American Dreams. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid were among the first artists to embrace conceptual realism in the 1960s. Although the two no longer collaborate, American Dreams, at the Singer Gallery, focuses on a body of work they did in the 1990s. The paintings and collages combine images of George Washington and Vladimir Lenin, along with a supporting cast that includes Isadora Duncan, Marcel Duchamp, Stalin, Hitler and, of course, Freud. When Komar and Melamid began working collaboratively a generation ago in what was then the Soviet Union, freedom in the arts was unheard of, and painters were expected to be socialist realists. Oddly enough, this was the perfect hothouse for their irreverent work; all Komar and Melamid had to do was put an ironic twist on the subject, execute it in a traditional style, and voilà — they conveyed an ironic and thereby contemporary sensibility. They've done the same thing in the outrageous pieces of Washington as Lenin. Through November 11 at the Singer Gallery, Mizel Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360. Reviewed October 18.
Artisans & Kings. For its first extravaganza of the season, the Denver Art Museum has unveiled a sprawling blockbuster in the Frederic C. Hamilton Building that focuses on the royal collections from the Louvre. You don't have to know much about art to have heard of the Louvre, so Artisans & Kings is likely to attract both the general public as well as the DAM's regular audience. For this exhibit, a team of French curators representing painting, sculpture, drawing, tapestries and decorative art opened the cabinets and storerooms, selecting pieces that had been in the private collections of the French nobility — in particular, kings Louis XIV, XV and XVI. The paintings include a gorgeous and erotic Titian, picturing a woman in her boudoir; an elegant neo-classical allegorical painting by Poussin; a dark and murky Rembrandt of Saint Matthew; and a signature Velázquez, a portrait of the iconic Infanta Margarita, who appears in many of his paintings. The chance to see these four works alone is more than worth the cost of seeing the exhibit; everything else is simply a luxurious bonus. Through January 6 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue, 720-865-5000. Reviewed October 4.
Clyfford Still Unveiled. A master and pioneer of mid-twentieth-century abstract expressionism, painter Clyfford Still was something of an eccentric in the artist-as-egomaniac stripe. His antisocial behavior led to a situation where 94 percent of his artworks remained together after he died — a staggeringly complete chronicle of his oeuvre that is now owned by the City of Denver. As a planned Clyfford Still Museum won't be completed until 2010, the institution's founding director, Dean Sobel, decided to preview a baker's dozen of Still's creations at the Denver Art Museum. Sobel uses the very small show to lay out most of the artist's career and stylistic development. Still worked his way from regionalism to surrealism, then wound up developing abstract expressionism with one of the greatest abstract paintings imaginable, "1944 N No. 1" — and the rest is art history. Though too small to be considered a blockbuster, this exhibit is nonetheless an extremely important one that shouldn't be missed unless you aren't interested in art at all. Through June 30, 2008, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000. Reviewed July 26.
Containers and Doug Wilson, Marecak Diptych
Containers and Doug Wilson. In the small indoor space at Artyard is Containers, a solo of recent work by Carley Warren. The show is mostly filled with small sculptures, but they seem more like miniature installations. Warren, who has been exhibiting since the 1960s, was among the first artists in Colorado to embrace installation art. The show's title is expressed in a variety of ways, including a wheelbarrow, a circular fence and many boxes. The shared narrative pointedly deals with the inability of containers to actually contain things, with elements spilling out of several of them. Outside at Artyard are the large vertical sculptures in welded mild steel and stainless steel that make up Doug Wilson. Though there are suggestions of the figure in these pieces, Wilson says they are not figural. Rather, they are about spontaneity, and he links his thought processes to those of abstract painters, though direct metal sculpture is difficult to manipulate with the immediacy of paint; there's all the pesky cutting, welding and polishing. Through November 10 at Artyard, 1251 South Pearl Street, 303-777-3219. Reviewed November 1.
Marecak Diptych. Kirkland Museum director Hugh Grant has put together yet another exhibit meant to enhance our understanding of Colorado's rich art history. Marecak Diptych celebrates the work of husband-and-wife artists Edward and Donna Marecak, both of whom died in the 1990s. The couple met in the 1940s, when they were students at the now-closed Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, which was nationally known in its day. Edward was an accomplished painter with a taste for figural abstraction. His work is often filled with whimsical characterizations of people whose bodies are elements in patterns or designs that cover the canvases from edge to edge. He also liked to delve into fairy-tale territory, displaying a love for witches, in particular. The magical and imaginary world he conjured up links his work to that of his good friend, the late Edgar Britton. Donna was an expert at ceramics, and her pieces reveal an astounding level of control on the potter's wheel. The crisp forms and tight decorations are so precise, they look as though they were engineered. Through December 9 at the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, 1311 Pearl Street, 303-832-8576. Reviewed November 1.
Substance. Don't expect to see anything that might pass for a luxury item in Substance: Diverse Practices From the Periphery, the large and ambitious design show at the Center for Visual Art. Instead, the thoughtful and thought-provoking show, put together by Lisa Abendroth, is given over to design meant to deal with social issues such as the need for clean drinking water and affordable housing. This doesn't mean there aren't beautiful things to see; it's just that beauty is beside the point for Abendroth, who zeroed in on functional attributes to guide her selections. To shift the topic away from "aesthetics," she chose pieces based on how they "changed lives" and not on how they looked. Despite this goal, it's impossible not to observe that the key stylistic issue present is modernism, even if Abendroth didn't want the viewer to notice. This is no surprise, considering that "form follows function" is the anthem of modernism. Plus, the functionalist wing of the movement is alone among contemporary expressions in that it sets out to address human needs. Through November 9 at the Center for Visual Art, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207. Reviewed October 25.
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