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Hip in Hicksville

Detail of "Paranirvana (self-portrait)," by Lewis deSoto, inflated-cloth sculpture.

The Arvada Center is unquestionably one of the most important art venues in the state. A midsized facility with a respectable budget, the institution incorporates several theaters, numerous meeting rooms, various workshops dedicated to diverse pursuits such as ceramics and ballet, and -- of greatest interest to those in the art world -- some large and handsome galleries. The Arvada Center is similar in function to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, but the facilities are not nearly so grand as those in southern Colorado. (Though, really, what is?)

Arvada's art component is one of the largest in the metro area, encompassing the Lower Galleries -- six very spacious rooms, one of which soars to a ceiling that's nearly thirty feet high -- and the Upper Galleries, a somewhat smaller space informally sub-divided by small walls.

Currently both galleries are filled with the first exhibits to open under new gallery director and head curator Jerry Gilmore, who replaced Kathy Andrews late last year when she moved over to Metro's Center for the Visual Arts. And while some of the shows were in the planning stages during Andrews's tenure, it was Gilmore who brought them to fruition.

Gilmore has only been in Colorado since 1998, when he moved from Phoenix to take the job as director of the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, which was then known as the One West Art Center. It was Gilmore who changed the name to FCMoCA and redirected the programming to reflect the idea of a contemporary art museum. But in 2000, his time at FCMoCA was cut short by a serious car accident, which required eight months of recuperation.

In 2001, Susan Krane, who was then director of the CU Art Galleries in Boulder, asked Gilmore to take on the CU museum's exhibition-designer job. He jumped at the chance, putting him in the right place when Krane announced, just a few weeks later, that she was leaving to take over as director at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Gilmore was appointed interim director at CU, where he remained until he took on the position at the Arvada Center in 2002. "I know it sounds like a lot of moving around, but every one's been a step up," Gilmore says. "I like it here, and I'm planning to stay. I was very aggressive in applying for this position; I said to the search committee, 'It's my time to get this job.'" I guess they agreed with him.

For its entire history, the Arvada Center, despite being marooned in the conservative outer reaches of the suburbs, has showcased contemporary art, making it one of the state's art heavyweights. "Our attendance is as large as the art museums'," Gilmore says. "We have 100,000 school kids go through each year." (He's not kidding. I think there were at least that many there when I was visiting last week.) So it's no surprise that Gilmore plans to continue the Arvada Center's tradition -- with his own personal stamp on the programs, of course. "What I'm looking for is new artwork to Colorado," he explains. "New artwork by established Colorado artists and new artwork by emerging artists. I don't want people to see here what they've already seen at a gallery."

He's also putting his personal stamp on how those works are curated, reorganizing the staff into what could be called a curatorial team, where the director joins with assistants Rudi Cerri and Susan Bolton to collaborate on projects. "Rudi's off putting together the Frank Sampson show," Gilmore says, referring to this year's upcoming fall exhibit, "but I'll be involved in the hanging, and I'll be making suggestions about what should be included. If we do it together, we're all learning." (Yes, you're right: The fifty-year-old Gilmore is a former hippie.)

Gilmore is also reorganizing the exhibition spaces. He's made a start by fitting out the second-floor theater lobby with proper gallery lights, because the space has long hosted art shows but was never correctly lit, which made the work hard to see. In the Upper Galleries, Gilmore is creating two discrete galleries out of the many subdivided spaces. "There's a lot of visual noise," Gilmore says -- which is something of an understatement, considering the Upper Galleries' many oddball features, including numerous doors, an elevator, an open-walled overlook to the lower floor and a footprint with so many sides it's reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Downstairs, Gilmore is leaving the space as it is but reconceptualizing its functional qualities. He turned the first gallery into a foyer with text panels on the curved wall and left alternating galleries empty, so art fills only three of the six galleries. The idea of three and three is intellectually elegant, but, in actuality, it would have been better to leave only two galleries empty -- the two that flank the center atrium space -- and put another solo in the smaller center gallery that's adjacent to the atrium. But nothing's set in stone, and Gilmore's still in an experimental stage; the next show, the Sampson retrospective, will occupy all the galleries.

The first show, just beyond the newly dedicated foyer, is the outrageous Lewis deSoto: Paranirvana (self-portrait), a solo focusing on a notable California artist. The exhibit is made up of a single enormous sculpture installed in the atrium, which, astoundingly, is more than enough to carry it off. The twenty-six-foot-long sculpture depicts a reclining Buddha that looks, at first sight, like a carved-stone monument dating from antiquity. But it isn't: It is inflated cloth, something like one of those balloons from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. There's another difference, too, between this piece and its ancient prototype: The artist superimposed his own face onto the Buddha. It's a marvelous sight gag, but deSoto did not mean it to be disrespectful. Rather, it expresses the spirit of Buddhism and the spirit of the individual in the world. The piece is incredible and, in spite of the lighter-than-air-material out of which it was made, it is extremely substantial looking and very monumental. You've really got to see it to believe it.

To the right of the foyer is another solo, Linda Foster Leonhard: Suspended Reality. Leonhard, a Fort Collins artist Gilmore came across while running FCMoCA, uses found materials, including doll parts, to create mixed-media sculptures and installations. Her constructions are somewhat creepy, including, for example, "Sullenly Stretched and Suspended She Waits," in which long industrial gloves and a doll's head are used to pull off a grungy "Winged Victory" -- with arms, no less. There's definitely a tip of the hat to the work of late surrealist Joseph Cornell in Leonhard's pieces, especially the morbid effects she gets from orchestrating everyday junk into coherent sculptures. I do wish, though, that she'd avoid the trite house shape she uses in a handful of pieces; it has really worn out its welcome.

Heading toward the back, viewers will need to pass through the empty gallery (which should, as far as I'm concerned, be fitted out with a show) in order to get to Dismas Rotta: Dizplayed, Dizcover, Dizclosure, the last of the three solos in the Lower Galleries. Rotta is a Boulder artist whom Gilmore met while running the CU Art Galleries. The Rotta show includes prints, mixed-media collages and an installation featuring a painting of a diabolical clown's head with found objects -- dominated by toy airplanes -- mounted on the wall next to it.

In the Upper Galleries, at the top of the grand staircase off the main entry lobby, is Facing Off: Alternative Portraits, a show put together by curatorial assistant Bolton -- though Gilmore confesses he did make a suggestion or two, such as the inclusion of Peru's Luis Castellanos Jara. As Gilmore says, this space is terrible for art shows, and smaller things, such as the wonderful photos by Andrea Modica from Manitou Springs and the equally diminutive cyanotypes by Annie Lopez of Phoenix, tend to get lost among the windows and hallways. Paintings can hold their own against the architectural features -- but just barely. The works of Denver's Sharon Brown manage to do just that; she used bold color and striking imagery in her "Damage Series" paintings, a grid of individual panels, most of which depict very tough-looking guys. (They look like they could do some damage, but I think Brown's title implies that they're the ones who are damaged). The small easel-sized canvases are done in a stilted commercial illustrator's style that seems very new pop.

Among the standouts in Facing Off are the three idiosyncratic surrealist portraits by Matt O'Neill, one of the region's best painters. Though he's in his forties, O'Neill has been able to keep up his enfant terrible reputation thanks to off-the-wall works like those on view in this show. "Terri," an oil on linen, is presumably meant to be a portrait of O'Neill's wife. In a Picassoid gesture, the head of the figure was turned into an abstract shape, and the eyes are placed one above another. On top of the portrait, O'Neill painted 1940s-style comics. O'Neill originally did "Terri" and two others of the same type back in 1999, but he partly repainted them earlier this year.

The Arvada Center has always been one of the places to see contemporary art in Colorado, and, with Gilmore now at the helm, that looks like something that's not likely to change anytime soon.


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