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Due South

A view of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center from Monument Valley Park.

Last week I described some of the hideous proposals being put forward at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center as part of its five-year expansion plan.

The plans were suggested by the Minneapolis-based architectural firm of Hammel, Green and Abramson (is there such a thing as architectural malpractice?) and approved by a committee made up of, among others, Center director David Turner, deputy director/director of development Carolyn Moershel and some members of the board of trustees -- notably former president Diane Sikes -- and would mean the aesthetic destruction of this outstanding building, a 1936 masterpiece by John Gaw Meem.

One of the dumbest ideas to emerge from the group was a proposal to smack a 50,000-square-foot addition onto the front of the building. But there's more, as I have recently learned.

The suggested re-do was announced at a public meeting a few weeks ago, and a pamphlet was distributed outlining some of the details. It is a triumph of disingenuousness. It begins by heralding the well-recognized architectural quality of the Meem building and then goes on to describe how it will be butchered, both inside and outside.

Even the worst invectives are insufficient to describe what the committee has in mind for the theater, a world-class space that has miraculously remained in its nearly original condition all these years. To give you an idea of how good the theater is, comparing it to New York City's contemporaneous Radio City Music Hall doesn't diminish it one bit. Rather than restore the theater, as was the happy fate of Radio City a couple of years ago, the group at the Fine Arts Center wants to "refurnish" it. I guess its high quality was just a pesky and irrelevant detail readily dismissed during the process.

The pamphlet also explains why the best and most obvious location for an addition -- the sculpture garden on the east side of the building, on Cascade Avenue -- was discarded as an option. It turns out that the group, no doubt with a nudge from the hapless but trendy HGA, had made preservation of the sculpture garden an important priority. It's been identified as "valuable green space," to use the new-urbanist vocabulary that is littered throughout the pamphlet.

To be honest, I'm a fan of both gardens and sculptures, so I'm particularly fond of sculpture gardens. But in this case, the sculpture garden is no bigger than a residential front lawn. Not to mention that on the other side of the Fine Arts Center is Monument Valley Park and its acres of greenery. Is it just my imagination, or are the anti-intellectuals of new urbanism at the bottom of every bad idea in architecture and planning nowadays?

At the public meeting, Turner said the plans are still open to change. That's the same thing he told me back in January, but, annoyingly, they've remained the same.

The wrongheaded crew at the Fine Arts Center, along with their intellectual equals from HGA, have already spent over two years working on their goofball proposals. It's hard to believe that in all that time, they've come up with so little of value. On the other hand, it's amazing how far wrong they went so quickly.


Interestingly, the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Cultural Arts Center also wants to expand. But in this case, there are no plans to destroy the building where it is housed. Instead the Jewish Community Center's ugly metal tennis house, visible from Leetsdale Drive, is to be scrapped to make room for a new facility. Demolition of this eyesore would represent a service to the community, even if the JCC never gets around to building anything on the spot.

Because the plans are at least five years off, however, we'll have to be satisfied with the Singer's modest space upstairs from the Shwayder Theater. Despite space limitations and the religious slant of the sponsoring institution, the Singer hosts some of Denver's most sophisticated contemporary art shows, thanks -- in the last couple of years anyway -- to gallery director Simon Zalkind.

Once a year, though, Zalkind's job becomes more difficult, when he is asked to come up not only with a creditable contemporary art show but with one that can be thematically coordinated with a larger series of events, including concerts, films and lectures. In years past, these annual series have covered topics such as the Holocaust and the Red Scare.

This year's theme is Latin American Jews. Now, creating a show on this topic must have been a tall order, because the Latin American and Jewish worlds seem almost mutually exclusive. But that's what makes the glittering Entremundos (Between Worlds): Jewish Artists of Latin America all the more remarkable. "I tried not to agonize too much over it early on," says Zalkind. "But I couldn't help posing questions to myself such as, 'In what sense should the artists be Jewish?' 'In what sense should they be Latin American?' 'In what sense both Jewish and Latin American?'"

Although he asked these questions, Zalkind decided in the end not to answer them. "I simply avoided needing to solidify my ideas before I began choosing the work for the show, and, in fact, the only one I knew of beforehand was Ricardo [Mazal]," he says. "I felt that Ricardo would lead me to others who, in turn, would lead me to still others, and the artists I needed would line up like falling dominoes. And that's what happened."

Mazal, a New York-based Mexican artist, is well known in Denver. He has been the subject of several solo shows in the last few years at the Rule Gallery, which represents him.

There are two large, square Mazal abstract paintings on the back wall at Singer. They are the first things that viewers will see when they enter. On the left is "Fragments in White"; to the right is "Fragments in Red." Both are painted in oil on linen, and both take up the same compositional concerns, essentially layered abstractions in which gestural linear networks of lines are placed over automatist smudges of color. Looking at the Mazal paintings, it's not surprising to learn that he was trained in architecture and has a high regard for the work of Mondrian.

One of the artists Mazal suggested to Zalkind was another Mexican, Victor Pimstein, whose work hangs on the adjacent wall. At first glance, the Pimsteins look like color-field abstractions, but Zalkind points out that they are actually enlarged details from Vermeer paintings.

Elena Climent, also from Mexico, uses representational imagery in her work, self-consciously melding Judaism and Hispanic culture. "Table With Angel," an oil on canvas from 1996, is crowded with references to Climent's life, and it is rendered in a stilted and quirky realistic style.

In his large expressionist paintings, Peru's Moico Yaker, who studied art in London and Paris, equates the Jewish Diaspora with the Spanish conquest of the Indians by combining Jewish and Indian symbols.

Another interesting artist who, like Yaker, responds to expressionism is José Gurvich, a Lithuanian-born painter who died in 1974. Unlike most of the other artists in the show, who were born in Latin America after World War II, Gurvich wound up Uruguay because he was fleeing the Holocaust. So, his work is not so much about the Diaspora as it is literally of the Diaspora. In the 1940s, Gurvich studied at the School of the Fine Arts in Montevideo and later at the Taller Torres-García with Uruguay's most important modern artist, Joaquin Torres-García, who became the younger artist's mentor. Another clear influence on Gurvich, seen in the depictions of rabbis playing violins included in a couple of the paintings, is that of modern Russian/French master Marc Chagall.

Entremundos also includes a handful of photographers, the most interesting of whom is Grete Stern, another refugee of the Holocaust. Born in Germany in 1904, Stern went to Argentina in the late 1930s. She died in 1998. The pieces on display include work done in Germany in the 1930s and in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. Both bodies of work are marked by Stern's Bauhaus training and will remind many of the work of Bauhaus master Herbert Bayer, who may have been among her teachers at the German art school. After leaving the Bauhaus, Stern and fellow Bauhaus artist Ellen Auerbach opened an advertising agency in Berlin called Ringl & Pit. Sadly, the enterprising Jewish girls had a very limited future in 1930s Nazi Germany. Luckily Stern fled to Argentina, and Auerbach, who is still living, escaped to New York.

There's one obvious conclusion that can be drawn from this show: Just as in this country, Jewish artists in Latin America participate fully in the broad secular currents of contemporary art.