Side Show Attractions
On the first floor of the Denver Art Museum, there always seems to be some kind of blockbuster exhibition. People complain about these shows, but it makes sense that the museum would do them: The DAM needs to crank up its attendance -- and not just to collect more money at the gate, but also because attendance numbers are directly related to funding from both public and private sources.
Luckily for the museum, such exhibits typically bring in throngs of visitors. That's the case with the current one, An American Century of Photography, which highlights the stunning photo collection of Hallmark Cards, the Kansas City-based greeting-card company.
The Hallmark show has definitely been popular with viewers. On a recent afternoon the show was jammed -- and justifiably so, because it's absolutely spectacular. Hallmark curator Keith Davis surveys photography from the 1890s to the 1990s, with examples by many of the most important photographers working during that time.
An American Century closes on September 29, so if you haven't seen it, I urge you to make the effort.
The near-constant presence of these big, important shows is only one part of the modern-day story at the DAM. The other part -- the mostly unsung one -- is the museum's extensive roster of more modest exhibits. While the centerpiece presentations command the first-floor galleries, these other shows are going on in smaller and sometimes nearly hidden spaces on the second through seventh floors.
As might be expected, fewer people see these shows, but attendance would be greater if they were even minimally promoted. There is no apparent signage in the elevator lobby -- or anywhere else that I could see -- listing the special exhibits on display upstairs. Actually, there isn't any indication on the first floor that there are any shows upstairs at all.
Too bad these exhibits fly below the radar, because they're really worthwhile for viewers. They also serve a dual purpose for the museum: In addition to rotating what's available, they give the DAM's curators a chance to practice their craft, which is mostly denied them by the already-put-together-and-in-the-can nature of the blockbusters downstairs.
Woven Harmony: Tapestries of Rebecca Bluestone, in the Neusteter Textile Gallery on the sixth floor, is one of the current intimate shows at the museum. This solo, which examines the work of the contemporary Santa Fe weaver, was organized by the DAM's consulting curator in textile art, Alice Zrebiec. It takes a look at Bluestone's minimalist-style work in woven wool and silk from the last decade or so. Only one of the Bluestones belongs to the museum; the rest are on loan from private collectors or from Bluestone herself. (This underscores another benefit of small shows: With loaned items, objects in the DAM's own collection can be more fully explicated and better understood in an expanded context.)
Zrebiec is a distinguished scholar, lecturer and curator with a special interest in textiles. She received a Ph.D. in art history in 1980 from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Even before she completed her studies at NYU, Zrebiec was hired at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she remained for sixteen years, working with the textiles in the European collection.
While at the Met, Zrebiec came to know current DAM director Lewis Sharp, who also worked in the New York museum at the time. This chance meeting later led to Zrebiec's being hired by the DAM in 1996. Since then, she has presented approximately two textile shows per year -- a pretty swift clip by museum-curator standards. The accomplishment is even more remarkable because it's done long distance: Zrebiec lives in Santa Fe and only rarely commutes to Denver.
Previous exhibits have examined Asian ikats and prairie quilts; Woven Harmony is the first to focus on contemporary weaving.
"I wanted to do a contemporary show," says Zrebiec, "and living in Santa Fe, I knew Rebecca's work, and I understood it." Zrebiec felt that the DAM show would help introduce Bluestone's weavings to a larger audience. "Though she's known nationally, and very well known in the Southwest, a lot of people aren't familiar with her work. Aside from weavers, Bluestone will be new to most of the people who see the show."
Despite the fact that the tapestries recall Southwestern weavings, and that Bluestone hails from Santa Fe and has an Indian-sounding name, she is not a Native American. "It's the most frequent misconception about her," says Zrebiec. "Bluestone, which was changed from Blaustein, is her married name, anyway."
Bluestone was born in 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and graduated in 1976 from Oklahoma State University. She moved to Santa Fe in 1986, and has lived there ever since, though she travels widely, teaching and lecturing. On Saturday, October 12, she'll be in Denver to present a lecture titled "Inspiration of Color, Music, and Line" at the Denver Central Library.
Almost immediately after moving to New Mexico, Bluestone studied with Ramona Sakiestewa, a contemporary Hopi weaver, and the influence of traditional Indian weaving is easy to see in her marvelous tapestries. "She's not, however, doing copies of traditional weavings," notes Zrebiec. "She's quoting or expanding on those traditions."
One of the ways Bluestone achieves this is by introducing concepts that are more familiar to contemporary painting, such as minimalism -- or maybe even post-minimalism, considering how weaving, by its labor-intensive nature, is anything but minimal.
Some Bluestone weavings, like the pair from the "Journeys Series," are color fields. In both of these tapestries, the visual interest is created by gradations of color: Bluestone has created a luxurious effect in which the color slowly shifts from blue to purple to pink with no clear margins.
The "Journeys" tapestries are the most minimal in the show. They completely lack any compositional element aside from the grading of the shades. Others are more geometric and sport bars or squares of color that contrast with the backgrounds. The backgrounds themselves are handled in the same way as the "Journeys" pieces, with graduated shading.
The three "Untitled" pieces, in various colors, are fine examples of geometric abstraction; all three have horizontal bars and a grid of squares done in metallic threads. Also very nice is "Four Corners/8," which the museum owns. These geometric pieces are based on Fibonacci number sequences. Fibonacci was a Renaissance mathematician who developed a rational system of number sequencing based on addition. These sequences are sometimes used by Bluestone to determine the specific arrangement of her grid patterns.
Woven Harmony isn't the only show displayed upstairs at the DAM. Among the others is African Renaissance: New Forms, Old Images, in the seventh-floor Gates Gallery.
African Renaissance was put together by DAM assistant curator Moyo Okediji, head of the African division of the Native Arts department. He has held the post, which was essentially created for him, since 1999.
Okediji, a native of Nigeria, earned degrees from that country's University of Ife and University of Benin. He came to the United States in 1992 and completed his studies at the University of Wisconsin, which must have been quite an adjustment. In addition to his curatorial duties at the DAM, Okediji teaches art history at the University of Colorado's Denver campus.
For African Renaissance, Okediji wanted to link historic traditional art from Nigeria's Yoruba culture with contemporary art. "When people think of African art," Okediji says, "we tend to think of the art of the past. In this show, I wanted to demonstrate the continuity that exists in African art."
Okediji put together a historical show of wood sculptures and carvings and then paired the old material with new -- in this case, the work of a single contemporary Nigerian painter, Moyo Ogundipe. Ogundipe was born and raised in Nigeria and educated in Britain and the United States. He currently lives in Denver and, like Okediji, teaches in the fine-arts department at UCD.
The historic part of the show includes several loans from private collectors. The DAM has only modest holdings in African art, though this has changed incrementally since Okediji was hired a few years ago.
The older pieces that Okediji has chosen include a wide range of masks, headdresses, house posts and even doors with carved or sculpted imagery. "Birds are very important," he points out, "and so are snakes." The naturalistic imagery is based on symbols from the indigenous animistic religions of Nigeria. "But with the imported religions, Christianity and Islam," says Okediji, "the native religions have been dying out." The symbols, though, have not, and they've been preserved in both traditional and contemporary Nigerian art.
One of the most impressive pieces included in African Renaissance is the house post by Olowe of Ise. "Olowe is the most important twentieth-century Yoruba artist," says Okediji. "The house posts," he explains, "were not structural, but solely decorative. That's why, even though so many of them were removed, the old houses are still standing." Olowe's house post is covered with stylized figures.
Another standout is an elegant pair of doors depicting a scene from a tribal war. The doors, which date back to the mid-nineteenth century and are among the oldest objects in the show, are thought to be by an artist known as the Master of Ikere.
One piece that connects the historic works to the contemporary paintings is the Egungun headdress, a wood carving with flowing skirts made from wildly colored fabrics. The reds, purples and other strong tones are a direct corollary to the colors Ogundipe uses in his paintings. One of the best of these, "Land of Lasting Song," is meant to capture the experience of watching tribal dancers wearing things similar to the Egungun headdress.
Imagery also connects the old and new halves of African Renaissance. The same birds, snakes, and male and female figures that appear in the historic material can be seen, albeit in very abstracted forms, in Ogundipe's paintings. A good example is "Soliloquy: Life's Fragile Fictions." According to Okediji, it is the show's "pivotal painting," and the work that originally inspired him to organize the show.
Rebecca Bluestone and African Renaissance are hardly blockbuster exhibits, but that doesn't mean they should come and go without eliciting the notice of museum visitors. The majority of those who pass through the big rooms on the first floor won't make the effort to go upstairs. Don't let yourself be among them.
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