Cydney Payton, director of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, is set to leave the institution she essentially created out of thin air at the end of the year. The handsome Elbows & Tea Leaves -- Front Range Women in the Visual Arts (1974-2000) is the next-to-last BMoCA exhibit that will have her signature; when The Living End closes in December, Payton will step down after running the place for eight years.
It was at the regular June meeting of BMoCA's board of directors that Payton announced she planned to leave her post. "It couldn't have been a surprise to them," says Payton. "It had been coming for a long time." But forewarned or not, the board was shocked, and one member even broke down in sobs when Payton delivered the bad news.
And bad news it was, because Payton is an exceptional talent. It's going to be darn near impossible for the modest and underfunded BMoCA to find a replacement with her kind of vision and skill.
Payton arrived on the local art scene in 1984, when she took a job as an assistant at the now defunct K. Phillips Gallery in Larimer Square. Though she didn't work long for Phillips, she did learn a lot. "One day I showed up for work and the gallery had been seized for non-payment of taxes," Payton says, adding with a laugh, "It wasn't the last time I got locked out in the art world."
In 1985 Payton convinced a bank to lend her $5,000 to start her own gallery, Cydney Payton Artfolio, which she opened on 15th Street in the Highland neighborhood, then a center for small galleries. Though Payton's place was quite tiny, it quickly emerged as one of the most important exhibition venues in the area. Payton accomplished this by presenting top regional artists, including several who were just starting out but would later emerge as local masters.
In 1990 Payton established a partnership with art dealer Robin Rule to create the Payton-Rule Gallery, one of several galleries that opened that year on Wazee Street. In many ways, these galleries launched the transformation of lower downtown from a rundown industrial neighborhood into the city's premier urban district. But Payton-Rule, as well as most of the other ventures, was way ahead of its time; although the gallery presented some of the finest art shows ever seen in these parts, too-high expenses coupled with too-few clients led to the acrimonious disintegration of the partnership in 1992.
Payton must have a guardian angel, though, because just as she was facing financial failure in Denver, the foundering Boulder Art Center was looking for a new director. And it wanted Payton for her aesthetic successes.
"John Matlack was on the board, and he asked me to apply for the director's job. I'm not sure how he convinced the rest of them," muses Payton, "but I think they pulled the tarot, threw the I Ching, lit some incense and then came up with me for the job." Payton's only half-kidding: "After they hired me, I attended a ritual cleansing of the building at midnight in which chanting and incense-burning were used to ward off the evil spirits thought to inhabit it," she remembers. A BAC boardmember served as high priestess.
And at the time, the BAC needed an exorcism. It was a run-down barn of a building, dark and dirty, that only occasionally played host to interesting art shows. As I recall the place in my mind's eye, I think of the color brown.
Although Payton inherited a couple of shows from the previous regime, in the fall of '92 she launched a brave new era with a group of cutting-edge exhibits on the topic of AIDS. One of these, Body and Language, included a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of an entwined pair of male nudes, as well as Andres Serrano's notorious "Piss Christ." Mapplethorpe and Serrano were the twin bêtes noires of the religious right at the time. But leave it to Boulder: Almost no one batted an eye, although a Boulder Camera critic did call Mapplethorpe a "child molester."
From a programming standpoint, it could be said that the BAC became BMoCA with that show -- but the name change wasn't official until 1995. "The word 'museum' has helped us a lot with funding," says Payton. When she was hired, the institution's operating budget was less than $90,000; today, it's nearly half a million.
Topical shows featuring big-name art stars soon became standard fare, and Payton often hung Colorado greats side by side with their more famous colleagues. She also sprinkled the calendar with exhibits highlighting the state's best artists. Overall, Payton has presented so many significant shows that it's impossible to list them all, but standouts include important solos featuring the likes of Floyd Tunson, George Woodman and Jeffrey Keith plus groundbreaking historical exhibits -- most notably, Vanguard Art in Colorado and the current Elbows & Tea Leaves.
Today, with women playing a major role in the arts and with exhibits such as Elbows & Tea Leaves that showcase women's art fairly common, it's sometimes hard to recall that just a couple of decades ago, women were essentially excluded from art exhibitions as well as art history and art criticism.
Elbows & Tea Leaves focuses on Front Range Women in the Arts, which Payton describes as a "body politic." That's a good description, because the group was not a school or style, but rather a collective of invitees, with selection for inclusion based more on shared political philosophies than on actual art-making. The campaign for women's rights was the glue that held the group together, and though early on there was a dose of anti-modernism, no artistic philosophy connected all Front Range members. As a result, Elbows & Tea Leaves features a wide range of artistic expressions -- including quite a bit of modernism -- carried out to various levels of accomplishment.
In the catalogue that accompanies the show, founders Micaela Amato, Sally Elliott, Jaci Fisher, Fran Metzger and Helen Redman offer a joint statement on the genesis of Front Range Women, recalling the times that forged the group. The growth of the women's movement and the rise of feminism in the early 1970s had led women in the visual arts such as themselves to question the male domination of the art world: "Women's art had been ignored and discounted for too long. It was our mission in Front Range to change all of this."
They did so in several ways, including establishing courses and mounting exhibits. Since many of the founding members were associated with the University of Colorado, the campus served as the principal focus of their activities. Eventually, Front Range grew to include dozens of women, some of whom came and went over the years.
Payton has included a lot of documentary material in the form of newspaper clippings, posters and other publications that give some background on Front Range Women. But she has not done a historical survey, and though older pieces are included in the show, Payton has made no effort to retrace the group's development since the '70s. Given the limited space at BMoCA and the number of Front Range members working over the years, perhaps that was a necessary compromise -- but it's an unfortunate one nonetheless.
As you enter the West Gallery portion of Elbows & Tea Leaves, you're immediately struck by a pair of fabulous period pieces hung on the wall facing the entrance: "The Breathing Mirror," from 1972, and "Room for One More," from 1973. Both are hyper-realist figural paintings by Celeste Rehm, done in acrylic on canvas. Although Front Range wasn't associated with any particular style, several artists, Rehm included, favored meticulous realism.
Other artists using this approach are also displayed in the West Gallery, including Metzger, an early local proponent of photorealism. She's represented by three gorgeous colored-pencil drawings, including the brand-new "It's a Super Fifth for Ian," which captures her grandson's birthday party. The renowned Linda Herritt takes a very different path with her five-part untitled textile wall hanging from 1990 that's adjacent to the Metzgers. Each of the individual elements suggests both a heraldic banner and a woman's dress, and they're all magnificently done. Other notable pieces in this first section are Carol Brown's installation "120 Tondos," made in 1992-1993 of mixed media (including rubber), and Amato's incredible cast-glass bust from 1999 titled "Dodecanese Woman."
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At the start of the East Gallery, Payton has installed a pair of photorealist paintings, continuing the particular subtext that started the show. To the right is another acrylic painting by Rehm, "Owl Portrait," from 1986; to the left is Barbara Shark's 1999 oil on canvas "Building (Dexter)." And as you make your way around the square, doughnut-shaped gallery, you're literally confronted by a series of large cibachrome prints of Las Vegas strippers by photographer and videographer Vidie Lange. These works are really in your face, as the overexposed and lighted nude women are placed before a nearly black ground.
Despite the anti-modern, anti-abstract political posturing of Front Range, the membership obviously accepted several abstractionists. Among them were Virginia Maitland, represented here by two wonderful color-field abstractions from the '70s, and the little-known Priscilla Press, who contributes two incredible multi-panel abstracts painted in oil on canvas and completed in 2000. Also decidedly modern is Barbara Takenaga's installation "Heads & Torsos," in which four-by-eight sheets of plywood painted with acrylic are lined up leaning against the wall.
Since there will be one last show, Elbows & Tea Leaves is not quite Payton's BMoCA swan song. But it's not too soon to notice that she's leaving on a high note. "I think I've brought the museum as far as I could," says Payton. "It's now up to my successor to bring it to the next level."
That's one tall order.