RedLine's Transit of Venus pays tribute to the Front Range Women
“Parable of Bordeaux,” by Sandra Wittow.
During his tenure at RedLine, former director P.J. D'Amico brought an interest in social activism to the programming there. A little over a year ago, he and then-deputy director (and now director) Louise Martorano decided that the 2014 schedule would be given over to exploring the role of women in art.
At about the same time, artists Sally Elliott and Margaretta Gilboy approached William Biety, a freelance curator and owner of Space Editor, an interior consultant, with an idea. The two had been members of Front Range Women in the Visual Arts since its founding, in 1974, and were hoping that Biety would curate a fortieth-anniversary exhibit for them. Biety was taken aback: "I was surprised that they asked me, and so I said to them, 'Are you sure? Wouldn't it be better to have a woman do this?' But surprisingly, my being a man wasn't an issue with them at all."
Biety took the idea to D'Amico and Martorano, who quickly realized that the show would be a perfect opener for their planned series. He then spent 2013 tracking down as many members of Front Range Women as he could — a difficult task, since nearly half of them are no longer in the region. The impressive result is The Transit of Venus: Four Decades, Front Range Women in the Visual Arts, which is about halfway through its run at RedLine.
I first became aware of the Front Range Women in 2000, when the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art mounted Green Tea & Elbows. At that time, Cydney Payton, then director of BMoCA and the organizer of that show, called the group a "body politic," which is a very apt description. Its members didn't constitute a school or movement, but rather were unified by an interest in feminism. The genesis of the group had to do with discrimination against women in the arts: Many were routinely rejected from exhibits in the '70s. Front Range Women became part of a network of similar collectives across the country that aimed to fix that.
For his exhibit, Biety decided not to do a historic survey, but to look instead at what the members had been up to lately. "Some are more active...than others, and sometimes I had only a few pieces to choose from," he says. But some of the artists are still at it, and a few have national reputations.
It should also be added that since they were all practicing artists forty years ago, when the group was launched (though some were student-age at the time), today they are seniors, for the most part, a few of them elderly; at least one of them — Sandra Wittow — is dead. It is for this reason that the show starts off with a small niche dedicated to Wittow. On the back wall is her striking "Parable of Bordeaux," a complex diptych that is further divided into sections in which she's inserted references to earlier imagery, including a rendition of Walt Disney's Snow White and one of Caravaggio's Bacchus.
There's a straightforward realism to Wittow's rendering of the found references, which makes this painting the perfect starting point for the rest of the show, with all its various stripes of realism coming together to become the dominant stylistic thread. Despite there not being any specific style associated with the Front Range Women, most of the artists were — and are — interested in figural approaches. This is a result of the fact that abstraction was viewed in the 1970s as an aesthetic that supported the patriarchy. But this was a somewhat self-serving viewpoint for representational artists; in fact, some of the best-known women artists of the previous generation had been abstractionists. Even in this show, which is dominated by figuration, some of the strongest works are abstracts.
Other artists whose works can be linked to this realist current include Gilboy, who was one of those who tapped Biety to put together the show. Her "Idyll" reveals a couple embracing on the ground with a Doberman standing guard behind them. There's an expressive quality to the brushwork, and the edges of the composition are particularly painterly, driving the eye to the center, where the action is.
Related works by Virginia Johnson and Rebecca Van Buren have a delightful retro '30s-'40s character, and it's amazing that these kinds of things aren't better known, since they would so easily fit into that contemporary-Western category that's been on the upswing lately. Other artists that followed related realist paths include Marilyn Duke, Jaci Fischer, Ann Isolde, Georgia Pugh, Helen Redman, Celeste Rehm, Marcia Rehn, and Elliott — the other artist who asked Biety to put the show together.
Distinctly different are the handful of photo and photo-related pieces, though they, too, are representational by their very nature. These include photo-realist paintings by Barbara Shark and remarkably detailed hyper-realist landscape drawings by Fran Metzger. Carol K. Brown's C-prints are really intriguing: Using digital programs, she alters and inserts figures of homeless men into straight shots of comfortable bourgeois interiors. The photos of the men have obviously been painted over, which only heightens the sense of their displacement in the domestic scene.
Speaking of domestic scenes, it's interesting to note that there's very little art here that takes on the topic of feminism, with domestic life often being the foil for such work. It's even more interesting to note the pair of post-feminist pieces: the somewhat lurid, and jaw-dropping, photo enlargements of Vegas strippers by Vidie Lange. This is courageous work in the context of the Front Range Women, and probably would not have been tolerated back in the heavily politicized atmosphere of art in the '70s.
As I said, realism rules among the members of the Front Range Women, but some do work that ranges from figural abstraction to pure abstraction. It is in this group that some of the most prominent artists are represented. There's the legendary Betty Woodman, who is represented by two prints that deconstruct vessels. Also having gained prominence in the wider art world is Barbara Takenaga, whose hypnotic abstracts are created by arranging a dizzying number of painted dots; her two works here are among the standouts in the show. Virginia Maitland's career has recently surged, and in this exhibit she shows her signature veil paintings, in which dazzling color fields run into one another. Among the other artists working in abstraction, at least broadly speaking, are June Julian, Jalaliyyih Quinn and Sue Robinson.
Everything I've mentioned until now is essentially two-dimensional, in the form of paintings, drawings, prints and photos, but there are at least a handful of three-dimensional artists who were also associated with the Front Range Women. I was really struck by the two cast-glass busts and the small figure by Micaela Amateau Amato. Well-known sculptor Barbara Baer has installed two monumental abstract sculptures that utilize transparent materials offset by painted sections. Very quiet in their appeal and thus all but lost in the cavernous spaces at RedLine are the tiny yet intriguing abstract tiles by Carol Kliger.
Finally, it's easy to imagine how difficult it would be to put together a coherent group show when the participants are not connected by what their pieces look like. But as he always does — relying solely on his instincts, his taste and his understanding of space, and with no sense of a conceptual underpinning — Biety has pulled it off handsomely.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.