Last October, Carol Dickinson, the director of Golden's Foothills Art Center, had a crisis on her hands: Her big spring exhibition -- the one scheduled to be on display right now -- was abruptly canceled by its organizers.
"I needed to come up with something fast, and last fall was such a dark time, I thought the easy way out was to organize an exhibit based simply on the idea of beauty," she says. "And in an art world, where three nails in a board can be said to be beautiful, the issue of beauty is so open-ended."
So Dickinson decided to orchestrate a show based on her own definition of beauty, as well as the notions of a distinguished cast of colleagues from around the area. As a result, the show she put together has a definite randomness to it, a quality that is highlighted in its title, Random Acts of Beauty.
First among the people who made selections for the show is Hugh Grant, the director of the Vance Kirkland Museum, who served as a guest curator for the decorative-arts portion of the show, subtitled, "Objects of Beauty"; this section has been installed in the Metsopoulos Gallery and in the small connecting gallery.
Though the main attraction of the Kirkland Museum is the work of deceased Denver painter Vance Kirkland, the small private institution also specializes in the decorative arts. Kirkland himself was broadly interested in objects like pottery and furniture, and he filled his Capitol Hill mansion and studio with them. Grant, a longtime friend of Kirkland's, inherited the collection after Kirkland's death in 1981. With the founding of the Kirkland Museum, he built on Kirkland's interests, amassing a magnificent collection in several categories, notably American art pottery and modern furniture.
In the first section of "Objects of Beauty," Grant introduces the viewer to a wide variety of objects, including chairs, tables, lamps and vases, each of which exemplifies one of a group of five somewhat connected decorative-art styles: arts and crafts, art nouveau, Wiener Werkstatte, art deco and modern. These styles range in date from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. By the very nature of the history of style, each one has as a key component the negation of all other styles -- even those that are closely related. Grant briefly addresses this issue in a thoughtfully written essay in the pamphlet that accompanies "Objects of Beauty" and lays out many examples in the display. His choices show how radically different these styles are from one another, even if they all qualify as part of the same movement.
Take, for instance, the arts and crafts style and the art nouveau style, both from around 1900. Arts and crafts features straight lines and simple flat surfaces, and symmetry is an important attribute. Art nouveau, on the other hand, sports sinuous lines and lively surfaces, and asymmetry is the rule. This dialectic is expressed well in "Objects of Beauty" in a number of ways, but none better than in the group of vases and other ceramics of both types made by the Van Briggle art-pottery company in Colorado Springs in the early 1900s.
There are a lot of other things worth noting in the crowded display in the Metsopoulos, but don't miss the cubistic art deco, 1920s Roseville Futura pottery and the sleek 1930s modernist aluminum-and-leatherette chair by Warren MacArthur.
In the intimate connecting gallery, Grant has put together what could be seen as a small solo show devoted to domestic designer Russel Wright, who was active from the 1930s to the 1960s. There are a couple of his wooden "Oceana" articles and a much bigger assortment of Wright-designed machine-woven tablecloths -- plus, of course, tons of his dinnerware and other ceramics lent by the Kirkland Museum. (The Kirkland has a vast collection of Wright's pieces, including rare and sought-after things like those "Oceana" wooden table accessories and those tablecloths.) Also included here are several pieces from the virtually unknown designs of Wright's wife, Mary, herself a successful designer.
At this point, the show takes a thematic turn into the Bartunek Gallery, where the painting section of "Objects of Beauty" begins, then continues into the Waelchli and Quaintance galleries. Dickinson made most of the choices here, leaving the rest to six art-world dignitaries who each chose a single artist. These dignitaries were Grant; Kathy Andrews, from the Arvada Center; Ann Daley, from the Denver Art Museum; Cydney Payton, from Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art; Sally Perisho, formerly with the Center for the Visual Arts; and Simon Zalkind, from the Singer Gallery.
The contemporary painting styles on view include conservative, neo-traditional work, abstract expressionism, contemporary realism, expressionist abstraction and neo- and post-minimalism. Whew! Even stranger than this all-over-the-map approach is the fact that it works somehow, but I'm not sure why. And again, just as they do in "Objects of Desire," these various styles aim to thoroughly discredit one another.
The first featured artist is Scott Fraser, whose work has been hung on either side of the entry, with one more piece hung at the other end of the room. Fraser lives in Longmont and was chosen for the show by Daley. His work is in the collections of many museums, including the DAM's. His specialty is hyperrealism applied to the depiction of objects in a still life. Often, even though his crisp technique is photographically accurate in its details and thus very realistic, his subjects are often irrational and surrealistic.
In "Patterns," Fraser has meticulously depicted in oil paint the enigmatic scene of three butterflies and three sheet-music paper cutouts of butterflies, arranged on a piece of wrinkled paper taped to a board. Even weirder is "Family," another oil, this one of four plaster hands on a Formica-covered kitchen counter.
Across from the Frasers is the work of another nationally famous Colorado artist who uses a contemporary representational style: Joellyn Duesberry, one of Dickinson's selections. Her style is expressionist and impressionist rather than hyperrealist. "From the Top of a Hilltown, Tuscany," a monumental dusty-toned landscape painting, is atmospheric; the details are blurry, and the piece has been expressively filled out with brush-stroke gestures.
Nearby is something completely different: the minimalist paintings of New York artist Mary Obering, selected by Zalkind. The paintings, in tempera and gold leaf, are all covered with vertical stripes or bars. Unlike many artists who wish to produce hard-edged elements, Obering doesn't mask off her paintings to achieve the effect. Instead, she creates her straight lines freehand, and they waver seductively as a result.
Obering, who used to live in Denver, has exhibited frequently around here. Before moving to New York in the early 1970s, she attended graduate school at the University of Denver. While there, she was a student of painter Bev Rosen, who is getting some deserved reappraisal right now because of her inclusion in 5 Abstract, an exhibit at Denver's MCA. This gives us a rare opportunity to compare Rosen to Obering -- and the inevitable conclusion is that there's an intimate stylistic connection between the former teacher and her former student.
Other painters selected by Dickinson in this section include two abstract-expressionists: Katherine Chang Liu, a Taiwanese-born artist who lives in California, and Doug Snow, a Utah painter.
Also in the Bartunek are a group of chairs that include one by Frank Lloyd Wright and an "Easy Edges" chair by Frank Gehry, selected by Grant.
Immediately inside the adjacent Waelchli Gallery are more Grant picks: paintings by Vance Kirkland, including a fabulous abstract-expressionist composition, "Limitless Space," done in his patented oil-and-water-on-canvas technique.
Opposite the Kirklands are two lyrical and luminescent abstracted landscapes by Arizona artist Nancy Tokar Miller, another of Dickinson's choices. Especially compelling is Miller's use of transparent acrylic stains that allow the underpainted layers to show through. Miller's inspirations were Islamic gardens in Spain and Morocco.
Next to the Millers are a couple of very different abstract landscapes. These paintings, by Tracy Felix of Manitou Springs, are examples of his signature style, in which the familiar Western landscape is transformed into a highly conventionalized and abstracted composition. Felix's trees, rocks, mountains and clouds are anything but naturalistic and instead have the quality of a deadpan cartoon. Over the last fifteen years, Felix, who was selected by Perisho, has specialized in sweeping mountain vistas, but lately he's been doing close-ups like "Into the Canyon," an oil on board.
The Waelchli Gallery opens into the Quaintance Gallery, part of which is divided between Missouri painter Roslyn Schwartz and Denver painter Trine Bumiller, both selected by Dickinson. The work of the two painters goes well together, because both lay on glazes that create shiny, almost glass-like surfaces. And both also reduce nature to meandering lines.
In the niche next to the raised stage are three post-minimalist paintings by Denver's Bruce Price, who was picked by Payton. These pattern paintings are covered in diamonds and checkerboards. All three are closely connected and done in the shocking color combination of red and green along with a host of other hues. "Glamour" -- Price is interested in the allure of glamour and its false pretense -- is a tiny acrylic on canvas, but its composition is spectacularly complicated and even wraps around the sides.
In addition to paintings, there are a group of three Richard Royal art-glass vessels in this section of the show. Royal hails from Seattle, the center of glassmaking in the United States. His Venetian-style handkerchief vase in transparent seafoam-blue glass with translucent red canes is formidable.
When I first heard about this show, I cringed. I couldn't imagine how it could possibly be anything other than a mess, an almost inevitable situation considering the too-many-chefs idea of the committee of curators. Not only that, but I knew the installation would have to be random just like the particular choices of participants -- and that's something that ordinarily really bugs me. Furthermore, the show wasn't created to make any particular point about beauty, except, perhaps, that opinions about it differ from person to person.
But it's these problems, especially the latter one, that ultimately were this crazy exhibit's unlikely trump card.
Dickinson has shown that anarchy rules art, even at the staid Foothills. Taken in context, it looks like the 21st century is beginning the way the twentieth century ended: as a kind of perpetual 1970s, in which stylistic pluralism is the watchword. How else to explain the fact that serious, committed contemporary painters are doing everything from realistic landscapes to pattern paintings? See for yourself in this genuinely thought-provoking -- if thoroughly confusing -- show.
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