Master Class

"Spiral II," by Jackie Greber, acrylic and light sculpture.

Even before Cydney Payton formally joined the Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art at the beginning of this year, she'd told me about her plan to initiate a series of ongoing exhibits dedicated to Colorado artists. Now that she's been ensconced at the institution for several months, she's putting that plan into effect. The first show of the series is White Light: The Early Work of Jackie Greber.

"There are so many significant artists in the area, and there have been too few exhibition opportunities for them, especially in the museum world," Payton says. "I think it's important for the community that we do these kinds of shows."

This sensitive and intelligent approach isn't new for Payton: She did the same thing at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, which she ran for nearly a decade, seamlessly integrating the work of locals with nationally known, and even internationally known, artists. She also featured shows dedicated exclusively to the artists from our region.

It was a formula for success at BMoCA, and she's smart to continue the practice now that she's running the MCA (formerly known by the clunky abbreviation MoCA/D; the change was yet another Payton-initiated improvement).

Sculptor Jackie Greber was selected as the first local master to be feted in a Payton-organized solo at the MCA. "Jackie and I selected the pieces together about six months ago or so," recalls Payton. "But about three months ago, she became seriously ill." White Light opened on May 18, two days after Greber died. "I really wish she could have lived to see the opening."

Greber, who was born in 1935, began to make art in the 1960s while living in Southern California. She had her studio in Venice, then a hotbed for West Coast vanguard art. A friend, neighbor and fellow traveler in the realm of illusionistic abstraction was the renowned Robert Irwin, whom Greber refers to as "Bob" in her artist's statement prepared for the MCA show.

In the 1970s, Greber got interested in feminist art, which was emerging as a force in the realm of contemporary art, thus becoming one of the movement's pioneers, specifically with regard to her exploration of vaginal imagery.

In 1982, already an established artist, she moved to Lakewood and began exhibiting. And despite the show's subtitle, which indicates that it will feature early work, all the pieces were created after Greber moved to our region.

For some longtime denizens of the Denver art world, Greber's work is still very well known, though she didn't exhibit much during the last decade, especially after her gallery representative, Inkfish, shut down in the mid-'90s. In the '80s, however, her acrylic sculptures were widely exhibited, not just at Inkfish but in other area venues, including the Arvada Center and Foothills, and at art venues in New York and across the country.

Greber was actually trained as a clinical psychologist with an interest in biology, and she wrote in her biographical statement prepared for this exhibit that her scientific background was important for her "understanding of optics in art...and the modalities of human perception." The references to optics and perception are appropriate since her sculptures are made of transparent, translucent and opaque plastics, assembled in such a way that their appearance changes as the viewer moves around them.

The pieces in White Light are fabulous. All are meticulously crafted, and all refer to constructivism, even those that incorporate biomorphic elements. And although plastic, Greber's chosen material, is extremely fragile and prone to scratching and the newest piece in the show is nearly ten years old, everything is in remarkably pristine condition. This is essential, because scratches would affect the way the sculptures absorb and redirect the overhead track lights or transmit internally generated light.

The first piece, displayed at the top of the stairs, is "Absolute Zero," from 1986, a crystalline form created from triangles of frosted acrylic. But the crystal's symmetry has been interrupted by the insertion of organic shapes made of the same acrylic. In this piece, as well as in a couple of others, such as 1988's "Back to the '60s," Greber combines organic elements with a sense of structural or even geometric order.

An interesting reconciliation of the organic and the geometric is seen in a few pieces in which Greber uses circles, or, more correctly, cylinders. This formal unity is clearly seen in the visually rich "Spiral II," which is made of an opaque black Plexiglas base that has been imbedded with transparent acrylic cylinders done in various jewel-tones and sizes. The cylinders, which are illuminated from below by a hidden light source, have been arranged in a spiral.

Certainly, Greber's unexpected death casts the show in a different light, so to speak, and the title takes on a more ethereal meaning than was intended. The show itself, meant to be an overdue reintroduction for Greber, instead became a poignant if inadvertent memorial.

Just a few blocks away, the Robischon Gallery is focusing on local talent with a pair of spectacular solos featuring two well-known contemporary artists, both of whom have been exhibiting locally and nationally since the 1980s. Stan Meyer: Constructed Paintings features a group of monumental pieces made of woven roofing tar paper, while Myron Melnick: Sculpture and Prints is dominated by cast-paper sculptures and wall reliefs.

The connections between Meyer and Melnick are myriad and apparent, in spite of the fact that their works look nothing alike. Both use non-traditional materials, and both are making pieces that are modernist abstractions.

Meyer came to Denver in 1980 and immediately began to exhibit his work in the region's best galleries, as well as at the Denver Art Museum. By 1986, he was taken on by Robischon, and he's been represented by the gallery ever since. All along, he's employed tar paper to create wall pieces that are mostly very large. He begins by painting the tar paper in an abstract-expressionist style. The palette pairs a dark black with a luminous gold; Meyer uses dashes and splashes of red and green and other bright colors as accents and highlights in both the dark and light areas. He then cuts up the tar paper and weaves it. Since he knows the shape he wants to weave before he paints and cuts the tar paper, the colors wind up in the exact places they're supposed to.

Rectangles are the inevitable product of the in-and-out of the weaving process, and the overall shape of the pieces, which are very simple, would seem to link Meyer's work to geometric abstraction. But the expressionist handling of the painted areas and the non-rigid character of the hangings work against this comparison.

Several of the Meyer pieces in this show display voids, sometimes placed dead center, as in "Centrum," a large circle with a circular hole in the middle and a slit running down to the bottom. The open center vaguely suggests Oriental art, which sometimes makes use of this device. An Oriental feeling is also evoked by several other pieces, notably "Figurative," which looks like a gigantic key-hole escutcheon on a Ming chest.

Meyer's style has changed little over the last twenty years, but by constantly exploring new shapes and narrative associations, he's kept his look fresh. As a result, Constructed Paintings is a very strong exhibit.

The same is true of Melnick's show. And although Melnick has been exhibiting around town for two decades, he's a newcomer to Robischon, having only joined the gallery about a year ago.

Melnick began his career as a ceramicist and worked for a time in the '70s as the studio assistant to legendary Minnesota potter Warren MacKenzie. Now, from a certain standpoint, ceramics and cast and molded paper are related to one another, since both begin as a malleable material -- raw clay and paper pulp suspended in water. The finishing, though, is quite distinct. Ceramics requires a kiln for firing, whereas the paper simply needs to dry. Decorating the piece is different, too, with glazes for one and paint for the other. But the results are often similar in appearance, and some of Melnick's paper pieces really do look like ceramics, especially the wall-hung "Jujube" and, to a lesser extent, "Hubbub."

Stylistically, Melnick is interested in reviving and reinterpreting early modernism. Some pieces suggest constructivism, others recall organic abstraction, and still others are reminiscent of art deco.

Without a doubt, the master stroke here is "Tapestry," a monumental sculptural group that leans against the wall. The figural abstract elements are clustered closely together and literally and figuratively support one another. Each of the elements has been burnished to a rich, creamy white. The forms, which were obviously inspired by the work of early-twentieth-century sculptor Alexandr Archipenko, are abstractions based on simplified figures.

Related to Melnick's sculptures are a pair of abstract monotypes that incorporate collage elements. Like the sculptures, the prints recall the work of the early modernists.

Meyer and Melnick represent an inspired pairing for Robischon, but the show is set to close on June 9, along with the gallery -- temporarily at least. Gallery co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran and their crack staff, Anna Pollock and Paul Hardt, are leaving for Switzerland to attend the famous art fair, Art Basel 2001. Robischon reopens on June 26 with a summer group show.

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