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Scene Changes

"Untitled (Paper Green)," by Steven Altman, mixed-media painting.

There are big changes afoot at the little Mizel Museum of Judaica.

First, the impending remodel of the BJ-BMH Synagogue, where it is housed, may put the museum out on the street, or at least into storage, and force it to cancel its upcoming schedule.

The proposed design for the facelift -- on display in the museum lobby -- is presented with panels and is complete with lowest-common-denominator drawings and tacky material samples. The new plan includes a clunky podium and a bombastic, zigzag background that make the synagogue's main sanctuary look like one of those fundamentalist Christian super-churches down around Highlands Ranch.

It was designed -- if you want to call it that -- by Hans Kahn Associates, a Denver firm. Hopefully that beautiful little chapel on the south side won't be lost in the process. The chapel, like the synagogue, was originally designed in 1966 by Murrin, Kasch, Kahn and Associates -- ironically, a predecessor of Hans Kahn Associates.

Second, after five years at the institution's helm, associate director Leona Lazar has been forced out by the MMJ's figurehead of a director, Rabbi Stanley Wagner. The decision came as a complete surprise to most of the MMJ's board of governors; the vast majority of them have signed a public tribute to Lazar, praising her efforts and accomplishments.

The timing of the ouster was also shocking, since Lazar had just given the MMJ a national presence. Her last day at the museum was just two weeks after the conclusion of the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums held in Phoenix, which she had organized. Some will recall, however, that the same thing happened to Lazar's predecessor, Francine Haber. Having raised the MMJ's profile and made it a vital part of the local cultural scene in a way that it had never been before, Haber was rewarded by being pushed out of her job in 1995.

Rabbi Wagner is expected to step down himself in June, but he will probably stay involved with the institution, perhaps serving on the board of trustees. Ellen Gorgenyi, the MMJ's director of education, will serve as interim associate director until a replacement is found.

But hold on -- the list of changes isn't over yet. Preliminary discussions are under way to permanently move the museum out of the South Monaco Parkway synagogue and merge it with the Mizel Arts Center at the Jewish Community Center in Hilltop. The MAC is a multidisciplinary institution that has a fine-art department as well as literature, film and theater departments. The MAC director is Joanne Kauvar, who formerly worked at the MMJ.

Word about the possible merger leaked out a few weeks ago, when JCC director Paula Herzmark alerted members of the tennis program that the tennis house -- the big, ugly tin can that mars the center's south side on Leetsdale Drive -- might be demolished to make room for a freestanding museum to house the MMJ and the visual-art component of the MAC (which is now presented in the small Singer Gallery). Tennis-program members are up in arms, and a rancorous public meeting was held last week, complete with picketers and petitions. But the new museum already looks like a done deal.

Herzmark has a lot of relevant experience. She headed up the JCC's total redo a few years ago and before that was a key player in discussions leading up to the Denver Public Library addition and remodel.

She has told people close to the JCC that she wants the proposed museum to be a signature building and is considering some of the best-known local architecture firms in an informal way. And bravo to her for that. We can only hope that the chosen firm will take advantage of this opportunity by creating a distinctive work of art in harmony with the existing JCC.

Another good thing about the merger, if it happens -- and I think it will -- is that the confusion over two Jewish institutions with the same name and located only a mile apart will be cleared up. Instead of having the alphabet soup of the MMJ at the BJ-BMH and the MAC at the JCC, we'll be able to simply call it the Mizel. And won't that be nice.

Despite the tumult, the show must go on, and the MMJ is now presenting a handsome group ceramics exhibit called The Tzedakah Box Invitational, featuring the work of more than two dozen Colorado artists. Like so many others, it was timed to coincide with the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts meeting, which will be held in Denver later this month.

The first question that most people will ask about this show is, "What in heaven's name is a tzedakah box?"

 

According to museum curator Molly Dubin, a tzedakah box is a small container kept in the home in which coins are collected for charity. "When Jewish people in Denver think of tzedakah, they remember National Jewish Hospital's pushke cans," she says, referring to the little metal cans with a slot in the top. But the definition of tzedakah is much broader. "Tzedakah is a pillar of Jewish culture," says Dubin. "It refers to open-handed charity. It goes back to ancient times, when Jewish farmers would leave a part of their harvest in the fields to be gathered up by the needy.

"I was so excited when Rodger Lang [host of the Denver NCECA meeting] approached us with the idea of doing a ceramics show, and I thought tzedakah boxes, as a form, would be a perfect fit." Giving Jewish tradition a contemporary context is a unique feature of the MMJ, and this is the latest example of it.

Dubin began by assembling a list of sixty artists whose work she admired. She sent letters to all of them describing tzedakah and explaining her intentions. Ultimately, 28 artists agreed to participate, and some of them are represented by multiple examples.

The show begins with three large pieces by Jennifer Chambers Neff, which were obviously custom-made for the show. Her slab-built vessels feature beautiful glazes -- one created with lentil ash, another with peanut ash. All three combine turquoise and white glazes with the light brown of the clay body showing through in places. Pieces of fabricated metal and pennies are used to accent the ceramic forms.

Neff, from Greeley, isn't the only one who created work specifically for Tzedakah, but many of the other artists sent existing pieces that broadly fit the theme -- typically a covered vessel, or container.

Across from Neff's work are three monumental sculptures by Jim Foster, who works in a studio between Fort Collins and the Wyoming border. The gorgeous pieces are typical Fosters; he's simply recast their meaning to reflect the topic. All three come from his "Kiss" series -- the bronze corollaries of which were on display at the Market Street Gallery at Guiry's a couple of months ago -- and were made in either metal or clay. He has been working on this series for the past few years.

Foster begins by throwing a tall, deep bowl, which is inverted. Then, while it's still wet, he attaches a flat oval slab, using big globs of heavily worked clay. As it dries, the thin slab warps into a graceful arc. Foster then glazes a scene of a kissing male and female on one side of the slab. All three have been placed on pieces of polished black stone that have been roughly cut into rectangles.

Beyond the Fosters is a large pedestal on which an entire series of tzedakah boxes by Denver's Carroll Hansen has been displayed. Like Neff, Hansen ran with the idea and created new work based on the theme of the show. The Hansens are complicated sculptures in which a variety of forms are clustered. The resulting assemblages are glazed in a delicious gun-metal black with a single red accent on some.

Against the wall, behind the Hansens, are two rectilinear sculptures by Littleton's Jutta Golas. Both carry the identical title of "Tzedakah Box," but the simpler of the two is the finer. Using slabs, Golas has created a completely enclosed form that has been expressively glazed in turquoise and white.

There are many other interesting things in this exhibit, notably the lidded jars by Pueblo's Tom Latka and the tall sculptural form by Macy Dorf of Denver. Also outstanding are the pair of raku pieces by Michael Parry, from Coaldale.

Tzedakah may wind up being the last show at the MMJ in its current location, but stay tuned: It's still early.

Over on Santa Fe Drive, the tumbledown ILK is also bristling with possibilities, but not in the form of a new building -- even if it could use one. Despite the limitations of its grungy storefront, ILK still presents some of the most interesting shows -- not just on the alternative scene, but anywhere. Who would imagine, for example, that in the south gallery, beyond the boarded- up windows, there would be one of the strongest abstract solo shows seen around here in a long time.

Untitled: Steven Altman comprises a group of associated abstract paintings. One of them, "Untitled (Paper Orange)," was seen last fall in the Colorado Abstraction exhibit at the Arvada Center. The additional eight paintings at ILK, which are all closely interrelated, are debuting here.

The materials that Altman used to make these paintings aren't listed anywhere in this show, but assuming they're all made in the same way as "Paper Orange," which was fully identified at the Arvada Center, they're acrylic, oil stick and crayon on paper that has been laid over board. The small sheets of paper are arranged like tiles, and they provide a subtle, almost invisible grid under every composition.

 

Altman is interested in gestural, emergent abstract forms, which he sees as springing from his unconscious, according to his artist statement. But actual sources from the history of abstract painting are also easy to see. Altman's forms, which often suggest the human figure, are not unlike those of mid-century modern masters such as Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning.

Although he has a tremendous facility for composition, Altman's strong point is as an accomplished colorist; he typically assembles a wide array of colors but uses one shade as the dominant one. The titles of his work often reveal this single tone among the many he uses for each.

"Untitled (Purple #1)," for instance, is a large horizontal painting covered in a rich purple, with accents of pink, orange, black and yellow. It sports a number of automatically generated forms. One of these, a sinuous shape at the left center, has been highlighted in pink and white and outlined in black. It is clearly related to de Kooning's semi-representational style.

"Untitled (Paper Green)," a smaller vertical panel, is covered in a deep, shiny green. Scribbled elements done mostly in black and white, with just a little red, run from the top to the bottom of the right side.

It's impressive to see how easily Altman was able to transform the shabby south gallery at ILK into a luxurious environment just by hanging some of his great abstract paintings on the walls. And that clutch of calla lilies, on a stand in the middle of the room? That looked good, too.


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