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Contemporary in Colorado

"Purloined Purlin," by Carley Warren, paint on wood.

I think it's exciting to watch the Denver Art Museum's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building rise out of the ground, as it has been doing over the past few months just south of West 13th Avenue along the vacated axis of Acoma Street. Currently, the Daniel Libeskind-designed structure is merely a steel skeleton -- but it already expresses the formal composition of the future building. This skeleton is of tremendous visual interest all by itself, looking for all the world like a huge modernist sculpture. In fact, it's so sculptural that it relates perfectly to Mark DiSuvero's "Lao Tzu," installed across the street on Acoma Plaza, in between the DAM's Gio Ponti tower and the Denver Public Library by Michael Graves.

This relationship between the DiSuvero and the Libeskind is something many have noticed, and I've spotted more than one person taking a snapshot of the Libeskind skeleton through the skeletal DiSuvero. Even "Dr. Denver," Tom Noel, weighed in on the matter in his Rocky Mountain News column a few weeks ago, noting the comparison but criticizing both the Libeskind and the DiSuvero for having too many straight lines instead of his favorite: curves, like "the female form." Sheesh!

Gender-identity critiques directed at inanimate objects are the least of Libeskind's troubles right now. Back in New York, the Port Authority gutted his design for the World Trade Center site, and he's being accused of unholy ties with New York governor George Pataki via Ron Lauder, an heir to the Estée Lauder fortune and a big cheerleader for Israel, where Libeskind grew up. It's hard to see how, even if it's true, that it's scandalous. Let's see: An architect courts a wealthy individual who then uses his political connections to further that architect's career in the realm of public commissions. Gee whiz, I believe that's called "the way of the world."

But even more serious complaints about Libeskind's design for the DAM are being heard. Many view the building as being unfriendly to art. A real issue, I grant you -- but reality has trumped the criticism. The new Hamilton Building will cost around $100 million, and I'd say it's already generated at least half that much in publicity and goodwill -- and just wait until it opens.

Furthermore, we all know that however jarringly theatrical the interior spaces of the Hamilton may be, they'll at least be planar, unlike the Guggenheim museum in New York, where the walls and floors are curvilinear. Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim is the worst space ever conceived for exhibiting art, yet for all its tremendous faults, it's clearly a masterpiece. Mark my words: When it's finished, Libeskind's Hamilton will leave everyone breathless, and the style of its exhibition space will be completely forgotten in all the excitement of the opening.

The new building is set to debut in December 2006, which is mighty close to early 2007 -- you know how these things go. At any rate, it's right around the corner. A number of departments will be moving to the Hamilton, including modern and contemporary art, which will occupy most of the third and fourth floors -- the top two floors, as it happens -- in what will be called the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Galleries. That organization has been a longtime DAM contributor and even donated money toward the cost of the Ponti tower, which was completed back in 1971.

Sadly enough, these future changes mean that scene Colorado/sin Colorado, the current show in the expanded Close Range Gallery on the DAM's main floor, is going to be the modern and contemporary department's last presentation in the Ponti tower. After the show closes in August, there will be no modern or contemporary art shows in the DAM until the Hamilton is finished.

Two years or so may seem like a short time to the DAM's administration, but it seems like a lifetime in terms of public perception. Oh, well, there's nothing that can be done about it; if there were, Dianne Vanderlip, the powerful curator of modern and contemporary art, would have already done it. Oh, by the way, count on Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art to make hay out of the situation.

Vanderlip deserves praise for putting on an all-Colorado show as her sendoff exhibit before the long hiatus. Colorado artists deserve to be displayed at the most prestigious venue in the region, because if the DAM doesn't support them, why would an out-of-state institution? It's a credentializing experience for an area artist to be seen at the DAM, though that opportunity is rarely afforded to local artists. Right now, however, Coloradans are being celebrated not only in Vanderlip's show, but throughout the museum, and their work is identified with tiny Colorado flags.

The exhibit begins in the lobby with some teasers that are hung opposite the main entrance, bracketing Schlessman Hall. On the left is a richly toned black-and-white silver-gelatin print by Christopher James titled "Victor," which depicts the Colorado mining town at night. On the other wall is a large signature Tracy Felix, "Longs Peak and the Flatirons," in oil on Masonite. The James and the Felix both have a Western feeling, as does the third piece in the lobby: Stephen Batura's "Mid-Winter -- 1903," a monochrome mural in casein and gesso on plywood that records a train wreck at the turn of the last century. Technically, the James, the Felix and the Batura are part of scene Colorado, but they're too remote from the exhibit proper. Heading toward the Close Range, which is now a set of rooms carved out of the Stanton Galleries off the elevator lobby, viewers come across one more preview piece: Sushe Felix's "Blue Moon," a classic neo-transcendental abstract.  

Artists like James, Batura and the Felixes are representative of the younger generation -- in terms of this show -- because all are in their forties and emerged on the art scene in the late '80s and early '90s. Even more in evidence are members of the older generation, artists in their sixties and seventies who came on in the '60s and '70s. This focus on established talents is to be expected, as all the pieces in scene Colorado are taken from the museum's permanent collection. There's only one exception to this rule: Ricky Armendariz, an emerging artist whose two pieces -- which are hung in the Close Range's anteroom -- were specifically purchased for the exhibit. It's a shame Vanderlip didn't include more youngsters.

The Armendariz pieces are Western landscape paintings with Spanish sayings gouged into the plywood panels. Between the Armendarizes is the title piece of the show, Gary Sweeney's "scene Colorado/sin Colorado," a pop-style conceptual piece referring to his childhood and the region -- which is very similar to what Armendariz is doing. In the '80s and early '90s, Sweeney was a big player in the art world here, but he moved to Texas, where he still lives.

As the exhibit gets under way, Vanderlip shows off her greatest strength: the ability to assemble disparate material into a single show. But this talent is also her weakness, because things are so mixed up that they don't make sense aside from being a visual spectacle. Interestingly, it's fairly simple to divide the artists into a handful of groupings.

A number of the most famous artists in scene Colorado are classic abstract painters. David Yust's "Circular Composition, #53" from 1972, a huge hard-edged abstract in the form of an enormous rondel painted gray and white, is a showstopper. It's funny how things come around: In the '80s, paintings like this looked old-fashioned, but today they look fresh and new. Another painting that has aged well is "Sun Screen," from 1984, one of Charles "Bill" Hayes's classic color-field squeegee paintings. There's also a big, gorgeous Dale Chisman abstract from 1989, "The Ring," and an even bigger Floyd Tunson, "Before and After," from 1988, which is a figural abstraction based on a photographic image, believe it or not.

Another group of painters in the show, many of whom are also widely hailed, render the figure in a multitude of representational styles. Standouts include Irene Delka McCray, Jeff Starr, Bill Stockman, Wes Magyar, Chuck Forsman and Matt O'Neill. The painting by O'Neill, "Blues Musician," from 1990, is very different from what he's been doing in the last few years, but it still looks good anyway.

In addition to paintings -- though most of the show is given over to them -- there are several installations. The marvelous Carley Warren piece, "Purloined Purlin," a huge evocative wooden construction in black and red from 1984, reveals how influential Warren was to many artists around here in the '90s. Other installations include the wall of hubcaps by Phil Bender, the ceramic towers by Martha Daniels, the ceramic forms by Scott Chamberlin and the hanging wooden whirligig by James Surls, the two wall-hung Roland Berniers in photocopies on wood; even the Mark Amerika, a video projection in its own small theater, falls in this category.

There's also a fine assortment of photographs, especially landscapes. These include the spectacular suite of Robert Adams images from the '60s and '70s; this is the kind of thing that made him famous. And there are those equally impressive shots by Charles Roitz. Plus, there's a precious little Andrea Modica, the two picturesque scenes by Eric Paddock and a pair of elegant views by Kevin O'Connell. Photos on other topics include those by James Milmoe and James Balog.

The show is large and includes more than seventy works by nearly four dozen different artists, so it's impossible to mention all those worth noting. As I went through scene Colorado, I couldn't help but think how many great ideas for future shows were in it. I could imagine a show on a Western theme, another limited to the topic of abstraction, one devoted to representational art, another featuring installations, a photo extravaganza. And every one of them could be done employing Colorado material exclusively, as in this show. Too bad we're not going to see any of them at the DAM in the near future.  

If you haven't done so yet, go and see scene Colorado/sin Colorado, because after it closes, there's going to be a long wait to see modern and contemporary art shows at the DAM -- a ridiculously long wait.


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