"The Amazing Madame Xan," by David Seiler, mixed 
"The Amazing Madame Xan," by David Seiler, mixed materials.

Big Tops

Sadly, the last of the exhibits at Studio Aiello are beginning to come on line, with December being the announced end date for the commercial-gallery portion of the art complex. Located at the north end of the upper Ballpark neighborhood, Studio Aiello was a fantasy made real by the artistic husband-and-wife team of Tyler and Monica Petty Aiello. The big building that houses the gallery will continue to offer accommodations for studios, and the nearby Tar Factory will still have workshops.

Since opening in 2002, the gallery has made a wonderful addition to this city's art scene. The specialty of the house has always been contemporary art by local and national artists. There were a few Denver artists in Studio Aiello's stable -- such as Mark Travis and Mark Brasuell -- who were well known when the gallery picked them up, but more often the Aiellos tapped unknown talents, especially those who were working in northern Colorado and had not previously exhibited their work in town. This allowed Studio Aiello to provide a lot of artists with their Mile High debuts.

The current exhibit is Step Right Up!, a David Seiler single-artist feature. This puts Seiler among a select group of artists who have been given major solos at Aiello, with the only others I can recall being Doris Laughton and Virginia Maitland. Ordinarily, group shows are presented there because the place is so enormous.


Step Right Up! and Metro Effect

Step Right Up!
Through November 4, Studio Aiello, 3563 Walnut Street, 303-297-8166

Metro Effect
Through October 29, Metro State Center for Visual Art, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207

Born in 1960 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Seiler moved to Colorado in 1984. "Believe it or not," he says, "I came for the skiing. I was so tired of skiing on Michigan mush."

After working for years as a chef, Seiler had an epiphany when his younger brother died. Realizing that life is short, he was determined to follow his passions and become an artist. He studied art at Metropolitan State College of Denver, graduating in 1995. The following year, Seiler and a group of Metro artists founded the gone-but-not-forgotten ILK co-op.

Seiler does all kinds of work, including drawing, sculpture (both inert and interactive) and even music. In Step Right Up! he choreographs all of it, using a carnival analogy to explicate greed. The show is divided into two distinct parts. In the Front Bay is a show of Seiler's drawings and sculpture, but the Middle Bay features something very unusual: The room has been converted into the interior of a big circus tent, which Seiler filled with sideshow-type attractions.

The drawings in the front include three large portraits of carnies, with one of them, "Ride Boy," having a particularly unnerving quality. Also on view are crude schematic drawings that explain how some of the mechanical pieces in the second part of the show were put together.

"Circus Barker," a sculpture with audio, draws viewers out of the Front Bay and into the tent installation -- just as a real barker would. This is a great piece. Seiler has fabricated two flat outlines of the head and torso of the barker, using them to make a box-like configuration resembling an outdoor sign. He has painted the boxy figure to represent the barker dressed in a black jacket with a white shirt and red tie. A metal horn amplifies the recorded loop of the barker's call to come on in. Seiler has antiqued or weathered the sculpture so that it looks like it dates from the early twentieth century, the hypothetical time frame of his "Circus of More." In fact, one compelling aspect of the installation is how accurately Seiler conveys the look of agedness: Everything in the show appears to be an antique, even the tent itself.

The tent is made of muslin sheets that Seiler dyed yellow and red, then pieced together to form alternating stripes. The striped muslin is draped from the ceiling to conceal the walls, which completely transforms the room into a somewhat creepy place. That feeling is enhanced by the dim lighting and the old-looking attractions placed around the edges.

Seiler acknowledges the eeriness and explains that it comes from the source material. "Circuses are sinister," he says. "Circuses are about mischief; they keep you slightly off balance." He instills some of those same attributes into "Circus of More."

The first thing viewers encounter when they enter "Circus of More" is the soundtrack, which was composed by Seiler and performed by the Perry Weissman 3. It has a manic minimalism that, in the "Circus of More" setting, comes off like edgy carnival tunes.

The first objects that come into view are three painted wooden boxes whose elaborate signage indicates that they are "Phrenitiscopes" done by Seiler's alter ego, Dr. D. B. Zeiler, their fictional inventor and impresario of the "Circus of More." Seiler's family name was Zeiler, and he uses it here as a salute to his grandmother, who just turned 99. The "Phrenitiscopes" are related to mutoscopes, magic lanterns, nickelodeons and other early moving-picture devices. Viewers look into a window at the top of the box while turning a crank on the side; inside, flip cards of photos have been mounted onto cylinders. When the crank is turned, the flip cards convey a primitive animation as the images on them flash by. The three films all address the pursuit of money, and Seiler is the star of the narratives -- sometimes in the nude. He took the photos during a recent residency at the Bemis Art Center in Omaha, creating some 1,800 of them. "I've worked in the darkroom since I was ten years old," he notes.

The interactive aspect of the "Phreniti-scopes" is something found in many other Seiler works; usually the viewer must manipulate some kind of mechanical element in order to get the full impact of the piece. Adjacent to the three "Phrenitiscopes" is "The Amazing Madame Xan," a takeoff on a fortune-telling machine. To create this piece, Seiler placed a wigged mannequin head made up to look like a gypsy inside a glass case. Across the front of the case are wooden levers that, when pushed, reveal various fortunes, some of which are not too fortuitous. And speaking of unlucky, there's the "Wheel of More," a wheel of fortune with lots of bad things painted on it; when viewers spin it, they just might wind up having the pointer land on "Bankrupt" or even "You die."

Step Right Up! is extremely ambitious; it took some twenty assistants to pull off the "Circus of More." These artist-collaborators, who contributed not only elbow grease, but also some conceptual elements, are part of the Seiler-organized cooperative Teeter Totter Production Group, which was put together specifically for this show.

With the amount of work that Seiler, the Perry Weissman 3 and Teeter Totter put into this effort, it's a shame it will all have to be packed away in a couple of weeks. However, there will be a way to preserve the experience: A CD-DVD with the soundtrack and selected images will be available at the closing reception, slated for Friday, November 4, at Studio Aiello, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Over at the Metro State Center for Visual Art, there are three sculptures that look like lost elements from David Seiler's "Circus of More" -- and they are. The pieces are part of Metro Effect: Metro State Alumni Exhibition, a showcase of more than two dozen artists who graduated from Metropolitan State College, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year. The juried exhibition comprises selections made by a panel that includes former CVA director Kathy Andrews and two art-faculty members, Greg Watts and Yuko Yagisawa.

The fact that the show was juried instead of being an invitational -- and, worse yet, juried by a committee -- is doubtless why it's all over the map. Despite the many fine things in it, the exhibition does not hold together and is pretty incoherent. Then again, the topic -- people who graduated from Metro -- is inevitably wide-ranging. The sample from which participants in the show were culled was presumably huge, as the college has been chugging along for four decades and the art department has become enormous in the past twenty years. Currently, there are over 800 art majors there.

One thing that struck me was the near total lack of ceramics. Oh, sure, there are a few examples, but nothing near what I expected, considering that the late, great Rodger Lang taught ceramics there for so many years.

Among the Metro alums tapped for the show are a number who, like Seiler, have been fixtures on the Denver art scene -- none more so than Phil Bender, the director of Pirate and the city's oldest living conceptualist. Bender has a whole gallery to himself, which he's filled with a grid of buckets in the center surrounded by a wall of shovels, one of brooms and another of ladders. It's classic Bender in style -- and one of the best things in the exhibit.

Another longtime art-scene habitué is Carlos Frésquez, who not only attended Metro as a student, but teaches there today. For Metro Effect, Frésquez created a site-specific altar -- which also qualifies as an early entry for the Day of the Dead season later this month. Then there are Mark Friday's great interactive wall pieces -- "Single Wheel Turn," "Three Wheel Turn" and "Corner Situations" -- in which levers and knobs allow viewers to change the elements of the abstract compositions. And Lauri Lynnxe Murphy's "Pimpalicious," an overcoat made of stuffed animals, is a tour de force.

Other works worth noting are those by Christine Gabrielle Graziano, Bill Starke, Marie Morrison Quinn, Natascha Seideneck, Marsha Wooley and Shaun Acton.

I'd be lying if I said that Metro Effect was a great show, or that it truly represents the big contribution that Metro has made to contemporary art in Denver. It would be true, though, to say that it's worth seeing anyway.


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