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Mile High Fires

"Abandoned Vestige," by Rodger Lang.

It seems like the entire art world has gone potty.

Denver's curators and gallery directors alike are crazed these days, since there are more than fifty local art exhibits in which ceramics take center stage going on right now. It's enough to make our heads spin like a kick wheel until we're groggy.

This clay commotion has been set off by the presence of the more than 3,000 ceramic artists and teachers in town for the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts conference. The shows are Denver's way of rolling out the sang de boeuf carpet for these experts, and the exhibits give everyone an opportunity to see historic, modern and contemporary ceramics from Colorado and the rest of the world.

There's no way for the conferees to catch all the shows, however -- even locals would need a couple of weeks of vacation to view more than a handful. To contemplate visiting only the best of the lot, then, is itself a daunting challenge. But take it up we must. After all, we'll never get another chance.

Colorado, given its sparse population -- until lately, anyway -- has played a greater role in the history of modern and contemporary ceramics than one might expect. It's surely this heritage that at least in part led to Denver being chosen as the host city for the NCECA 2000 meetings. And it's also perhaps one reason why the organization is negotiating a relocation of its administrative offices and permanent collection to Erie.

Our distinguished place in twentieth-century ceramics was the product of an 1890s clay rush, during which art potters and tile, brick and pipe makers were attracted here for the high-quality natural clays found on the plains and in the mountains.

Central Denver itself provides people with an ad-hoc exhibition that silently yet effectively underscores the importance of ceramics to the region. I'm referring to the many buildings that feature terra cotta ornaments, and to the elite few that are entirely clad in the luxurious material. Nearly all of the material was made by the Denver Terra Cotta Company, which was active under various monikers from the 1890s until the 1940s.

Check out the 1910 Insurance Exchange at 910 15th Street, a masterful early skyscraper, and the more vanguard 1916 Rio Grande building at 1531 Stout Street. Both Sullivanesque buildings are the work of prominent Denver architect H.W. J. Edbrooke. And don't miss two Art Deco gems from 1929, the Paramount Theatre at 1621 Glenarm Place, by Temple Buell, and the Buerger Brothers building, by Montana Fallis, at 1732 Champa Street.

Denver Terra Cotta dates back to the golden age of American art pottery, and a small taste of that proud tradition can be had at Colorado Kilns, which just opened at the Colorado History Museum. Organized by Moya Hansen and designed by David Newell, it is installed on the lower level of the museum. The exhibit leads off with several sculptural ornaments by Denver Terra Cotta, including a reclining lion sculpture that marks the show's entrance.

Also in the good, if somewhat sketchy, show is a spectacular "Despondency" vase from 1901 by Artus Van Briggle, founder of Van Briggle pottery in Colorado Springs, which is still in operation. It's a baluster vase with a nude male figure emerging from the surface around the rim. It is finished in a fabulous matte green glaze. Other spiffy Van Briggles in the show include several from his series devoted to Colorado's native plants. It's a real shocker that out of so many shows, no one thought to put together a solo about Van Briggle -- especially since he's as famous in Europe and in New York as he is in Colorado.

Other major art potters who were working here at the beginning of the twentieth century, including William Long of Denver Denura and Denver Lonhuda fame, and the father-and-son team of Frederick and Francis White of the famous Denver White pottery, are also featured in Colorado Kilns. There's one lovely turn-of-the-century Long piece, and a stunning green tea set by the Whites done around the same time.

Nearly forgotten modernist potters from the '40s and '50s, including Tabor Utley and Irene Musick, both of whom were active on the scene in Colorado Springs, are also represented here.

The show's only weakness is how over-represented contemporary pottery is compared with the older material. But it's a minor complaint when among the contemporary group are pieces like the masterful Paul Soldner sculpture.

Art pottery made outside of Colorado is the topic of another historical exhibit, this one at the nearby Denver Art Museum. The Clay Vessel: Modern Ceramics From the Norwest Collection, 1890-1940, on the second floor, may be small, but it makes a big impact owing to the quality of the inclusions. The spectacular Teco from 1910 by Charles Gates, and an unbelievable Grueby by George Kendrick, circa 1900, are two such examples.

On the fifth floor, DAM curator Ron Otsuka has put together another show, the compelling Takashi Nakazato: Contemporary Pottery From an Ancient Japanese Tradition. It's a solo devoted to a Japanese potter who comes to work at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village annually. Nearly all of the pieces in the show were made with Colorado clays and glazes and are distinct from the material he creates in Japan. Nakazato is known in his native country for fine, traditional tea ceremony articles, but here in high country, he's just as likely to make mugs. As an adjunct to the show, Otsuka has installed a small group of splendid pieces by Nakazato's Anderson Ranch-based colleague, Doug Casebeer.

Like the Nakazato exhibit, most of the shows around town focus not on ceramic art history but on contemporary ceramics. That's to be expected at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in Sakura Square, where a gigantic solo, Scott Chamberlin Twelve Years: Drawing and Sculpture fills the entire institution. It's the largest and one of the finest ceramics exhibits in this crowded field.

The show takes an in-depth look at Chamberlin's tremendous output during most of the time that he's served as the head of the University of Colorado's ceramics department in Boulder. His quirky floor sculptures, in the main gallery, are joined by his even quirkier wall pieces, in the forms of both reliefs and drawings.

Ceramics and works on paper is a combination seen in another solo devoted to Chamberlin's distinguished former colleague at CU, Betty Woodman, who now divides her time between New York and Tuscany. At the hard-to-find Singer Gallery at the Mizel Arts Center in Hilltop, Simon Zalkind has organized Betty Woodman: Pots Paper Prints, a handsome exhibit that puts her ceramics, including several "pillow" vessels, in front of her prints and drawings. Her Matisseian prints were produced by Shark lithography, which is now in Lyons.

Mixing ceramics with other mediums is also a specialty of Kim Dickey's, another CU ceramic artist featured in an impressive solo. Holding Pattern: objects in action, at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, combines her theatrical porcelain vessels with photos and a video; it highlights several years' worth of work.

In the front are several nesting bowls based on natural forms via California-made 1930s-'40s moderne-style industrial pottery. In the main gallery are very different and more recent monumental urns that look to be inspired by Mediterranean ceramics.

While you're at Rule, be sure to notice the 1930 Mayan Theater by Montana Fallis, directly across the street on Broadway. It's another of the many great Denver Terra Cotta buildings found in the older parts of the city.

Also in south central Denver, the William Havu Gallery is putting on Glazed Visions, a gigantic group show that includes the work of British ceramic artists Richard Bell, Tracey Heyes and Jim Robison. There are also impressive pieces by well-known Colorado artists such as Martha Daniels and Heather Bussey.

Daniel's sculptures, including pieces from her "Tower" series and her sculptural vessels, are distinguished by their complex shapes and vivid glazes. They have been paired with the ceramic wall-hung installations by Bussey. Also seen here are ceramic sculptures by Margaret Haydon and Margaret Josey, and, on the walls, drawings by Joshua Bemelen and paintings by Emilio Lobato.

At the Robischon Gallery in lower downtown, the amazing Brad Miller: new ceramic sculpture occupies half of the front gallery and extends into the Artforms space. Miller is a major ceramic artist who has worked at Colorado's Anderson Ranch Arts Center for more than a decade, though he's leaving for Southern California soon. The exhibit includes his signature wall-hung sculptures in which disparate organic shapes, finished in a variety of different earth-toned glazes, are assembled into idiosyncratic conglomerations. Many of the sculptures on pedestals are the same, but some of the newest ones are composed of related shapes and are finished uniformly.

In the Viewing Room at Robischon, Jeanne Quinn: Limbo comprises delicate sculptures that are based on traditional functional ceramic forms, notably the teapot. Quinn also teaches at CU in Boulder.

Next door to Robischon, at the Metropolitan State College of Denver's Center for the Visual Arts, the director, Sally Perisho, has organized High Degrees: Ceramics by Colorado Art Faculty -- the closest thing to a Colorado survey that can be found in town.

Some of the standouts here are the Japanesque vessels by Cloyd Snook, the flat wall plaques by Kathryn Holt, the monumental jars by Jim Lorio and the snakes and the tower piece titled "Abandoned Vestige" by Rodger Lang.

Lang, a Metro professor whose work is included in several exhibits, organized the NCECA conference and promoted the idea of presenting ceramic shows by telephoning the city's gallery directors and curators and lobbying them. More so than any other individual, it is Lang who is responsible for the area's current ceramic feast.

Perisho has chosen two artists for presentations of their own at the center, giving each an entire room. In the window space, there are three black expressionist vessels by Richard DeVore. Each gracefully billows into a trumpet shape, and each has an intentional hole in the bottom.

In the adjacent space, local legend Maynard Tischler is represented by a group of sculptures based on trucks, including a flatbed with cargo that serves as a tea set. Also, leaning against the wall is a fragment of the mammoth tile mural being created for the new Ritchie Center at the University of Denver.

Volume, at Ron Judish Fine Arts (also in lower downtown), is another kind of group show, putting together ceramic artists with a painter and a sculptor. Up front are the sublime glazed ceramic bowls by Michael Brohman and the expressionistic stained and gilded monumental chalices by Barbara Sorensen, which have been unexpectedly joined with the neo-minimal plywood sculptures by Jeff Richards. In the middle room, Jeff Wenzel's small clay sculptures, some with geometric decorations, are placed on shelves opposite a few recent geometric paintings, including a free standing pair by Bruce Price.

At the Market Street Gallery at Guiry's are two solos featuring work in ceramics and mixed media: Strands Pathways Gravity, made up of recent work by Martha Russo, and Sparks, a group of installations by Nancy Blum.

In the wilds of the western suburbs are several shows also on the must-see list. First and foremost is the densely installed Time in Tandem: James and Nan McKinnell Retrospective at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, which takes a close look at the individual and collaborative work of the McKinnells beginning in the 1940s. From the show, Nan may be seen to have been influenced throughout her career by industrial design, whereas Jim remained Japanesque in the tradition of British potter, Bernard Leach, one of his many mentors. Globetrotters who have lived in England, France and Japan, the McKinnells finally settled in Colorado in 1970 and have remained here ever since.

The Arvada Center is also featuring a pair of official NCECA shows, the fairly impressive NCECA Regional Student Juried Exhibition upstairs and the conference's invitational, A Glimpse of the Invisible: Exploring the Spiritual in Art, downstairs.

Glimpse has a nonsensical quality, and there seem to be a number of different, unreconciled currents in the show. Particularly annoying is the inclusion in a contemporary show of the work of the long-deceased Maria Martinez -- as exquisite as it is -- which seems opportunistic or maybe even patronizing.

Despite this drawback, there are some things worth seeing. The Ruth Duckworth vessels are sublime, as are the DeVores. Blum's steel cable, hardware, Pyrex and glazed ceramic wall installation "White Work" is fabulous. Among the best of the abstract sculptures is the neo-minimal Jeffrey Mongrain's "Falling Black Water," a hard-edged slab of steel that has been covered in clay and wax. Another notable piece is Robert Brady's "Lahn," a hollow, pod-like sculpture finished in a fantastic yellow glaze.

In Golden, the Foothills Art Center is showcasing Colorado Clay 2000. Presented annually since the 1970s, this is ordinarily the only major ceramics show mounted in the region during a typical year. It would be a real shame, then, to ignore it in the tidal wave of ceramics show this year. The 2000 edition is being done a little differently than it has been in the past: In addition to the expected juried section, there are individual salutes to local artist educators, including Woodman, Holt, Lang, the McKinnells, Ed Oshier, Tom Potter and Mark Zamantakis.

These shows, all of them celebrating the NCECA, are just some of the best bets. There are a score of other exhibits around that are likewise intriguing, but trying to see them all would surely make one's eyes glaze over.