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Looking Back

"Redwoods" by Frank Vavra, oil on Masonite.

At the entry to the complex of buildings that make up the Lakewood Heritage Center is the Visitors Center, a sleek-looking neo-modern -- or would that be neo-moderne? -- structure. Designed by Oz Architecture, a firm with offices in Denver and Boulder, it was completed in 2002 and includes a gift shop, classroom facilities, a few offices and two capacious galleries.

One of the galleries is filled with objects relevant to Lakewood's history, including a carriage, a car and some furniture from the Belmar Estate, Helen Bonfils Stanton's mansion that once stood nearby. The other, the Radius Gallery, is meant for temporary exhibits that have an historical bent -- such as the one there currently, Revealing the Muse, an economical retrospective of the dean of Colorado modern art, the late Vance Kirkland. At the moment there's another exhibit, Colorado Innovators, installed in the entry corridor, featuring more than a score of the state's artists.

Hugh Grant, founder and director of Denver's Kirkland Museum, curated both Revealing the Muse and Colorado Innovators using pieces from the museum's impressive permanent collection, which includes not just paintings by Kirkland himself, but work by other Colorado artists and an extensive selection of such decorative arts as furniture, pottery and metal works.

Since Colorado Innovators is in the entry, it makes sense to begin there. The show is fairly small, with work falling into three distinct categories -- sculptures, functional ceramics and paintings -- and includes a nice survey of mid-twentieth century artists working in Denver. In the course of my duties I've seen a lot of paintings from this era by local artists, but I've never seen any of these particular works. Grant points out that most of the objects in the shows at the LHC have either never before been exhibited or haven't been seen in public in living memory.

Of particular note is "Redwoods," an oil on Masonite by Frank Vavra, a painter whose career began when he was studying in France in the 1920s. For most of his career Vavra was an impressionist representational painter, but in the 1950s he increasingly turned to modernism. "Redwoods" is a thoroughly abstract, non-objective painting, with vertical bars in red, purple and black placed on a dark green field.

Also of interest are the geometric figural abstractions by Edward Marecak and William Sanderson, both in oil on canvas. Marecak's "Death and the Maiden" is covered with squares, rectangles and triangles that convey a night scene in a village. In Sanderson's "Knights in Armor," the artist cuts up images of medieval knights to create hard-edged forms in bright colors set against a black ground.

Like the paintings, the sculptures include works from a couple of generations ago, including pieces by Edgar Britton and William Joseph, two of the most famous artists of that period. There are also works by a handful of contemporary sculptors, among them Martha Daniels, Charles Parson and Robert LeDonne. The sculptures are tiny and located in showcases alongside the ceramics.

Functional ceramics are a special collecting focus for the Kirkland Museum. Displayed here are a nice selection of Van Briggle pots from the early twentieth century, part of a 1980s tea set by Donna Marecak -- as well as an incredible 1970s mosaic coffee table by her -- and some 1940s Jetsons-style pieces by Tabor Utley.

Although the entry space is large enough, and made to seem even larger by the soaring ceiling, it doesn't provide much exhibition space, so Colorado Innovators is crammed in around the edges. The Radius Gallery (where Revealing the Muse is on display) is enormous, however, and that creates another kind of challenge for the Kirkland solo. The Oz designers were obviously thinking about exhibits of carriages, cars and furniture -- not old paintings, which tend to be on the small side. Using temporary walls would have solved the problem and also helped bring down the scale of the space. Instead, to deal with the enormous wall capacity, Grant hung many of the paintings so that they are stacked two high, and I think that makes the show look too crowded.

The first group of Kirkland paintings dates mostly from the 1930s, the perfect time period, because the artist moved to Denver from Ohio in 1929 to found the School of Art at the University of Denver. These paintings, which Grant refers to as "designed realism," reflects Kirkland's early interest in surrealism and its antecedent, la scuola metafisica, the style made famous by Giorgio de Chirico. "Ruins of Central City," a 1935 oil on canvas, is the clearest case in point on this score.

It could be convincingly argued that surrealism was Kirkland's most important influence, as evidenced not only in this first section and the second, which is devoted to the work of the next decade, but almost to the end of his career. The paintings from the 1940s often feature twisted pieces of deadwood that Kirkland discovered on his hiking trips in the mountains; they look like abstractions, but they are not. The '50s surrealist paintings, on the other hand, are definitely abstract, as shown in 1955's aptly titled "Abstraction From Root Forms," in oil on linen. Like some other Kirkland paintings, this one looks contemporary.

One of Kirkland's technical innovations was the temporary mixing of oil paint and water, a concoction that was poured onto the surface of his pieces. Paper towels then absorbed the water, and the oil left its mark. As far as I'm concerned, these paintings from the late '50s and into the '60s represent Kirkland's greatest accomplishments. This show includes several first-rate examples, including 1957's "Landscape With Color Space" and "Black Lines With Orange, Blue & Yellow" from 1959.

Finally, there are Kirkland's late op-art-style paintings, and some -- though not all -- of these are the only pieces Kirkland did that really defy ready comparisons to surrealism. Like the oil and water paintings, the dot paintings represent a technical innovation. Kirkland painted them using wooden dowels of various sizes; pigment was applied to the ends, and the paint then transferred to the painting's surface.

Both the small Colorado Innovators and the larger Revealing the Muse demonstrate that artists have been doing sophisticated art around here for decades. And that alone makes the trip to Belmar Park worthwhile.


It was back in the mid-1990s, when times were good in Lakewood, that the city council enabled the establishment of the Lakewood Heritage Center: a Twentieth Century Museum. The center, which opened in 2000, covers fifteen acres just southwest of the intersection of Wadsworth Boulevard and Alameda Avenue. It's an interesting place based on an even more interesting idea: gathering together small historic buildings and placing them together. Among the rescued buildings are an old farmhouse, a school and Gil & Ethel's barbershop and hair salon. There are plans to bring in still more.

But these plans, like so many others in Lakewood, have been put on hold because of the city's major fiscal crisis. To save money, there's been talk of mothballing the city's pools and recreation centers, eliminating park maintenance and turning off the streetlights, among a raft of other draconian measures. Clearly, Lakewood has been tremendously mismanaged, and though I'm not going to point any fingers, the city manager is Mike Rock.

Officially a resident of Westcliffe (that's right, he doesn't even live in the town), Rock became a minor celebrity in the art world when he personally censored a show at the Lakewood Cultural Center (Artbeat, March 3). But Rock's real claim to fame has been the sweetheart financial deals he's made, not only for himself -- he makes a lot more than any other city employee in Lakewood, even the mayor -- but also for the likes of Wal-Mart. In the case of Wal-Mart, Rock put a cap on the sales taxes that the mega-retailer is expected to pay. More than anything else, these big-money deals are at the root of the city's revenue problems.

I bring this up because of the effect that the budget shortfalls have had on programming at the Lakewood Heritage Center. Although Revealing the Muse and Colorado Innovators were originally meant to run only through the summer, their schedules were extended to also encompass fall and winter, with a closing date in February.

The Kirkland Museum itself does not have the facilities for changing exhibitions, since the galleries there are given over to displays of its considerable holdings in fine and decorative art. Conveniently, the Lakewood Heritage Center is looking for exhibits to fill its spaces. So I'd suggest that these two shows at the center be the first in a series that look at the various aspects of the Kirkland's collection. In future exhibits, I'd like to see Grant spotlight other types of pieces: I can envision a stunning show of modernist chairs, for instance, one on Colorado ceramics, one on landscapes, one of abstracts, and so on. These shows would be edifying for the metro area's exhibition-going community and for the Kirkland, since it would lend clarity to its collecting goals. And it certainly looks like the Lakewood Heritage Center has the room for them.

I made a similar suggestion a few years ago when Grant presented a show at the Colorado History Museum, but nothing came of it. Although Grant said he liked the idea, the CHM didn't -- which is a shame, since such a collaboration could have rescued that place from the obscurity it has somehow achieved, despite its location in the Civic Center.

I'm not sure, but I think such Kirkland Museum-sponsored shows could be done relatively cheaply. Grant would make his selections, and then museum staffers would load pieces on trucks and take them to the center. Although I can't resist pointing out how much easier it would have been if the CHM -- which is only a few blocks away from the Kirkland -- had gone for the idea, bringing the Kirkland to Lakewood is also a concept worth considering.