Under the direction of Sally Perisho, the Metro Center for the Visual Arts on Wazee Street has, more often than not, offered museum-quality shows, and this summer's 20th Century Drawings and Objects, on loan from the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, is no exception. But wait a minute: What in the heck is the Arkansas Arts Center? Perisho says she had never heard of it herself until a couple of years ago, when a curator friend gave her a heads-up about it. "People who have come in have been astounded by the quality of the show," she says, "and with how many of the artists in the show are important names in the contemporary art world."
Perisho was delighted to get the traveling exhibit, even though it's up during the traditionally slow summer season. "This is an extremely fine show," she says. "So I regret that it's on in the summer, when traffic is lighter than it is in the fall, but I had no choice." But if there have been fewer viewers -- and there have -- than could be expected had it been presented a couple of months from now, those who have faced the heat and come out to see it have been impressed and fascinated, and the show has garnered a lot of positive word of mouth.
Drawings are one of two major collecting areas for the AAC -- the other being decorative arts, which are displayed in the center's own museum, the Pike-Fletcher-Terry House, one of Little Rock's antebellum mansions -- and some of the pieces in the museum's collection date back to the 1600s. The idea to collect drawings and decorative arts was initiated in the early 1970s by AAC director and chief curator Townsend Wolfe. The appeal of both was cost: Works on paper are much cheaper than paintings or sculptures, and the same is true for vases and chairs. Thus the modestly funded institution was able to acquire examples by big-name artists.
Wolfe is obviously an old-fashioned connoisseur, as revealed by the fineness of so many of the inclusions in the Denver exhibit, most of which date from the 1980s and '90s. But he's no fuddy-duddy, and he's made a real attempt to be aesthetically and politically correct. The show is rich in first-rate examples by women artists and those belonging to ethnic and racial minorities. This angle of the AAC's collection was surely a part of the appeal of the show for Perisho. Like Wolfe, Perisho has attempted for many years to reconcile the demands of art with the mandate of diversity, and also like her colleague in Little Rock, she's been mostly successful at it.
This political feature of Drawings is manifested immediately as viewers enter the CVA, where drawings by three African-American artists -- Charles White, Diane Edison and Warrington Colescott -- are among the half-dozen large works on paper that fill the intimate entry gallery.
The Colescott, "God Destroys Bourbon Street," a watercolor done in 1995, is the strongest of the three and one of the best things in the entire show. It is striking both for the artist's bold palette and for the complexity and density of his composition. The somber subject -- winds that are destroying the famous New Orleans thoroughfare -- is unexpectedly carried out in a whimsical and cartoonish way. Nude figures, signs, a paddle-wheel boat, a suspension bridge and even the cathedral are all about to be swept away in the gale. As a result, the piece is part religious picture, part political cartoon.
Colescott, who was born in Oakland, California, spent most of his career in Wisconsin, where he was chiefly known as a printmaker. He has no known relationship to the internationally famous artist Robert Colescott, who is also from Oakland and is also represented with a drawing in this show. Both attended the University of California at Berkeley, though Warrington did so in the 1930s, about fifty years before Robert.
The younger Colescott's drawing, "Dark Continent," an acrylic on paper, is seen in the CVA's large back gallery. In it, the artist smears black paint to form a rudimentary portrait of a black man. Almost hidden beneath this face is another face, that of an African warrior holding a knife. The implication is clear: In the man's mind lies Africa.
Across from "Dark Continent" is the mural-sized drawing "Inside a Passage Structure," a 1986 watercolor, charcoal and graphite on paper by New York artist Robert Stackhouse. The drawing depicts a building in skeletal form that recedes into infinity at the center of the piece. Stackhouse's palette is compelling, though it's essentially limited to umbers, grays and the creamy off-white of the paper.
In the niche off to the side are two drawings with similar subjects -- nude figures interacting -- but each was done employing a very different technique. "Five Figures," a 1984 pencil and graphite on paper by New York artist Nancy Grossman, is delicate and precise. The artist juxtaposes tight representational images, like a realistic dog, with abstracted figures, such as a couple of seated men and their vaporous shadows. Viola Frey's "Untitled," a 1988 mixed media on paper, is bold and expressive. Here the nudes are placed on top of one another; some are tiny and some are large, but all of them occupy the same pictorial space. Frey's handling of the figure is retrospective in that it refers to the post-impressionists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially Cézanne, though her awkward composition is more readily connected to the neo-expressionists of the 1980s.
Perisho has installed several of the most important drawings in the final leg of the show, where the large gallery's main wall is dominated by a gigantic drawing of a pair of figures in "Scale Study for Woman and Man," a charcoal and crayon on gessoed paper by New York artist William Beckman. The use of the paired figures, evocative of the many Adam and Eve portraits done in Northern Europe during the Renaissance, is an old interest for Beckman; in the 1970s, he began to make pictures combining a self-portrait with a portrait of his wife, Diane. His severe facial expression and his wife's severe features in these pieces are perfectly in line with this austere Northern tradition.
In "Scale Study for Woman and Man," Diane is seen in full-frontal nudity, while Beckman, though shirtless, is still wearing pants. CVA director Perisho points out that this adds a confrontational -- almost pornographic --quality to the drawing, but I wonder how much more confrontational it would have been if Beckman had also been depicted nude.
Another masterful drawing is Will Barnet's "Study for Early Spring," a charcoal on paper from 1976. The horizontal drawing depicts groups of women standing among a forest of trees. The women, whose features have been conventionalized and reduced, are dressed in nineteenth-century clothing of long dresses and shawls, and their hair has been put up in buns. These costumes, combined with the rhythm of the tree trunks and branches, give this Barnet drawing an art nouveau feel. Barnet lives in New York, but he was classically trained at the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts and so was perfectly positioned in the 1970s to be a pioneer in the figural revival that transformed the 1980s.
Next to the Barnet is the only drawing with a connection to Colorado: Betty Woodman's "Drawing for Balustrade #81." Though Woodman left Boulder a few years ago, retiring to New York and Italy, she still lived in Colorado in 1993-1994, when she created this drawing. The piece is related to her 1995 Denver International Airport commission, "Balustrades," a pair of stunning ceramic sculptures on the mezzanine level of the Jeppesen Terminal.
The Woodman is quite informal, with the artist's footprints marking where she walked across the two-part piece, providing a leitmotif to the disconnected watercolor sketches of abstracted balusters and vases. The palette is predominantly tan and reddish-brown. Though many have noted the influence of the Orient on Woodman's imagery, this piece is a reminder of the importance of Italian art to her work.
Adjacent to the Woodman is one of the only truly abstract pieces in the show, Elizabeth Murray's "Big and Small," a chalk and charcoal on paper from 1975. In this drawing, Murray sets an organic and soft-edged form in red chalk outlined in black charcoal. The shape, roughly a diamond, runs from the top of the paper to the bottom and from one side to the other.
The Murray makes a point about the show and, by implication, about the collection of Little Rock's AAC: Its focus is on contemporary representational art, and abstraction is shortchanged. Having said that, it's still true that this is one of the best shows of the summer, which is saying a lot, since there are many fine exhibitions on display now.
But there's less than a week to check it out -- so get over to the CVA before all of these wonderful drawings go back to Little Rock on Wednesday.
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