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Caving In

"Detail of Grotto," by Martha Daniels, glazed ceramic.

A solo show in the Denver Art Museum's Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery is the most highly sought-after gig in the entire exhibition world in Colorado.

It's not that the Close Range is an impressive room -- it isn't. Rather, it's an awkwardly shaped space shoved into the corner of the first floor between the elevators and the staircase. No, the appeal of the Close Range is how a show there confers a kind of legitimacy, credibility, prestige and status on an artist that is unavailable anywhere else locally. In fact, the DAM is so totemic in Colorado's art world that the second most important exhibition opportunity for a local artist is to be included in a group show in the Close Range or in the Stanton rooms next door.

Sadly, the museum's Modern and Contemporary department, which administers the Close Range, is fairly stingy about handing out this incomparable plum, averaging less than one show highlighting a local artist per year and, more often than not, giving artists from elsewhere the royal treatment. The irony is heightened by the fact that a Close Range show has little or no meaning to the big-name out-of-towners.

But right now, and extending into the fall, we're lucky enough to have a local entry on display at the gallery. The exhibit, called Grotto, is an ambitious installation by Denver ceramic genius Martha Daniels.

Well known in the region, Daniels has exhibited her work in Boulder and Denver with some regularity since the late 1960s, when she moved to Colorado.

Born Martha Kirmss in Brooklyn in 1943 -- "just like Mae West and Henry Miller," she points out -- Daniels had a childhood interest in art and a fascination with the antique heirlooms that furnished her family home. In 1961 she entered New York's prestigious Cooper Union to study sculpture, and it was there that she became interested in clay as a sculptural material -- still a fairly radical idea then. "Believe it or not, the attitude at Cooper at the time -- and at a lot of other places -- was that clay was not a fit material for art-making," she says. "It was a real irony, since Cooper was supposed to espouse the Bauhaus theories which were against this kind of snobbism."

While a student at Cooper, Daniels worked as a studio assistant, first for Dorothy Dehner, and later for John Hovannes, both prominent Modern artists from the period.

Daniels left Cooper in 1964, just a year short of graduation. "In those days, degrees in art weren't that important," she explains. "Cooper had just started giving art degrees a few years before."

She then took off for Greece with boyfriend Willem Daniels, whom she married in 1966. (Although they divorced in 1973, she kept his name. "I had already been exhibiting around here under the name Daniels for several years, and I felt at that point I couldn't change it back to Kirmss," she says.) While in Greece, Daniels taught English and made art. Willem wanted to return to the States to get a Ph.D. in international relations. "We kept meeting people from Colorado in Greece," Daniels says, "and an old friend of mine from Cooper had moved to Colorado, and so we thought, 'Let's go to Colorado.'"

In Boulder, she began to produce batiks, though she's quick to point out that she "wasn't really a hippie. The form was called art fabrics. Today we call them fibers."

After the divorce, Daniels moved to Denver and bought an old house in Five Points and rehabbed it. She then entered Metropolitan State College of Denver in order to complete her degree, which she did in 1975. Her mentor was the late, great Rodger Lang, who was the heart and soul of ceramics at Metro for the past thirty years. "I went to Metro because Rodger was there," Daniels says. "I learned all my ceramic techniques, all the basics, from Rodger."

Ceramics quickly became Daniels's medium of choice. "There's something about this area that's good for clay," she says. "I don't know if I would be doing clay if I'd wound up anyplace else. I got here, and Betty Woodman was here, and Paul Soldner, and so many more." The influences of the two artists are easy to see in Daniels's work, but there are myriad other stylistic influences, too, from classicism to modernism, from abstract expressionism to figural abstraction.

Daniels is now an expert in the history of ceramics, and many of her glazes make references to the high points of the past, especially mid-twentieth-century modernism. In several of her pieces, the patterned finishes evoke the work of artists like Guido Gambone and Marcello Fantoni, two post-war Italian ceramic artists who are favorites of Daniels. Old Oriental glaze prototypes, both Chinese and Japanese, have also been called up by Daniels for our visual delectation.

Using many of these disparate elements, Daniels creates a contemporary take on the very old-fashioned artistic tradition of the grotto in her solo at the DAM.

Essentially, a grotto is a natural cave or cavern that is decorated as though it were a grand and formal room. As a type, it likely evolved out of the prehistoric Etruscan tombs in what is now Italy; like grottos, the tombs were natural cavities ornamented with decorations. Grottos as an art form were picked up from the Etruscans by the Ancient Romans, and later by the Renaissance Italians -- in particular, the Venetians -- and still later by the Victorians in England and their contemporaries in this country. Although they have sacred overtones, grottos are often mixed with profane elements. They have no function, save as a hiding place or a setting for fantasies.

Daniels has always looked to the ancient Mediterranean for inspiration. So even if the grotto constitutes a new image vocabulary for her, the elements she uses to construct her contemporary take on it are the same kinds of things she's been making for decades. In Grotto, she's gone all out by painting the walls, dimming the lights and filling the Close Range to the claustrophobic brim with an odd assortment of ceramic sculptures in the form of figures, plants, busts, robots and a host of other things.

As we enter, we're almost immediately enveloped by a dark, cool atmosphere. This is partly created by the walls, which have been painted in deep tones of blues and greens. As we walk further in, we're inevitably drawn to the center by an active fountain. The fountain is made up of a small circular pool clad on the outside in partially painted bricks, with a beehive-shaped centerpiece from which water gurgles in a low spout. The water has been dyed a rich blue. "I wanted the water to look artificial to reinforce the idea that the grotto is an artificial space," says Daniels.

Arrayed eccentrically around the central fountain are four sculptural groupings that face the water and are meant to be seen from this vantage point, though it is possible to go behind them to see the backs. The groupings represent the four seasons, and while seasonal differences are suggested subtly in formal ways, they are more obviously conveyed in terms of the distinct palette Daniels has chosen for each: Summer is all pink and fiery red; winter is in white, blue and silver; autumn has a lot of golden yellow and orange; spring is pale fresh greens and blues. Each grouping is made up of four elements arranged in a line. From left to right, there is an abstracted plant, a headless Venus, a robot and a pair of tiny robots.

The plant forms, representative of the Roman goddess Flora, are highly ab-stract and only broadly suggestive of plants or flowers. Daniels has joined slabs of clay that are leaning against one another and held together only by glaze. This technique, a tour de force in the use of clay for its tensile strength, is the construction method Daniels uses for all of her sculptures. And though Daniels says that exterior metal supports added by the DAM to hold the sculptures in place are an unnecessary precaution, I think it's a good idea that they're there.

Standing taller than the plants are the headless Venus figures next to them. All are fine, but the most fabulous one personifies summer. The red color of the figure is stunning, as is the fluidity of the intersecting slabs that make up the body, legs and arms. According to Daniels, the references to Flora and Venus underscore the classical origins of the grotto and refer to the past. The robot and the paired robots, however, are supposed to bring to mind the future.

In each of the four groupings, the large robot is supporting an architectonic form. The small robots are cavorting in a variety of activities that range from dancing to making love.

"I want the little robots to read as androgynous. They are the children of Venus and the robot, and they have an incestuous relationship with one another," says Daniels with a laugh. "They might even be gay."

The four seasonal groupings have been supplemented with a series of busts on high stands and a pair of monumental urns. The urns, both finished in runny blues, are gorgeous.

Grotto is densely arranged, and it has much more material than a typical museum exhibit. As a result, some may feel it's too crowded, but perhaps it's just crowded enough. Daniels has turned the Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery into a treasure cave -- or, more to the point, a mystery-filled grotto.


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