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Smart and Pretty

"Lift Off II," by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, quadtone digital print.

Among the standard features of the visual arts, two attributes rise above the others: what something looks like, and what it means. The rise of modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was, to a great extent, all about appearances, with formalism providing a kind of conceptual justification. Post-modern, dating back to the 1960s and coming on strong by the 1980s, posited a visual art based not on seeing, but on thinking about seeing.

Lately I've come to realize that I'm more interested in the first part of this dialectic. If something is beautiful and nothing else, that's enough for me, whereas if something is ugly but fraught with meaning, it's just not enough.

What's brought these thoughts to mind are a series of shows around town that combine aesthetics and conceptual issues. All of them succeed because the art in them catches our eyes -- not because the ideas that lie behind them draw our attention.


There may or may not be some kind of message behind Kate Petley's juicy-looking resin-on-acrylic panels installed in the front room at + Gallery, but I sure can't figure out what it would be. Instead, what strikes me first about the transparent abstractions in DELIRIOUS is how beautiful they are -- and how decorative.

Petley was born in New York and lives in Pagosa Springs. She's been exhibiting nationally since the 1990s and here in Denver for the past five or six years. I first encountered her work at the long-closed and much-lamented Ron Judish Fine Arts.

All of Petley's pieces in the front at + have been mounted on two chrome brackets so that the transparent plastic panels stand away from the walls, allowing light to come through from behind. This gives them a luminescent quality, an attribute that's usually only suggested in art, not actually present in the physical sense. An artist can use colors that make sunlit clouds seem to glow, but these Petleys actually glow -- at least when the gallery lights hit the wall behind them.

For the main part of the show, Petley has created a baker's dozen of her signature pieces. Something new this time around is the incorporation of photographic imagery, though in the best of them, this aspect is handled subtly. Where it is more emphatic, the technique fails. All of the pieces look like art glass, and I was actually tempted to tap them to make sure they weren't. (Oh, okay. I did tap them.)

A major strength is Petley's choice of colors. In "Wing Tips," she assembles several shades of blue, one more gorgeous than the next. In "Available Halos," ambers and rich browns take over. As a result of the physics of pouring the liquid resin, the compositions are predominantly organic abstractions, and in that way, neo-modern.

The Petley panels have an ethereal quality, like looking at the surface of a pool filled with water. If there is a subject matter to them, it's completely overwhelmed by their beauty.


Clearly, South African artist Minnette V´ri's chimera, a multi-part video installation at the Victoria Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, has a lot of subject matter. But it's also a visual experience, because you don't need to know any of the history that V´ri references to appreciate the piece. Not only that, but her commentary is oblique and hard to follow. The topic of chimera is both the she-devil of the title -- in this case, V´ri herself -- and the racist past of South Africa.

V´ri recorded on digital video the bas-reliefs from the Voortrekker Monument in South Africa, which depicts scenes from the inland migration of the Dutch Afrikaners in the mid-nineteenth century. An informative wall panel contains pictures of the monument and a discussion of the migration, which is compared to the westward expansion of the United States. The two events share various archetypes, such as the image of the pioneer woman and the covered wagon. More poignant are the comparisons with the natives in both events, with the Zulu and Ndebele of South Africa standing in for the Ute and Cheyenne in the U.S.

The stunning installation includes four ceiling-mounted video projectors that shoot imagery onto the walls. The picture seen as viewers enter the room bleeds off onto two walls, each featuring details of the Voortrekker bas-reliefs morphing into images of the chimera. A soundtrack combining synthesized electronic sounds and choral music strikes the perfect balance to the ever-changing images. In some, V´ri turns the white marble Voortrekker pieces black.

The piece debuted in 2001; its appearance at DU marks its premiere in the United States. Shannen Hill, a DU professor who specializes in African art and was the Myhren's former director, proposed the show and facilitated V´ri's being an artist-in-residence on campus.  

It's hard to understand how the morphing self-portrait as a chimera and the shifting views of the Voortrekker are an attack on the racist regime that ran South Africa before majority rule took over more than a decade ago. Thankfully, that in no way diminishes the incredible experience in store for those who catch chimera before it closes on May 7.


Referencing history, as Minnette V´ri does at DU, is one thing; inventing it is another. Fantasy masquerading as credible accounts of the past is what's in store at Robischon Gallery. The incredible exhibit KAHN + SELESNICK: Panoramas and Artifacts, 1996-2006 occupies several spaces in the front of the gallery and lays out a series of digital-photo-based works purporting to be historic documents, though they're obviously not. The scenes they depict are too preposterous.

The collaborators are Nicholas Kahn, who was born in New York, and Richard Selesnick, from London. The two met while students at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where both received their BFA degrees. Since that time, they've exhibited widely, and their work has been reviewed in major periodicals. Robischon has had an on-and-off relationship with the artists for years, but this is their first major exhibition at the gallery. The fact that the two recently served as artists-in-residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder -- and were therefore close by -- was surely a deciding factor in scheduling the show at this time.

The Robischon exhibit includes examples from several of their series, each of which is essentially given its own space. The show begins with the pseudo-exotic "The City of Salt," followed by the pseudo-scientific "The Apollo Prophecies," the pseudo-archaeological "Scotlandfuturebog" and the pseudo-National Geographic "The Circular River." There are elaborate stories laid out in each series, but without referring to the elaborate explanations by Kahn and Selesnick, viewers can only get a sense of what they might be.

Nowhere in the show, or in the artist statements, are there any technical explanations for how the pieces were made. So I'll guess that Kahn and Selesnick use models, perhaps even themselves, along with props and found and created images. They combine all of these sources on a computer to come up with the imaginary views captured in their pieces.

Every one of these series is engaging, thoughtful and thoroughly well done, but the images from "The Apollo Prophecies" are the most incredible because they're so darned convincing. The subject is the surface of the moon, as recorded in panoramic photos more than six feet long. The photos are also tremendously theatrical; for example, "Lift Off II" looks like a scene from an opera. In the center is a group of men in space suits, or an approximation of them, assembling a preposterous device that looks like it's made out of old tubas. The cherry on top, though, is not the enigmatic figures, or the even more enigmatic machine, but the rocket and its flaming contrail seen zipping across the sky. When I noticed it, my hair stood on end.

The space where "The Apollo Prophecies" are displayed also includes a showcase of what are supposed to be moon rocks and cans of "lunar paste." Also part of the installation is a DVD documentary about this fictional trip to the moon, which has a very authentic-sounding voiceover.

Kahn and Selesnick push photography in the don't-believe-everything-you-see direction. In a small space in the back at Robischon, Gary Emrich: Spectacle pushes photography onto a different path, using it as an element in sculptures. Denver artist Emrich, a graduate of both CU and the Art Institute of Chicago, is the head of the photography and video department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. He has been exhibiting in the area for more than 25 years and has been showing at Robischon for almost as long.

Emrich is represented by two different bodies of work -- one that incorporates paint brushes and photo-emulsion transfers of waterfalls, and one that uses various images, including clouds and fingerprints, placed on the lenses of wire-frame glasses (the spectacles of the show's title). The paintbrush/ waterfall pieces are hung on one wall, with a DVD of a waterfall playing on a continuous loop in the middle. The eyeglasses are placed on individual shelves mounted on the two other walls.

Conceptually, there's a lot going on with these Emrichs. The idea of printing photos on objects is just the start of it. The waterfall views flow down the bristles of the paintbrushes, the way paint would. The images on the eyeglasses ape the way we see things with our eyes. Also, as Emrich points out in his artist's statement, there are the juxtapositions of scale: the big waterfall on the little brush, the big sky on the little lenses.  

Nicholas Kahn, Richard Selesnick and Gary Emrich have jammed their pieces with intellectual content, but these artists prevail for the same reasons that Kate Petley and Minnette V´ri do: because they make things that, above all else, are worth seeing. Ultimately, that's what makes or breaks a work of art -- and, by extension, an artist.


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