Bobbi Walker, owner and director of Walker Fine Art, has worked hard to break into the top ranks of Denver's contemporary galleries and, at the same time, make a profit. I can't comment on how it's possible to make money in the art business, but I can say that Walker's current show, Balance, is precisely the kind of exhibit she needs to rise to the loftiest level of the local art scene.
In the case of this wonderful show, the recipe for success is obvious: elegant sculptures by Colorado master Bill Burgess combined with compatible paintings by talented contemporary artist Don Quade.
Walker has made a habit of attracting established Colorado artists who do not live in the metro area and thus are less likely to have relationships with Denver galleries. It's a savvy move on her part, especially in the case of Burgess.
Burgess has been a part of the Colorado art scene for a long time. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder way back in 1958, and in 1964 earned a master's degree from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. He later went to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore for his MFA. Though his work has been exhibited around the country, especially in the Southwest, the last time he was the subject of a show of this size in Denver was in 1993, at Artyard.
The pieces at Walker Fine Art handily fall into two distinct types, though all of them are in Burgess's signature welded-steel method, his preferred technique for over forty years. There are those that are finished with an all-over rust patina and those that are polychromed, with different elements painted different colors. Another perceivable distinction is that the rusted sculptures take the shape of simple, unified forms based on nature, while the multi-colored works are more complicated, juxtaposing expressionist elements with geometric ones.
Two of the largest pieces, both of them in rusted steel, start off the show. Even though they're not the first pieces inside the door, they immediately catch our attention because of their size. "Ascender" is installed in the two-story atrium space across the front of the gallery, and "Convolution" is displayed nearby, in the gallery proper. "Ascender" is a vertical spire created from a serpentine form that is widest at the bottom and looks sort of like a melting obelisk. "Convolution" is an organic spiral that suggests a gigantic scribble.
Further into the show are some of the polychromed compositions, notably "Verde," which has an ultra-luxurious feel because Burgess combined elements in natural patinas, paint and scuffed stainless steel. Back in the corner is another great polychrome sculpture, "Prophet," for which Burgess mounted a pair of metal hoops on top of a cluster of poles on a rectangular base.
The abstract paintings by Don Quade, which make up the other half of Balance, go beautifully with the Burgess sculptures, though I think it makes the most sense to view the two artists' work separately. Quade was born in El Paso, Texas, but has lived in Colorado for many years and exhibited locally for the past decade or so. He started painting when he was a student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins in the 1980s, but only returned to the medium about five years ago. In between, he created three-dimensional mixed-media compositions that often reflected his Hispanic heritage.
At first Quade's painting style was similar to that of his close friend Emilio Lobato, which makes sense, considering that both combine abstraction with imagery and colors inspired by their shared ethnic background. Both artists are also affected by their love of santos and retablos and other elements of Chicano-flavored Roman Catholicism. But Quade has seemingly broken this affinity in his new paintings. Previously, he was drawn to dark palettes, but in these latest creations, there's an encompassing lightness, with only a small dark accent here and there.
The paintings have complicated compositions, and Quade's use of dark details on the light-colored grounds makes them operate differently depending on the viewer's vantage point. From a distance, there's a geometric organization to the picture, with the dark forms -- often rectangles, squares or even circles -- standing out against the lighter, predominant color field. Up close, the surface is crowded with drawn and painted details. Many of these paintings are great, but from my perspective, "Journal II," which is lively in any number of ways, is the standout.
Balance is one of the best shows I've seen at Walker, so if you haven't gotten a chance to catch it, do make the effort. Be warned, however, that there's very little time left: The show closes this Saturday, May 7.
Though it had been an open secret for a while, the bad news became official last week: Metropolitan State College of Denver pulled the rug out from under the Center for Visual Art, its only claim to excellence. What's happening represents a major retraction for contemporary art in Denver. Worse, the decision could mean the eventual disappearance of the place, as its current lease is up in a year.
Most important among the many things that have transpired is that MSCD has drastically reduced its financial support for the CVA, which the school has provided since the center was founded, in 1991. Beginning with the start of the fiscal year this summer, Metro will pony up less than half as much as it did last year. I don't need to tell you that that alone spells potential disaster for the place.
Truth be told, the CVA was always a weird (if wonderful) idea, since it is an elite institution that promotes the best art available, while Metro itself is a commuter college with a learning-for-all philosophy. In a sense, it's been on borrowed time from the start.
Originally situated at 17th and Wazee streets, the CVA was really the city's first museum of contemporary art. The reason Metro was associated with something like the CVA can be explained in two words: Sally Perisho. Hired just a few months after the gallery was opened, Perisho had the opportunity to define the place. Instead of focusing on Metro students and teachers, she immediately dove into presenting significant exhibits and in raising the necessary money to do them. She often booked shows that focused on art by women and minorities. These politically correct subjects insured the availability of grants, but Perisho also had a knack for raising money from private donors. In fact, things were going so well that in 1998 the CVA moved into its current gorgeous space on Wazee Street, next door to the Robischon Gallery.
In 2001, Perisho ran afoul of her boss at Metro, Carolyn Shaefer Wollard, then head of the Office of Institutional Advancement. President Sheila Kaplan fired Perisho during the winter semester break, when the school was closed, but a huge commotion was made by members of the community, many of whom were outraged by what had happened.
Early in 2002, Kathy Andrews was hired as Perisho's replacement, and most everyone -- including me -- was delighted by the decision. I saw it as a move that would, to some extent, soothe the bad feelings that were still out there over Perisho's firing. Andrews was locally well respected, having spent nearly ten years at the Arvada Center as chief curator and director of the art program. Since many of the CVA shows were already booked when Andrews was hired, she'd only barely begun to establish her vision. The promise of great things to come was especially evident in her most recent effort, the intelligent Leaving Aztl´n, which looked at post-Chicano art.
We probably won't get a chance to see what Andrews would have done in the future, because Metro's draconian financial program for the CVA has not only eliminated general funding, but has specifically eliminated her job. In place of a full-time CVA director, there's a new job description for a part-time director who will also teach at Metro. It's unclear whether Andrews will go for that, but it must have limited appeal for her, since it pays half as much with twice the required effort.
The CVA, formerly overseen by Metro's development office, has been handed over to the art department, and the chair, Greg Watts, was named as acting interim director after Andrews's contract expires. Having been hired under Kaplan's administration, Andrews had forged close relationships with staff from that regime, particularly Wollard; at the same time, her ties to members of the art-department faculty have been somewhat spotty. So when these recent decisions were made, Andrews was left with almost no one at Metro to speak up for her or the CVA.
The nature of the CVA is to change, and it's to become a more campus-oriented facility where the work of faculty and students will be the mainstay. Traditionally, the CVA has done exhibits featuring artists with regional, national or international reputations, with the idea that exposing Metro's students to important work was a valuable service. It was a good rationale while it lasted.
One of the most outrageous aspects of the matter, as far as I'm concerned, is that a decision of this magnitude was made during the interregnum between Metro administrations. Though not part of the defunding decision, Watts, along with others, apparently took advantage of the leadership vacuum to pull off what can only be called a triumph of Machiavellian strategy. The whole mess is surely a personal blow to director Andrews, but -- trust me on this -- it's going to hurt the rest of us, too.
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