculpy clay figures encased in acrylic. The figures are surrealistic, while the acrylic cubes in toned-up Rat Pack colors give them a more contemporary edge. Though Starr has long been known chiefly for his paintings, like the one now at the DAM, he has increasingly turned to sculpture in recent years.

 

Further into the show but on the same wall as the Baturas and Modicas is a quartet of wonderful, if tiny, pieces by Felix. Done in paint applied to paper instead of her usual board, they look like studies for prints. I'd never seen work by Felix of this sort before, so it was a revelation.

Adjacent to the Felixes, on the Singer's back wall, are three color photos by Bernier, who's really been getting around this summer, appearing at the Singer and the DAM and in his own in-depth solo at the now completely defunct Fresh Art. The photos are more like documents than artworks, recording informal installations of words formed from plywood letters.

In addition to the DAM group, there are other notable area artists included -- too many to mention, in fact. Among the standouts is Judith Cohn, who's represented by an installation of ceramic rings on the floor. Nearby is an intriguing wall piece by Gary Emrich, in which paintbrushes dipped in acrylic and covered with images done in a photo-emulsion technique are hung on the wall. Also compelling are the three photos of a statue factory's interior by Susan Goldstein and the multi-part, photo-based pieces by Annalee Schorr, which indict the war in Iraq through recorded television images of the conflicts.

It's really great to see the efforts of these established artists brought together in one place, but the best part of Repeat Offenders is the artists with nascent careers. These young artists hold up well in comparison to their elders, and Zalkind, to his credit, didn't relegate them to the back corners, but instead gave them prominent places in the show. Well, some of them, anyway.

One kid who was given a place right up front is Jason Patz, an important up-and-comer in the realm of experimental photography. Patz is represented by a grid of six self-portraits in C-print enlargements that were created specially for this show. They're exquisitely crafted and strikingly beautiful.

These self-portraits are extremely simple, despite the fact that there's so much going on in them. There's some conceptual content, for instance, since Patz holds the camera at arm's length, thus bringing the viewer into his own space. Also, he records himself unblinkingly -- scars, blemishes, stubble and all. Because they're nearly identical, the images also bring in some neo-pop content and broadly reference minimalism. And there's clearly some ambiguous narrative indicated by Patz's meaningful but thoroughly non- theatrical expressions. Last but not least are the monumentality of the photos, which allow Patz to render himself larger than life, and his unerring sense for composition. The Patz portraits really stand out, even in such heady company.

Katie Taft is another young artist working with experimental photography, and three of her recent works are hung opposite the Patzes. Neither I nor Zalkind know anything about Taft -- except how promising she is. Her color photos depict creepy-looking toy animals set in nature. Oh, I know, creepy toy animals have been done to death in the art world over the past ten or fifteen years, but Taft's offerings seem fresh anyway. The best of the three is "Love Monkeys."

The last of the gifted upstarts making a strong showing in Repeat Offenders is painter Brandon Borchert, whom I also know nothing about. Zalkind says Borchert is "one of those whom I'm the most delighted to have found." And you can sure see why. The two expertly done Borchert paintings in the exhibit are not just part of a series; they're about a series. Borchert starts with a set of pre-determined images numbered 1 through 53. Then he takes winning Powerball numbers, which also run from 1 to 53, and uses them to determine the specific images he incorporates into individual paintings. The process refers to dadaism, and the resulting compositions to surrealism; the assembled images of a fried egg, a can of Spam, a carousel horse and other objects bring in the specter of pop art. Some have criticized Borchert's use of an airbrush, but there's no arguing with how good he is at wielding it.

Repeat Offenders is a wonderful show, though there are some false notes that I wish weren't there. Considering the happy coincidence of it running at the same time as scene Colorado at the DAM, Denver exhibition-goers have the chance to see the work of more than seventy artists active in our area. Best of all, it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the burgeoning local art scene we all enjoy around here.


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