Becoming van Gogh. Timothy Standring, the Denver Art Museum's curator of painting and sculpture, is the brains behind the very compelling, very interesting and, most of all, very successful Becoming van Gogh, on display now. When we think of van Gogh, we are actually only thinking of the work of the last few years of his life — the late 1880s — but the revelation here is his other work. Especially intriguing are the paintings from his early years in Holland, with more of them on view in this show than you could even find on the Internet. Surely the most famous — and among the most valuable — are the two portraits of the Roulin family from 1888. "Postman Joseph Roulin" and "Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle" are stunning and worth the price of admission all by themselves. This homegrown blockbuster will only appear in Denver and shouldn't be missed. Advance tickets are required; see website for extended holiday hours. Through January 20 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed November 14.
Clyfford Still. For the opening of the Clyfford Still Museum, director Dean Sobel has installed a career survey of the great artist that starts with the artist's realist self-portrait and features his remarkable post-impressionist works from the 1920s. Next are Still's works from the '30s, with some odd takes on regionalism and some figurative surrealist paintings. Then there's his first great leap forward, as the representational surrealist works give way to abstract ones. Looking at the work dating from the '40s and '50s, it's easy to see why Still is regarded as one of the great masters of American art. Through December 31 at the Clyfford Still Museum, 1250 Bannock Street, 720-354-4880, clyffordstillmuseum.org. Reviewed January 31.
El Anatsui. This traveling exhibition is El Anatsui's first-ever retrospective. It was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York by curator Lisa Binder, with the Denver Art Museum's Nancy Blomberg, head of the Native Arts Department, acting as host curator. A Ghanaian by birth, Anatsui spent most of his career in Nigeria, where he was a professor of art. It was during this time that he had his Eureka! moment — when he crossed indigenous African forms with international sensibilities in a series of wooden trays, common fixtures of the local markets. The altered trays are brilliant, anticipating everything that would come later. From this modest beginning, Anatsui worked in a wide range of mediums, eventually hitting on the thing that established his world wide fame: his woven-metal wall hangings. These undulating abstract tapestries are made of smashed metal bottle caps formed into rectilinear shapes, and the colors of the found caps are masterfully arranged so that they seem to shimmer. Through December 30 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org. Reviewed September 20.
Frank Sampson. For her inaugural show in the new Golden Triangle location of her namesake gallery, Sandra Phillips is presenting Frank Sampson: New Paintings. Sampson is the dean of contemporary realism in Colorado, boasting a fifty-year career in Boulder, where he taught painting at the University of Colorado. Embracing an idiosyncratic style that conveys a mysterious and magical world, Sampson conjures up imagery that has sprung from his lively imagination. Some paintings include the human figure, while others are populated by animals. The narratives of these paintings are enigmatic and are not meant to be understood. Among Sampson's many strengths are his astounding technical skills, which allow him to assemble a palette of dark tones — browns, in particular — and to use them to carry out details so crisply that the results never look muddy, which is a constant risk with these sorts of colors. Though Sampson is 84 years old, all of the works in the show were done in just the last year or two. Through December 15 at Sandra Phillips Gallery, 420 West 12th Avenue, 303-573-5969, www.thesandraphillipsgallery.com. Reviewed November 15.
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Judy Pfaff et al. The spectacular in-depth solo, Judy Pfaff, stretches into several of the exhibition rooms at the remarkably capacious Robischon Gallery. Pfaff is an acknowledged master of contemporary installation art, and her example has been a source of inspiration for generations of younger artists, including two former students, Ann Hamilton and Jessica Stockholder. As the show unfolds, viewers are confronted by all-over abstract wall-relief sculptures that literally glow due to the incorporation of fluorescent lights. The fluorescent tubes are essentially hidden behind accumulations of honeycomb cardboard, expanded foam and all manner of plastic, much of it stretched into organic shapes. Many also incorporate ready-made Chinese lanterns, which work very well with the overall expressionist compositions. The atmosphere these pieces create in the gallery is magical. The Pfaff solo is bracketed by two others — a small show, Ana Maria Hernando, and a larger one, Katy Stone. Though all three have distinct visions. their respective pieces flow together. Extended through December 29 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, www.robischongallery.com. Reviewed October 18.
Marc Chagall and
Michelle Barnes. The pair of offerings at the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Arts and Culture Center puts together the work of a deceased modern master from Europe with pieces done by an established Denver artist. The pattern that connects them is the topic of the Old Testament. The interlocking exhibits were organized by Singer curator Simon Zalkind. The design of the gallery allows Zalkind to mount two solos simultaneously, and he has installed Marc Chagall and the Bible on the perimeter walls, while Michelle Barnes: The Good Book is hung on the two double-sided diagonal walls in the center. The Chagalls — etchings and lithographs mostly dating from the '50s to the '80s — are magnificent. They were collected by Wayne F. Yakes, an important local enthusiast. The Barnes acrylic paintings, done in the late 1990s, are a revelation. Taking on the same topics as Chagall — Adam and Eve, Joseph and his Brothers, etc. — Barnes infuses these tiny, jewel-like paintings with a whiff of the pre-modern symbolist movement, plus a little dash of swords-and-sandals Hollywood. Through December 20 at the Singer Gallery, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-316-6360, www.maccjcc.org.
Toy Stories II. Bill Havu has decided to get us into the lighthearted aspect of the holidays by mounting Toy Stories II, a sprawling group show at his namesake William Havu Gallery. The exhibit highlights artists who somehow engage toys as a topic in their otherwise individually distinctive works. Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker have created Murakami-esque creatures in the guise of inflatable pool toys. These sculptures are surrounded by sophisticated conceptual-realist paintings by Michael Brennan, one of which is a haunting depiction of Pinocchio. Arguably among the strangest things in the show are the weird hybrids of cartoons and Meso-American imagery seen in the sculptures by New Mexico's Max Lehman. Florida's Esteban Blanco also does small sculptures, reliving his pre-adolescent love of guns, trains and torturing Barbie dolls. Carrying the torch for idiosyncrasy are the somewhat creepy wood carvings by Michael Stevens. There are also small displays dedicated to Lawrence Argent, Michael Brangoccio, Suzanne Adan and Laurel Swab. Through January 5 at William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com. Reviewed November 28.