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Residual Memory

"Learning to Walk," by Jimmy Sellars, pigmented inkjet based on a photo.

I've sometimes been criticized for promoting our own art scene too much, though my detractors often misunderstand my position. It's not that I want our local institutions to feature only artists from around here, but rather to better integrate them into their exhibition schedules. In championing this cause over the years, I've put the screws to the Denver Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. More recently, I've done it to the Lab in Belmar. And I don't plan to stop, either, because I think it's the right thing to do.

I have a rationale for my campaign beyond the do-gooder angle: If you want something to grow, nurture it. If you want it to wither and die, don't. Give Colorado artists opportunities to show in legitimate non-commercial venues, and they will rise to the occasion almost every time. Don't allow them to participate, and they'll never get the chance to demonstrate what they've got.

What's brought these thoughts to mind is Residual Memory, now in its final weeks at the Arvada Center. To come up with this show, exhibition director Jerry Gilmore invited photo-based artist Jimmy Sellars to exhibit alongside ceramics whiz Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, both of whom are longtime habitués of the Denver art scene. Having the capacious Lower Galleries at Arvada at their disposal (instead of Pirate, their normal stamping grounds) encouraged the two to soar. They both created impressive new bodies of work expressly for this do-not-miss show.

Despite the single title, this is not a Sellars-Gibbons duet, but rather two large solos mounted side by side. Though Sellars and Gibbons have exhibited together for many years, the connection between the two is personal and not aesthetic. As a result, their work is completely separated here, so it's possible to take in the two parts of Residual Memory in any order. Since Sellars occupies the entry gallery, it makes sense to start with his half, then take in the half that's devoted to Gibbons. At least that's what I did.

For several years, Sellars has been using G.I. Joe action figures to stand in for human models in his digitally based photographs. In the pieces he created for Residual Memory, Sellars uses the figures to refer to his own memories. In his artist's statement, he indicates that it was the death of his father that made him realize that reality can quickly be replaced with memory.

Whatever his inspirations were, the finished works are marvelous. Sellars puts his best foot forward with the first piece, a pigmented inkjet print titled "Learning to Walk." At first glance, it looks like an homage to an Old Master painting in terms of its somber palette and the way the figures have been arrayed across the picture. That made me wonder if its creation was sparked by the Goya-inspired pieces Sellars did for (New) Disasters of War, currently on view at the Mizel Center's Singer Gallery. I'll bet there's a connection.

"Learning to Walk," like all of the G.I. Joe photos, is staged. But in this case, Sellars created a more elaborate, even epic setting compared to his previous works. He did a landscape background and, in the foreground, placed four G.I. Joes traveling in the same direction. They are in civilian clothes, but somehow there's the implication of wartime. It could be the theatrical lighting he used when he took the original photo -- or maybe it's the implication of hardship, with one of the figures being urged on by the others along a road in the wilderness. I guess that's what made me think they were refugees.

In the airy, two-story atrium space, Sellars hung some very large works -- notably, "Father," a multi-part digital print of a G.I. Joe in a dark jacket and wearing gloves, with his arms outstretched across the long, horizontally oriented piece. Also in this section are prints, such as "Memory of Flight," that use photos of realistic dolls and not action figures. Because of that, they are less edgy and lose the conceptual content brought in by the simulations the G.I. Joes represent.

In the small area beyond the atrium are more G.I. Joe prints. I particularly like "Apostle #3: Son of the Father," which reads like a painted portrait of a person. But when you notice that the face and hair are made of plastic, the piece gives off just the right oddball zing.

And while we're on the subject of oddball zing, it's time to go on to the extremely ambitious and very idiosyncratic Marie E.v.B. Gibbons part of the show. Gibbons is a talented ceramics artist who is especially good at surfaces. Each of the three Gibbons spaces has been conceived as an installation, with two of them anchored by found bathtubs. The imagery of the bathtub is not meant to be capricious, but rather to reinforce Gibbons's theme in Residual Memory, which is water. All of the pieces here are part of her "My Ocean" series. Gibbons grew up on Long Island and still recalls her love of the sea even though she's lived in landlocked Denver for many years.

If we pick up the Gibbons portion where we left off with Sellars, the first bathtub we come across is a disgusting rust bucket. The tub relates to the rust oxides Gibbons uses for her ceramics, her chief medium. In "Indulgence," Gibbons has the bust of a woman on the wall, surrounded by casts of conventionalized lobsters, with the ceramic face and crustaceans finished in a sumptuous rust patina. The tub also resonates with "Collective," 48 elements cast in clay that are based on fussy claw-foot bathtub details. They have been arranged in a grid of twelve-by-eight and cover one wall. Most of the parts are finished in a white wash, with a few done in rust. It's a knockout.

The center space is dominated by a figural group on an elevated platform, the surface of which is made of dried clay slip meant to refer to water. The figures have a primitive tribal-art look, as do the boat-shaped bowls being pulled behind them. This piece stood out from the rest of the Gibbonses in the show because of the pointed primitive references in the forms. Though large and impressive, I don't think it works

Back up front, Gibbons uses the other bathtub, which is filled with blue-tinted water. Beyond it, projected directly on the wall, is a film of ocean waves. On the opposite wall is "Part of Everything," a sculpture in three parts -- one of several in this room. The bowl, the largest part, is placed at the bottom, with a smaller element, the head, in the middle, and the smallest, a roundel, on top. The triangular arrangement lends the piece a hieratic quality, making it seem as though it's some kind of sacred symbol. This section, with its tub full of blue water, the flickering film and all of the expertly done ceramics, seems like a unified installation, but it's really a group of separate pieces.

The two-act Residual Memory at the off-the-beaten-track Arvada Center provides a wonderful showcase for Jimmy Sellars and Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, allowing them to stretch out both figuratively and literally. The amount of room at their disposal was the equivalent of half a dozen private galleries or alternative spaces. But even better, it gives the rest of us the opportunity to notice just how good they are -- and to realize that they've been doing this first-rate work right under our noses.


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