Joseph Coniff. This smart and at times extremely funny show, titled Joseph Coniff: This Is What It's Like, highlights the efforts of an emerging conceptual artist. Coniff, who studied at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he was a protegé of Clark "Drop City" Richert's, is just the latest in an army of RMCAD-ettes who have changed the face of Denver art over the past decade and a half. For this show, Coniff riffs off art history and general history while lampooning new media by using it. In "Listen," a white square with a set of earphones hanging off it, the subject is John Cage. The earphones don't convey any sound, however, making it a witty inside joke about the vanguard composer who once created a silent concert. In "Alarm," a button could be expected to activate a loud noise, but push it, and nothing happens. It's brilliant. There are also several digitally altered photos in which the details have been reduced to a series of squares. Then there's the video about painting a monochrome panel, paired with the painting itself. The show is a spectacular debut for a young artist. Through September 3 at Rule Gallery, 3340 Walnut Street, 303-777-9473, www.rulegallery.com.
Design for the Other 90%. This traveling exhibit from the Cooper-Hewitt in New York — the national design museum of the Smithsonian Institution — is being presented at RedLine, which is strange, as it relates more to technology than to art. Not only that, but it's way too small for Redline, and it leaves too much floor space. The underlying concept of the exhibit is that nearly all design is made for the developed world, which is a distinct minority of the human population — hence the 90% reference. The relevant people live in the underdeveloped world in Africa, Asia, Latin America and even poor parts of rich countries, like New Orleans after Katrina. Cooper-Hewitt curator Cynthia Smith and others selected the pieces, and they clearly had their hearts in the right place. But their eyes were apparently shut, since most of the pieces are only about function, leaving beauty out of the equation. There are some objects that achieve both, but most do not. Through September 25 at Redline, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448, http://redlineart.org. Reviewed August 18.
Marvelous Mud. This homegrown blockbuster is not a single show but rather eight different ones, all about clay. In the Ponti tower are Potters of Precision: The Coors Porcelain Company; Nampeyo: Excellence by Name; Mud to Masterpiece: Mexican Colonial Ceramics; Blue and White: A Ceramic Journey; and Dirty Pictures, made up of photos that include all kinds of soils. Over in the Hamilton, there's Marajó: Ancient Ceramics at the Mouth of the Amazon; Overthrown: Clay Without Limits; and Focus: Earth & Fire. Through September 18 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed July 21.
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Toy Stories. Bill Havu has put together a fun-loving summer show that looks at paintings and sculptures that refer in some way to kids' toys. The exhibit is dominated by California artists such as Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker, who, working together, have produced Murakami-esque sculptures that look like cheap inflatable beach toys but are actually ceramics. Michael Brennan, Michael Stevens, Frances Lerner and, in a separate solo on the mezzanine, Ann Weber all hail from the Golden State. A couple of artists, namely Laurel Swab and Esteban Blanco, come from other spots around the country. Swab, a super-realist represented by a suite of small dark paintings depicting enigmatic objects, is based in Colorado. Blanco, who lives in Florida, is a sculptor, and his pieces also have an enigmatic quality. There are examples of two distinct series, one dealing with toy warships, the other the elaborate torture of Barbie dolls. Both things — directing toy boats and damaging dolls — have long been popular diversions for little boys. Through September 3 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com.
What Is Modern? Department of Architecture, Design and Graphics curator Darrin Alfred has put together this large show dedicated to furniture and decor from the early nineteenth to the early 21st century. Alfred has included groundbreaking tables, storage units, lighting and — no surprise here, considering Alfred's specialty — graphics. Laudably, Alfred takes a chronological look at how technological advancements informed the development of modernism, starting with a bentwood chair from 1808 by Samuel Gragg. Its overall form is very sleek, with a gracefully curving back, but the details are very different, being almost precious, like the little hooves that mark the termination of the legs. One of the newest pieces in the show is "Roadrunner," a chair from 2006 by Colorado's own David Larabee and Dexter Thornton working together as DoubleButter. Made of a cheap synthetic, the chair is nonetheless elegant. In between the two chairs, Alfred has installed a wide assortment of classics from the annals of modernism. Through November 30 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed December 23.