"Canoe," by David Park, oil on canvas.
"Canoe," by David Park, oil on canvas.

Reality Bites

The Human Factor: Figuration in American Art, 1950-1995, now showing at the Center for the Visual Arts, is every bit as compelling as the Denver Art Museum's current Alice Neel exhibit. In fact, not only do both shows explore late twentieth-century representational art, but Neel even makes an appearance at the CVA.

The Human Factor is first and foremost a traveling show that highlights contemporary figural works from the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Lincoln, Nebraska. While many of the Sheldon artists are probably better known in the Midwestern states where they worked -- Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa -- the collection also includes some of the country's most important artists working over the last half-century. But as she usually does with road shows, Sally Perisho, CVA's award-winning director, has also added a section devoted to Colorado artists, who hold their own against the big-timers from the Sheldon. (Come to think of it, so do those artists from Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa.)

This conscientious, community-minded approach is just one of the reasons that Perisho is regarded as among the region's top art professionals, and it neatly explains how the CVA, which is part of Metropolitan State College, has became a key component in the cultural infrastructure of the state.


The Human Factor

Metro Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee Street

Through December 15, 303-294-5207

The Sheldon, housed in a landmark 1960s Philip Johnson-designed building, is a midsized museum with an important collection of American art -- but it's marooned out on the Nebraska plains, a world-renowned backwater. Given that inauspicious location, it's no surprise that many of the Sheldon pieces represent some of the most conservative currents in contemporary art over the past fifty years, essentially the date range of the show. Since the end of WWII, American art has been given over almost completely to abstraction and its progeny in conceptual art -- not the kind of representational styles seen in The Human Factor. Even more edgy representational styles from the period, such as pop art and neo-expressionist works, are rarely seen in the Sheldon pieces here.

But while the visiting works in The Human Factor are tame, they're still pretty darned good.

Because the Sheldon portion of the show incorporates a plethora of styles and currents, if conservative ones, Perisho divided up the work according to the various aesthetic affinities that emerged as she unpacked it. She placed all of the Colorado artists in the same gallery space, but if you didn't know about this organizational division, you wouldn't realize it existed. Although each CVA gallery has its own definitive and individual mood, the exhibit flows freely and seamlessly as a single, cogent whole.

In the entry gallery, where Perisho has placed some of the smallest and most elegant pieces, the mood is intimate. Although there's really no historical organization to the show, some of the oldest works are here. One is a characteristic Alice Neel, an oil on canvas from 1968 titled "John and Joey Priestly" that's an early example of her classic mature style. The two mop-haired moppets in shorts and striped T-shirts are sparely rendered, outlined in blue, and staring straight out at us.

The Neel hangs next to a 1965 lithograph by Richard Diebenkorn, accurately described by its title, "Seated Nude." This is one of several prints in the show, and it demonstrates how the Sheldon has cleverly, and inexpensively, filled gaps in its collection. Diebenkorn was a major force in the San Francisco area's figural-abstraction movement, as was David Park, whose "Canoe," a 1957 oil on canvas, hangs on the other side of the Neel. "Canoe" represents Park at his best: Taking an abstract-expressionist approach to the paint, which has been quickly and roughly slapped on the canvas, Park nonetheless incorporates a recognizable scene -- in this case, a couple paddling a canoe on a pond -- which is a very un-abstract-expressionist thing to do. "Canoe" may not be the show's most important piece, but surely it's one of them. Also notable is "Painting of a Smile," a 1950 oil on canvas by Robert Gwathmey, in which black domestic workers are conveyed through a geometric composition that's anchored by the hard-edged white door off to one side in the background.

In the center space stands a quirky and unusual sculpture by Leonard Baskin -- a surprise, since he's better known as a printmaker and painter. Dating from 1956, "Youth" is a male nude made of carved oak. More sculptures are displayed in the large gallery beyond, including a group arranged on a cluster of stands to one side of the room. A small bronze by Joel Shapiro, the 1984 "Untitled," depicts a dancer...I think. Another great sculpture -- I'm sure this one concerns dancing -- is "Fiesta Dancers," a 1985 silicon bronze by Luis Jiminez that shows a festively and traditionally dressed Mexican couple dancing. Also interesting is Paul Granlund's Rodin-esque bronze from 1963, "Lovers Back to Back."

On the wall behind the sculptures is another contender for the show's finest painting: Fairfield Porter's "Anne, Lizzie, and Katie," an oil on canvas from 1958. Like Park, Porter emerged on the art scene in the 1920s and '30s; unlike Park, he didn't respond to the abstract-expressionist revolution that raged in American art during the 1940s and '50s. This Porter was a late entry in the scene-painting movement that dates to a generation before it was painted, reflecting the artist's roots -- and deliberately not reflecting any abstract influence.

It's at this point that Perisho has skillfully inserted the Colorado section of the show, using a conference room to create additional gallery space. Immediately commanding our attention -- and visible in the distance from the moment you enter the CVA -- is a large Floyd Tunson piece from 2001, "Othar," a meticulously done graphite drawing on gessoed canvas. This black-on-white portrait shows blues artist Othar Turner, whom Tunson met on a recent trip to Mississippi. The Tunson has been paired with a striking Matt O'Neill, "Air Guitar (Seventh Grade Self Portrait)," from 1997, which combines the artist's interest in African-American music history with his taste for yearbook photos, conveyed with a tip of the hat to surrealism. Especially effective are the bars of dark violet and black that O'Neill has laid over the otherwise representational composition.

The Colorado pieces include an early and significant Jeff Starr, "The Birth of Tragedy," an alkyd on linen of a little boy (a self-portrait?) sitting on a ruined column and holding a small figural sculpture; work like this is what made Starr a star on the local art scene. David Mesplé's "The One True Religion," a 2001 pencil on canvas, shows a figure standing before a series of burning crosses done with photographic accuracy at the top; below is the word "one," behind which are artist-made artifacts that Mesplé calls "reliquary objects."

Irene Delka McCray and Peter Illig are also featured in the local segment; these two artists are really on their way up lately, and it seems as if half the shows in town include their work.

To get to the last leg of the show, you need to go back through the large center gallery and head to the set of galleries located opposite the entry. In the first and the largest of the spaces, Perisho has installed three sculptures that stretch across a broad area of aesthetic interest. "So much in the history of art of the last fifty years is expressed by looking at these three sculptures together," she says. First is Judith Shea's "Shield" from 1989, a bronze on a limestone base of a draped figure that's an update on neo-classicism. Next comes a white painted bronze, "Observer," created by Louise Bourgeois from 1947-49. This is the oldest piece in the show, but also the most modernist and abstract, reflecting the influence of the School of Paris on this French-born New Yorker. Finally, there's "Rosa Negra #1," a painted bronze from 1983 that's typical of Manuel Neri's figural abstraction of the last twenty years.

Hanging as a backdrop to the three sculptures is another genuine masterpiece from the Sheldon collection, on the level of the Park and the Porter. Philip Pearlstein's painting, "Resting female model seated on stool with one leg raised and head bent," an oil on canvas from 1975, is a major work; given its comprehensive title, there's no doubt about the subject.

The Human Factor explores many of the alternate options to the New York School that representational artists took over the last fifty years. The Sheldon pieces, along with the Colorado additions inserted by Perisho, remind us that there's often more to a story than first meets the eye.

Speaking of things not being what they seem, last week I received a phone call from Skip Kohloff of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. I immediately guessed what the call was about: CPAC's most recent mailer announcing the opening this weekend of "Probing Mischance," a photographic installation.

The problem, you see, was that inside the CPAC envelope was another transparent envelope, and visible inside it, a little square of white plaster-coated gauze and, of course, plaster dust.

That's right -- white powder coming through the mail!

When I first saw it, I was amused rather than alarmed. After all, who but an artist would innocently consider sending a white powdery substance through the mail right now? And I thoroughly believe Kohloff when he says the mailing's association with bio-terrorism was something that never even crossed the minds of the artists -- Maggie Van Westenberg and Julianne Zatorski -- who created it.

In a subsequent mailing to the hundreds of people who'd received the original "powder" piece, Kohloff writes that "it was not the intention of the artists to cause any grief, particularly at this time in our nation," adding, "The artists as well as the Colorado Photographic Arts Center apologize for any concerns this oversight may have caused you in light of the current national situation."

You have to admit, it's funny -- in a gallows-humor kind of way. But ultimately, it's pretty sad.


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