For nearly twenty years, the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute has chosen a handful of writers, dancers, visual artists and others to receive "associateships"--essentially $1,000 stipends. Since the institute's founding in 1976, more than 100 individuals--not all of them women--have been selected. And from these awards has emerged an annual art exhibit showcasing the work of the winners in the visual-arts category.

Unfortunately, the institute's choices over the years have been--to put it gently--idiosyncratic. In fact, the RMWI's annual show is typically one of the genuine low points of the art calendar. That sad fact was really brought home last year when the Arvada Center presented a retrospective of the institute's chosen artists. And earlier this year, the institute suffered what was perhaps the greatest blow to its integrity--it received a Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts from Denver mayor Wellington Webb.

But if the latest RMWI show at the University of Denver's Shwayder Gallery is any indication, things are looking up. The exhibit has its problems--especially relating to the unfortunate presentation necessitated by the awkward space in the Shwayder--but it's not an artistic embarrassment in the style of its predecessors.

This year's visual-arts winners include emerging traditional painter Heather Delzell and two firmly established contemporary artists: Martha Daniels, the ceramic sculptor extraordinaire, and Virginia Folkestad, a guiding light among local installation artists.

Delzell is a serious painter who is represented by nearly a score of her paintings of people--especially women--in mundane settings. Many, like "Her Husband's Crown," evoke the past. The title of the painting is more self-consciously feminist than the painting itself, which portrays a crowded 1930s hat shop and reveals Delzell's nostalgia for the old social order. Also harking back to the Thirties is the thoroughly charming "He Wrote in the Ground," which conveys a sense of drama through the depiction of a group of people around a table. The dense and complicated composition is expertly handled.

But many of Delzell's paintings don't succeed. In "Deborah in a Purple Dress," the failure of the foreshortening leads to an unintentional disfigurement of the subject. Her head is too small, her feet too big. We're not drawn into the illusion of a three-dimensional space at all.

Daniels's sculptural pieces are more consistently strong. "Diana and Actaeon, a Clay and Bronze Environment" is not a single piece as the title suggests, but actually a miniature survey of Daniels's work of the last five years. These widely disparate pieces highlight a variety of artistic currents in her work. There's the influence of modernism, especially abstract-expressionist sculpture. There's also heroic Roman and Italian sculpture. And there's Chinese art.

Merging these various traditions would seem to be an impossible recipe for artistic success--but it turns out to make perfect sense in Daniels's hands. This is easily seen in the new pieces, notably the marvelous "Metropolis" pots and the spectacular "Diana Robot" and "Actaeon Robot," all of which manage to be old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.

In a related vein (though in this case it's the present that suggests the future), Folkestad revisits her usual topic, the nature of domestic life. In her installation "Equal Terms," which conveys an image of a house, walls are framed with stock lumber that suggests enclosure but doesn't impose it--the sides of the house are left open except where thin-cast latex windows and a door hang from the skeletal structure. The installation is plumbed with black PVC pipe that takes water from an aquarium and delivers it to a funnel planted with living grass at the center of the piece. In this way, Folkestad addresses the suburbs, the environment, the nature of existence and the transformation of waste along with a laundry list of other current social issues.

Folkestad continues to make installation art look easy--and she proves there's no trick to doing it. All she did on "Equal Terms" was to meticulously construct an intelligent, well-crafted and beautiful work of art.

One would hope that the credible selections for this year's RMWI show mark a new era for the annual event. If nothing else, the current exhibit (unlike past ones) illustrates that the worthy goal of increasing awareness of women in the arts need not necessarily mean a sacrifice in artistic standards.


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