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Against the Grain

"Black-Tipped Flowers From the Garden," by James Surls, carved wood and metal.

In a few weeks, the fall art season will get under way, and as I look into my crystal ball, I see an unprecedented tsunami of exhibitions and events. (I feel like I'm drowning already.) The October opening of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum is the reason.

In honor of this momentous and internationally noted ribbon-cutting of Daniel Libeskind's confection, the DAM will host not one, but three blockbusters. In addition, there will be new permanent-collection galleries in the Hamilton Building, and all of the permanent-collection galleries in the Gio Ponti/ James Sudler tower, now called the North Building, have been reinstalled. Also, a raft of new site-specific pieces both inside and outside the complex will be formally unveiled. And let's not forget that just about every gallery, co-op and art center in the region will be putting on special programming to coincide with the unveiling of the Libeskind. It's enough to make an art critic head for higher ground.

All of this indicates how smart it was for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art to have its fall shows open early. When the DAM wave hits in October, most of us will be hard-pressed to find the time to get to Boulder, but right now we have the luxury to do so. And I'm glad I did, because the three exhibitions curated by BMoCA co-director Joan Markowitz and associate curator Kirsten Gerdes are downright compelling.

In the spacious West Gallery is the first of the three shows, James Surls: A Cut Above, made up of sculptures by the old hippie, who is also a famous artist. Surls made his name in the art world from his home and studio in Splendora, Texas, but in 1998, as his career was soaring, he up and moved to Basalt, Colorado. Basalt is not far from the famous Anderson Ranch in Snowmass, where Surls teaches from time to time. The move has made Surls a Colorado artist, and showing up here as a famous player has meant that his work has been seen regularly in Denver exhibits. In fact, there's a Surls installed in the Center for Visual Art as part of Decades of Influence, the joint project of the CVA and the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver.

Surls was born in Texas in 1943, and he graduated from Sam Houston Teachers College in 1965. Three years later, he got his MFA from Cranbrook Academy, one of the most respected art schools in the country. He began to show his work in the towns of east Texas in the 1970s, leading to important shows in Houston that, in turn, led to exhibits in New York and California beginning in the 1980s. Since then, his work has been widely collected and is part of the permanent collections of many museums.

The Surls sculptures at BMoCA are small to mid-sized by the artist's standards (as is the one at the CVA), but most of them make big impressions. Surls is the master of weird Dr. Seuss-y compositions in which he assembles awkward, if balanced, elements into awkward, if balanced, arrangements. His style is modernist with both surrealist and expressionistic elements, but his work also has a folk-art character, probably because flowers are his principal referent. He also employs a crude approach to carvings, which relates back to the self-taught sculptors of the mid-twentieth century, most of whom were active in the South.

The show opens with a signature piece, "Black-Tipped Flowers From the Garden," made of steel and carved bass wood and suspended from the ceiling. Almost ten feet from top to bottom, it suggests the flowers of the title, with organic forms clustered around central buckles mounted at the end of sinuous rods reminiscent of stems. By far the largest and most impressive of the Surls at BMoCA, "Black-Tipped Flowers" is the perfect piece to put at the very start of the exhibit.

Off to the left in the gallery proper is another signature Surls, "Three, Six and Eight White-Tipped Flower Too," which is closely related to the monumental "Black-Tipped Flowers" in that both reference flowers and both were done in Surls's Basalt studio in 2005.

In addition to these classic Surls, there are some unusual and unexpected pieces, none more so than "Maquette for Eye Flower," made of bent, welded and painted steel rods. The title tips us off that though the piece looks like a bouquet of flowers -- it's even approximately the same size -- there are also images of eyes hidden in the petals. "Eye Flower" looks like a three-dimensional drawing because it's so relentlessly linear, as though it were done in ink on paper instead of metal. This piece was also created in Basalt, but the show does include three that were done while Surls still lived in Texas. I have to say, the newer work is definitely better; the natural beauty of Basalt is clearly influencing his oeuvre.

 

In the East Gallery is Out of the Woods: Woodcut Prints From Shark¹s Ink, a showcase of work done in the past three decades at the famous Lyons-based fine-art printmaker Shark's Ink. This is an extremely strong and beautiful show, partly because of how luxurious woodcuts are by their very nature, and partly because Bud Shark, who did them, is as good a printer as anyone alive. Of course, it would all be for naught if it weren't for the highly talented artists who've worked at Shark's over the years. Woodcut prints generally reconcile opposite characteristics in that they are both tentative and bold: They are tentative because the grain of the wood comes through to the surface, breaking up the color fields, and bold because these same fields typically encompass large parts of the composition in a single, eye-catching shade.

Interestingly, many of the artists included in Out of the Woods have rarely shown around here in recent years, including Michael Duffy, whose Picassoid nudes start off the show, and Janice Provisor, whose prints look like spatter paintings. Twenty years ago, Duffy and Provisor were big players on the Colorado art scene, but they both left the area a long time ago, and, as the old saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.

One artist who left the area but is hardly out of sight or mind is Betty Woodman, who was part of the Boulder art world for nearly forty years. Shark's includes a group of Woodman's woodcuts, including "The Ming Sisters," that depict her ceramics and feature her taste for repetition and patterns.

Other artists of note include Red Grooms, Hiroki Morinoue, John Buck and Alison Saar. I've seen just about every woodcut in this show at various other exhibits over the years, but putting them together brought in something new -- so new that even a jaded art writer like myself found Out of the Woods interesting.

There may not be something for everyone at BMoCA right now, but there is something for the fine-arts graduate student: Ligia Bouton: hybrids, which is installed in the small gallery on the second floor. This is a video projection with sound that has three spliced images of Bouton, who lives in Santa Fe, standing against a white wall and changing clothes. Using certain politically charged costumes, including a tutu and a burka, she subtly infuses the vaguely funny piece with feminist content.

Surely the Surls solo is the strongest of the three shows -- it's so tightly focused and handsomely installed -- but Out of the Woods and even hybrids are worthwhile, too. My advice is that you take that trip up to Boulder and check them out.


Two weeks ago, the governing board of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District decided to smack Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art by withholding a grant because the institution missed a filing deadline by two days. A miscommunication had led the MCA's auditor to believe that the paperwork was due on June 8 when it was actually due June 6. This move by the SCFD will represent lost revenue for the MCA of around $80,000. SCFD spokeswoman Mary Ellen Williams told the Rocky Mountain News on August 15 that "it was important to uphold the deadline."

This is apparently a different SCFD than the one that is almost two years beyond its deadline to pay the various county clerks of the metro area for the cost of the election that reauthorized the sales tax that funds the district. That deadline, which must not be as important, was November 2004. To this point, the SCFD has paid only $100,000 on its $700,000 debt. Too bad none of those county clerks have taken the same kind of hard-line approach aimed at the MCA, in which case they would sue the SCFD, and I'd cheer them on for doing it.

Once again, we are faced with a situation in which pencil-pushers, dilettantes and bureaucrats serving as volunteers make decisions about the future of our cultural life with no regard whatsoever for that future. I'm not saying I wouldn't vote affirmatively to extend the SCFD next time, as I did this last time, but I am saying that you have to wonder about a group that thinks deadlines are more important than a valuable community art resource. And I think the members of the SCFD board who voted to shut out the MCA ought to be shown the door, and, if there were any justice, barred from the world of art forever. God knows we wouldn't miss them a bit. On the other hand, we would miss the MCA.


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