Home on the Range
Some of the best art shows around are those unwieldy wide-ranging group presentations -- though in truth, solos are the heart of the art-show business. What makes a group show interesting is its inconsistency and its multiplicity of visions, which, of course, are just the opposite strengths of a solo, those being consistency and singularity.
The thing I like most about group shows is how economical they are: All in one place, the work of dozens can be seen. Plus, there are always artists included that I've never heard of, and I love discovering new players.
The end of the 2003-2004 season last month featured two great group endeavors, sin Colorado, scene Colorado, at the Denver Art Museum, and Repeat Offenders, at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Both shows featured the efforts of dozens of important artists from the area, including those with big reputations and those who were just starting to establish theirs.
The 2004-2005 season begins the same way the old one ended -- with two must-see group exhibits. Each lays out different aspects of the contemporary art world on the Front Range, just as the DAM and Mizel shows did, which makes these latest exhibits the perfect topics to discuss now, just as things are getting under way.
First up is Open Press LTD: A 15-Year Anniversary, which celebrates the work of the Denver-based fine-art printmaker. The visually rich exhibit is on view at the Gallery of Contemporary Art on the campus of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Gerry Riggs, the GCA's longtime director, organized the exhibit in collaboration with Mark Lunning. Open Press is Lunning's baby, his one-man band, so to speak, where he conducts and plays all the instruments.
Owing to the success of Open Press, Lunning is well known in Denver's art circles. He was born here in 1961 and attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley in the 1980s, earning a BFA in drawing and art history. While at UNC, Lunning studied printmaking with Korean artist Hine Chin and with respected Colorado printmaker Lydia Rule.
After he graduated, Lunning moved back to Denver and took a job as an instrument man on a land-survey crew. He also continued creating artwork, and he was represented by the now-closed Inkfish Gallery and was a member of Pirate. "It was like I had two full-time jobs -- one with the survey crew and the other as an artist," Lunning remembers, "so I came up with the idea of starting Open Press. I talked with a lot of my artist friends to see if they would use a facility if there were one around, and a lot of them said they would.
"I signed the lease for my first space in December of 1988," he continues, "but I didn't do the first piece until January of 1989." So technically, 2004 is Open Press's sixteenth birthday, but as the show's subtitle indicates, it's been fifteen years since print production began there.
Originally, Open Press was at 1936 Market Street, in the space behind the Grant Gallery. It was the first of a series of lower downtown locations for the print shop before it landed in its current spot on the lower level of a historic red brick building at 40 West Bayaud Avenue, just off South Broadway.
Appropriately enough, one of the first pieces in the show, hanging in the entry, is the very first print that was done at Open Press, "First and Second Print." It was created by Lunning and Dale Chisman using red ink and a piece of wood found on the floor of the then-new facility. It was a modest start, surely, but for whatever reason, the print still looks good. Despite the use of "First and Second Print" to more or less launch the show, the rest of the pieces are not arranged chronologically. Instead, the works of individual artists have been hung together, giving each a mini-survey. The one exception is Randy Hughes, whose three pieces are scattered around. The best of those, also hanging in the entry, is "Cancelled Landscape Series," a breathtakingly grand woodcut that's the size of a mural.
In the main space, which is divided into a series of rooms, the show continues with some Homare Ikeda works, including a quartet of monotypes and a trio of linocuts, all of which exemplify the artist's idiosyncratic organic abstractions. The centerpiece is the huge monotype "Untitled," which juxtaposes a billowy golden-brown form at the top with a dark-gray bar that runs across the bottom.
Just beyond the Ikedas, there's a section devoted to Audra Knutson's quirky linocuts of figures and animals that look like they're from surrealistic storybooks. Knutson is an emerging artist, and she's obviously influenced by the work of Kiki Smith.
More abstract, though clearly grounded in representational images, are several handsome monotypes by Joe Higgins. I especially liked the elegant composition and minimalist sensibility of "Grievers," which reminds me of an updated version of a Puvis de Chavannes. I guess it's the exaggerated horizontal format and the group of iconic figures clustered on the left side.
In the back corner is a group of prints by Doris Laughton, including some from her "Sex, Lies and Monotypes" series of the mid-'90s, which are done in monotype collages. Several of her more recent "Splat" series monoprints are also featured. Adjacent to the Laughtons are signature abstract-expressionist pieces by Chisman, who, having worked with Lunning on Open Press's first efforts, is part of the history of the place. These are among the most beautiful prints in the show and are essentially nothing other than Chisman paintings on paper instead of canvas.
There are so many worthwhile things in the exhibit that it's impossible to even mention all the standouts, let alone to account for every artist who's been included. Don't miss the fanatically detailed renderings of fish by Geoffrey Ridge, or the feathery landscapes by Joellyn Duesberry, including a wonderful floor screen. Also compelling are the sublime color-field abstractions by Colorado masters David Yust and Mark Dickson.
Suffice it to say, there are enough reasons to make the arduous trip to Colorado Springs to catch Open Press LTD: A 15-Year Retrospective at CGA. It does seem strange, however -- and a little telling -- that we have to travel out of town to celebrate this Denver institution.
The other intriguing group presentation on display has the straightforward title of Group Show 2, and it's at Studio Aiello, north of downtown. As the title indicates, this is the second in a series; the first was the gallery's grand opening two years ago.
Group Show 2 is a juried event; Kathy Andrews, director of the Center for Visual Art, is the sole juror. Andrews has crafted a wide-ranging exhibit that includes almost every medium imaginable. And unlike many juried shows, it has a number of established artists along with the expected neophytes. The explanation? The top prizes were future exhibition slots at Studio Aiello. The three winners are: Tsehai Johnson for 3-D media, Mark Brasuell for 2-D media, and Tim Berg for new media.
The exhibit handsomely fills all three of the large galleries that make up Studio Aiello. As viewers enter the first space, they can't help but notice Morgan Barnes's totemic sculpture, "Evolution of Form & Concept #2." The kinetic metal sculpture, which has been quirkily patinated with rusted polka dots, is a rocking stele that chimes when it moves. It's really great and fairly original. The form is deadly serious, but the dots and the sounds make it pretty funny, too.
Another notable thing in this first section is Jeff Strahl's "Brussels," a C-print that has a double image of a woman confined in an art nouveau border. The colors -- the yellow flowers against the purple-pink background -- and the repetitive composition mark the piece as an example of neo-pop, which is all the rage right now. It really does look very contemporary.
Around the corner is another sharp work with a thoroughly contemporary look: Susan Berkley's "Safety Zone," a constructivist painting with a modulated yellow bar running across a white field. The composition is utterly simple, but the brushwork and the revealed under-painting are positively baroque. (Studio Aiello is a huge place, so it's strange that this large painting has been crammed into the corridor while smaller pieces that aren't nearly as good are given lots of room to breathe.)
In the center gallery, there are two eye-popping installations placed just inside the entry. On the floor is Chris Walla's "Nothing to Say," a pile of wood and plaster shapes that look like the caption bubbles used in comic strips. (Walla is one of the only artists in the show who is not from Colorado.) The pieces are painted with all-over patterns and have no words on them, referring back to the title. On the wall that runs down the center of the room is award-winner Johnson's "Field #2," made of porcelain and feathers. Johnson has cast shapes that are evocative of penises and then trimmed them with feathers, which makes the shapes even more obscene-looking. Around the corner is a pair of enormous black, gray and white abstract paintings by the second award-winner, Brasuell.
Finally, the last section includes the work of two emerging artists, Justin Simoni and Agnes Kunz Vigil, both of whom are doing photography, but each to very different ends. Simoni's "Pins, Seattle" is a process piece that documents tiny straight-pin sculptures that he erected on a trip from Denver to Seattle. Ready or not, Simoni and many of his fellow young artists are out to prove that the '70s are back with a vengeance. Vigil's color photos of goldfish and eggshells are a lot more poetic, but they look '70s, too. Right at the end of the show is the last of the award-winners' pieces: Berg's loop of a split screen, with a skeet launcher on one side and a skeet catcher on the other.
Group Show 2 is uneven, but it's surprisingly good-looking, considering that it's juried. And, like the Open Press event, it provides a chance to take in the recent creations of some of the area's most interesting artists -- in one fell swoop.
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