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Basis Loaded

"Delta Queen," by Floyd Tunson, wood, paint, found objects.

Cydney Payton, the director and curator of Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, has really outdone herself with Decades of Influence: Colorado 1985 - Present, her four-part paean to the art of our region. The first chapter in the blockbuster is on view at the MCA itself, where Payton has installed the pieces representing the period of 1985 to 1995 ("Home Run," June 22). At the Center for Visual Art in LoDo, there's the second chapter, covering 1995 to present. The date division between the MCA and the CVA is fairly arbitrary; many of the artists at the former could have been at the latter, and vice versa. And though there's no question that Payton choose the crme de la crme for the MCA, most of those at the CVA are also first-rate.

Payton starts off strong at the CVA with an out-of-this-world installation by Floyd Tunson, "Delta Queen," that explores poverty through the imagery of rural black life in Mississippi. The piece is enormous -- almost as big as the timeworn front porch it references -- and immediately catches the eye, showing off a collage of found architectural elements, furniture and backlit photo boxes.

Across from the Tunson is a digital enlargement by Daniel and Maruca Salazar that also explores identity. In this more modestly sized piece, antique found images -- including that of a birdcage -- and symbols of Mexico are stacked in a grid. Individual perspectives are also explored in this gallery, with a homoerotic painting by Wes Hempel and Jack Balas, a gay couple who've worked together and separately for decades, and a wall of carved cutting boards emblazoned by cheesecake characters done by Pamela Joseph. It's hard to say if Nick Havholm's silver-gelatin print of a black man fits this theme or not, but it looks good where it is, regardless.

Mark Amerika's blog is featured in the show, and signs in this section direct you to it. Proceeding to the set of spaces that run across the back of the CVA, viewers will notice that any pretense of holding a theme is dropped, as it was at the MCA. Just ahead is Susan Meyer's "The Enterprise," a mixed-media installation with a soundtrack. The piece is made up of oddly shaped planes of black plastic that are stacked and set parallel to each other. Some of these stacks hang from the ceiling, but the central element of "The Enterprise" is on a stand a few inches off the floor. The piece conjures up architecture or a spacecraft, considering the title and the soundtrack.

Hanging on the walls around the Meyer are several remarkable pieces. There's a monumental bas-relief by Terry Maker that is made of canisters, pencils, markers and rolled-up photos all glued together and then buffed with a grinder to produce her remarkable surface. There are two marvelous examples of Roland Bernier's "Talking Trash" series, "Forced" and "Devious," which are mixed-media wall hangings that depict words written in a cursive script. Next to the Berniers is a spectacular post-minimal pattern painting by Bruce Price that pointedly violates all the rules. Adjacent to that is a trio of altered color photos mounted on aluminum by Paola Ochoa.

In a small room next to the Ochoas, Payton set up a room for viewing "Commingled Containers," a non-narrative film by the late Stan Brakhage, who lived in Boulder and was one of the most famous experimental filmmakers in the world.

A niche in the main space is installed with a small group of works, including a Tracy Felix painting of the mountains. Until I saw this show, I don't think I realized how different Felix's characteristic cartoonish style is from everyone else's. The same could be said for Frank Sampson's work, which is hanging nearby. Sampson is the old master of magic realism, and it's surprising how fresh his approach still looks. Finishing out the niche are a group of Western landscape photos by Eric Paddock. His work hooks up very well with that of several other photographers in the show, including Chuck Forsman, whose has pieces on view at the MCA.

Back by the Meyer installation is another niche that sports one of the most unlikely pairings in the entire show: On one wall is a hyper-realistic still life by Daniel Sprick; on the other is a neo-expressionist composition by Susan Wick. Their names might rhyme, but their approaches to art are as different as night and day: Sprick is meticulous, while Wick is purposely sloppy.

Across from these opposites are pieces by three artists. There are a pair of lenticular photos -- the kind that change as you move around them -- by Linda Girvin, who is known for this kind of thing. On a stand against the wall is Phil Bender's "30 Green Boxes," made up of -- you guessed it -- thirty green boxes. It's amazing how effective this piece is, considering that he didn't make the boxes but only arranged them. Bender has been successfully employing that simple method in his conceptual works for the past 25 years.

High on the wall next to the Bender boxes is a video projection by Stacey Steers showing thousands of drawings, all done in a nineteenth-century style, that tell the story of a young woman's struggles in the cold, cruel world. The last passage in this section of the show includes an entire wall of lyrical drawings by Rebecca DiDomenico and a group of David Zimmer's remarkable tabletop installations, which incorporate liquid-quartz monitors for viewing songbirds.

Turning the corner, viewers will head back to the front of the CVA to take in the last three galleries devoted to Decades. In the space to the right are a group of Kevin O'Connell's breathtaking photos of the plains done in platinum prints. Interestingly, these O'Connells are so small, and the plains so large, that they read like geometric abstracts based on the horizontal line. Across from the O'Connells is one of James Balog's stunning tree photos, a series he's been working on for the last few years.

In between the O'Connells and the Balog are three small sculptures by Carley Warren, a local pioneer of feminist-inspired installations. Because Warren likes to use wood as her principal material, these small works resonate with the large James Surls installed opposite them. The Surls is a sinuous wood carving of an abstracted figure suspended from the ceiling and rising from the floor.

In the connecting space, which is sparely hung, Payton put a hyper-real portrait in charcoal on paper by Heidi McFall that demonstrates the artist's tremendous rendering skill. Even on close examination, it looks like a photo. Adjacent to it is a porcelain installation by Jeanne Quinn. Down the wall on the other side of the McFall are two newish pattern paintings by the legendary Clark Richert. The paintings are principally white, with color dots creating airy designs. When I heard Richert's work was at the CVA instead of the MCA, I was surprised, because he was a big deal in Colorado long before 1996, ostensibly the start date of this part of Decades. However, when I saw these recently done paintings, which are critiques of his earlier approach, I understood Payton's decision to put them where she did.

Leading viewers through this space and into the final part of Decades is a group of three installations by Kim Dickey. The artist took a Chinese-style rug depicting a labyrinth and cut it into three parts. In the center of each piece is a half sphere formed by ceramic shapes that evoke flowers, so that the whole thing conjures up a garden image.

The last piece at the CVA is Barbara Takenaga's "C-Chan," in oil on linen over board. For this elegant painting, Takenaga realistically rendered beads and arranged them in a swirling, abstract pattern. Her painterly skill is tremendous, and though her oil painting has nothing to do with the rug and ceramic installations, they work together seamlessly.

I'd be lying if I said the section of Decades of Influence at the CVA is as good as the part at the MCA, which is, after all, a cavalcade of art stars. Payton included a few weak links at the CVA, but this part of Decades is still one of the greatest shows about the community in years. Nobody should miss it, or the section at the MCA, or the Gates Sculpture Triangle (Artbeat, June 22), or the Carol Keller Project Space.


Cydney Payton's groundbreaking Decades of Influence: Colorado 1985 - Present demands comment and response. The show reveals not only that Colorado artists are part and parcel of various national and international art trends, but also that they are part of a strong regional scene. This last observation is proved by the many Western landscapes that show up -- and not just in photography, which is obviously inspired by our natural setting. There may not be what could be called a "Colorado style," but these Western landscapes come close.

Decades also reveals that artists in Colorado work in any medium you can imagine, from the ancient trades of painting, sculpting and potting to more recent forms, such as digital printing and video projection. I know a lot of people are upset by some of the major players who were left out, and it must be personally painful for many of them, but I think it was courageous of Payton to stick her neck out and make her selections. Next week, I'll follow Payton's lead and talk about the people who I think should have been included in this show but weren't, and also about those who got in but shouldn't have.


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