"Origo," by Wade Hoefer, oil on canvas.

New and Improved

Discreet shifts have been taking place at 30th and Vallejo streets over the past couple of months. I'm referring to behind-the-scenes negotiations at the Judish gallery, located on the ground floor of the historic Asbury Methodist Church, a landmark in every sense of the word.

Here's what has happened: The gallery, one of the premier exhibition venues in the Rocky Mountain region, has changed hands.

This significant fiduciary rearrangement has led to a subtle name change. Formerly known as Ron Judish Fine Arts, the place is now operating as Judish Fine Arts and Judish Photography. "Eventually, Judish Photography will move," says Ron Judish, director of both. "We're looking for an appropriate space right now."


Wade Hoefer: Paintings, Kevin O'Connell: "Dark"; New Photographs, and Restoration After 9/11

Through October 26
Judish Fine Arts and Judish Photography
3011 Vallejo Street, 303-571-5556

Judish declines to identify the new owners, saying only that they are from out of state and are widely known and respected. "They'd rather not reveal their names because of their prominent role in the art world," Judish says. "There were some difficult times during negotiations, but everything's in place now, and we have just signed a two-year lease on our existing space."

New monikers aside, the goals of the gallery -- or galleries -- have not changed, Judish says. And that means there will always be something worth seeing at the place, because at its current location as well as at its previous spot on Wazee Street, Judish has hosted some of the most important exhibits ever presented in the Mile High City.

The secret to Judish's success is the combination of an unfailing eye and a very smart exhibition program. He's brought in the work of big-time art stars from around the country, such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and Alice Neel, while continuing to showcase some of the finest talent in our own back yard, such as John Hull, Bruce Price and Al Wynne.

And the fall openers prove that Judish isn't just whistling Dixie. On display at Judish Fine Arts are Wade Hoefer: Paintings, and Kevin O¹Connell: ³Dark,² New Photographs. Hoefer is a famous California painter who's been exhibiting his work from coast to coast for thirty years. O'Connell is among the top fine-art photographers in Colorado.

Born in Long Beach, Hoefer completed his graduate studies in Oakland, at the California College of Arts and Crafts, and has remained in northern California ever since. His paintings are included in many private, corporate and public collections, mostly in New York or on the West Coast. They have also been shown in Colorado -- not on the Front Range, but in Aspen, at the David Floria Gallery. The Judish show provides a rare opportunity to see Hoefer's work in Denver.

At first glance, the Hoefer paintings appear to be straightforward re-creations of nineteenth-century romantic landscapes, the kind of thing done by Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran. On closer examination, however, viewers will realize that Hoefer has done something that's not so much neo-traditional as it is postmodern. Rather than replicate the old paintings, he presents them as they would appear today, after suffering the ravages of time and before any restoration.

Hoefer simulates almost perfectly the appearance of layers of yellowing varnish and, in one case, what looks to be a water stain running down the middle of an oil on canvas ("Virga").

The paintings' colors, which range from deep umbers and siennas to toned-up yellows and whites, help Hoefer complete his desired faux-antique look.

In addition to the conceptual element realized in these painterly flourishes, there's an important visual one: Hoefer heightens the luminous effect of his scenes by simultaneously darkening the land and lightening the sky. In fact, the artist's ability to achieve such incredible brightness is the most remarkable feature of his expertly carried out painting style.

The Hoefer paintings include easel-sized pieces such as "Contemplo," as well as large, majestic compositions like the showstopping "Origo."

In the room to the left of the entryway at Judish is the O'Connell display. Although O'Connell is a photographer, this exhibit is being presented under the auspices of Judish Fine Arts rather than the adjacent Judish Photography. As director Judish explains, both galleries will feature photography and photo-based works, but Judish Photography will do so exclusively.

Kevin O'Connell was born in Chicago in 1958. He came to Denver in the '80s to attend law school at the University of Denver, and he received his degree in 1991. He is essentially a self-taught photographer but has surely picked up some tips over the years as a longtime member of the Denver Salon, a loosely affiliated group of fine-art photographers.

O'Connell has exhibited in a variety of art venues, both in solo and group shows. Some of these took place in the context of the Denver Salon, such as last year's riveting exhibit in the Merage Gallery at the Denver Art Museum.

I first became aware of O'Connell in the mid-'90s, and I've never seen any photo by him that wasn't flawlessly executed and exquisitely beautiful. The high quality of the prints themselves is notable, but O'Connell also seems to have a perfect sense for composition.

In this recent series, called "Dark," O'Connell continues his exploration of the abstract possibilities in the world around us. Unless it's pointed out to them, viewers may not realize that in these pieces, O'Connell is looking at the familiar sky above. In a gelatin silver photo such as "Untitled" (all of them are untitled, by the way), the gray clouds against the black sky convey nothing less than abstract expressionism.

The photos look like abstractions because they are out of focus and because O'Connell aimed his camera at the night sky rather than the daytime sky, thus capturing the vaporous quality of wafting clouds in the dark. In many of the pictures, there is also the juxtaposition of white against the darkness, from the appearance of the tiny yet bright stars.

Tiny yet bright: Come to think of it, that's exactly how I'd describe these photographs.

Adjacent to the O'Connell display is the Judish Photography space, in which Restoration After 9/11 has been installed. This show examines both American sentiment and the people of Afghanistan.

Representing the American response to 9/11 is a video by Erick Johnson that records his creation last spring of a memorial piece called "Safety Net."

Johnson is best known as a sculptor, and "Safety Net," while not exactly sculptural, is at least three-dimensional. In the video at Judish, Johnson lays out his concept for the piece, followed by a documentary of the unveiling of the piece.

A major Colorado artist, Johnson has worked here for thirty years. His art is included in a number of collections, and he has received several private and public art commissions in Denver and throughout the state. (Among his local projects are a notable piece at the REI flagship store in the Platte Valley and one at Coors Field.)

"Safety Net" was presented in the public spaces at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It was composed of a large net suspended high above the ground. Hanging from the net were more than 3,000 candleholders, each meant to represent a life lost in the World Trade Center attack last year.

The candleholders were created from a variety of cheap, simple and readily available materials. The bases, made from the bottoms of aluminum soda cans, provided platforms for small votive candles. Shades made from cylinders of thick parchment protected the candles' flames from the wind. Each sheet of parchment was held in place by a gummed label on which the name of a victim was printed. Wire hangers mounted onto the bases and extending above the shades were attached to the net, which, after the candles were lit, was raised into place. The experience of seeing "Safety Net" in person must have been out of this world, because even on tape it's remarkably beautiful and quite moving.

Though the piece was taken down immediately after its presentation a few months ago, Johnson would like to create a permanent version made of permanent materials and have it placed somewhere, maybe even in New York. Let's hope that happens.

The remainder of Restoration comprises the work of New York photographer Ron Katz. "I thought it would be interesting to pair Erick's piece with the other side of the coin -- in this case, the people of Afghanistan," says Judish. This is the second time in recent months that he has feted Katz with a Denver show; the earlier exhibit showcased Katz's views of the masked and costumed revelers at Venice's famous Carnivale, the Italian version of Mardi Gras. The current show presents Katz's lovingly composed portraits of the Afghan people, from his very recent "Faces of Islam" series.

Katz takes a traditional and formal approach to his subjects; each large-format photo is a close-up of an individual from the chest up, like an old-fashioned portrait. The subjects, older men and women for the most part, stare straight out at us.

While there's a documentary aspect to these photos -- ethnic clothing and headwear are the predominating pictorial elements -- they are clearly fine-art photos and not part of an anthropology study. The people are carefully positioned, and the photos themselves are meticulously and symmetrically composed.

Also marking Katz as an artist and not a documentarian is his manipulation of color. He is a master of color photography, and in these digitally produced prints, he gets some amazing tonal results. The colors are incredibly rich, and the inevitable disintegration of the image that occurs through digitization makes the photos look as though they've been touched up with watercolors or even pastels (they haven't).

All three of these exhibits are incredible.

Thank goodness Judish was able to find some guardian angels to keep the now-bifurcated place going strong. And even though we may not be able to identify the individuals, we -- and by that I mean the entire community -- owe them a hearty handshake and a sincere expression of thanks.


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