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Manuel Neri and Kim Dickey:Cold Pastoral

"Mujer Pegada No. 7," by Manuel Neri, bronze.

The Denver Art Museum's still-new Frederic C. Hamilton Building has impacted the city — and the museum itself — in a wide range of ways, some good, some not so good. On the plus side is the unbelievable publicity the building has generated. The Daniel Libeskind-designed wing is estimated to have cost $110 million to construct, with $62.5 million of that coming from the citizens. And, boy, considering all the free advertising for Denver, have we gotten our money's worth or what?

Not only has the Hamilton been pumped — up or down, depending on who was reviewing — but the Mile High City was, too, with just about every major newspaper and magazine in the country doing major pieces on the building and the town. That's not to mention magazines around the world and all that TV coverage. In fact, I was down at Acoma Plaza one day, and a television crew from Italy was set up in front of the Mark di Suvero sculpture!

An added bonus of the building having come on line has been its effect on the rest of the Denver art world. There has never been a season like 2006-2007. It should be winding up right now, but it simply refuses to stop. Here it is the week after Memorial Day, and shows that you'd expect to see in the fall — when the most important slots are being filled — are running or set to open. I'm thinking of the Homare Ikeda show at Sandy Carson and the Roland Bernier solo coming up at Walker Fine Art, among others.

Another case in point is Manuel Neri, at Robischon Gallery, a spectacular presentation filled with breathtaking sculptures and works on paper by this well-known contemporary master. One interesting fact about Neri, which was pointed out by Debra Demosthenes, is that he is that rare bird who is both a part of the current contemporary art scene and has a place in art history. Neri came of age as part of the 1960s funk movement in California and slowly transformed his work by adding a classical aesthetic that he picked up during frequent trips to Italy.

The exhibit is dominated by large-scale sculptures, including a handful of monumental works in plaster. These gorgeous plasters set me to wondering not only how they got to Denver in one piece, but how very difficult they must have been to install once they arrived.

Two of the largest sculptures are from Neri's "Arcos de Geso" series, in which a highly abstracted figure is partly emerging from a wall that is itself a part of the sculpture, as is a small portion of floor. Neri's surfaces are scabrous, with deep gauges offset by fairly smooth and flat areas. Despite all the heavy-duty expressiveness of the surfaces and the simplification of the figure's form, there's no question that the subject is a nude woman. These sculptures, which are partly painted in a creamy light yellow, have a tremendous presence and could easily be mistaken for architectural bas-relief panels from some Mediterranean palace of yore.

Closely related to the "Arcos de Geso" sculptures are two pieces from the similarly conceived "Mujer Pegada" series, though these are done in bronze, not plaster. Neri takes an interesting approach here in terms of patination, using not only tried-and-true patinas, like golden brown, but also oil paints, which created the cobalt-blue swath across the center of "Mujer Pegada No. 7." Partly because of its eye-dazzling palette, the piece manages to take center stage in a room full of dramatic leads.

There are also some freestanding pieces featured, such as the pair from the "Catun" series, one in plaster and one in bronze, and the bronze "Untitled," which is free-kneeling. Throughout the four spaces in the front part of Robischon are Neri's exquisite works on paper. These watercolor and charcoal pieces, some of which are studies for the sculptures, perfectly translate into two dimensions his three-dimensional sensibility.

In the Viewing Room, Robischon is presenting a tight group show. On the right, wrapping around the niche, are fifteen C-print photos by Bill Armstrong in a rainbow of colors depicting a blurry figure in some kind of lyrical pose. The reduction of the figure to a cluster of abstracted shapes that merely hint at the natural form, along with the strong monochrome colors used for the backgrounds, make these Armstrong photos the perfect companions for the Neris up front. That's also true of the billboard-sized neo-expressionist oil-on-canvas paintings of nudes by Stefan Kleinschuster, from his "Rubric" series. Especially nice in relation to the Neris are the densely and enthusiastically applied painterly surfaces achieved by Kleinschuster. This bold method of painting is also reflected in his color choices, with the artist taking up some unlikely shades, like orange and blue, to come up with his vaguely naturalistic flesh tones.

Manuel Neri — and its complement of chasers in the Viewing Room — is a spectacular show, and one of the highlights of this extremely rich visual-art season. So, too, is Kim Dickey: Cold Pastoral, at Rule Gallery. Dickey, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has turned this solo into a single coherent installation made up of large-format color photos, ceramic sculptures and mirrored tiles that all refer to formal gardens.

Most of the photos, which are carried out in light jet prints, have been hung at wide intervals on the gallery's long unbroken south wall. They depict the historic French gardens at Versailles, Villandry and Fontainebleau, which are all defined by carefully pruned boxwood hedges whose lines delimit a set of symmetrical geometric spaces. The six large photos define the topic of the installation as mannered cultivation.

Toward the back of the gallery, the space appears to go on and on, because Dickey has lined the back wall with the mirrored tiles. Not only do the tiles serve as a visual fool-the-eye, but they also refer back to her topic in a tip of the hat to the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles Palace.

Evenly spaced between the photos and running along a pair of imaginary lines are a series of ceramic sculptures based on potted topiary plants, the kind of thing seen in the photos. Several of these have an integral concrete pedestal that works well with the terra cotta, stoneware or porcelain plants placed on top of them. These topiary sculptures, such as "Untrodden weed" and "Leaf-fringed legend," were glazed in a gorgeous creamy color that complements the subtle whitish tones of the concrete bases. The light-colored works look just right with the two floor-bound ones, which are based on flowering bushes and done in a watery Japanesque green.

Dickey's interest in using formal gardens as a point of departure for her conceptual installation relates closely to the work of her colleague, Scott Chamberlin, who also teaches at CU. He finds inspiration for his ceramic sculptures, as she does, in the trees and bushes found in European gardens, though his favorites are in Portugal instead of France. That said, Dickey's style is very different from Chamberlin's, though some of her matte glazes, including that creamy white, are clearly closely associated with the glazes he's developed over the years.

On a final note, the installation's title, "Cold Pastoral," seems inordinately apt. The rigidity of the formal landscape plans revealed in the photos and the actual hardness of the fired clay plant sculptures — not to mention the iciness of the silvery mirrors — really does make the Rule Gallery feel cold, even on a hot summer afternoon.


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