"Cumulus," by Gail Wagner, cotton yarn, dye and paint.

Summer and Smoke

My eyes have been burning lately, and not just from all the pine-scented forest-fire smoke that's been in town. Rather, it's my typical response to the lighter-than-air offerings that fill local venues in the summer. But this silly off season in the art world has its ups as well as its downs; I call it the good, the bad and the ugly.

First, let's look at the good: It¹s Alive!!, in the upper-level galleries at the Arvada Center, is a marvelous, if crowded, solo show that features the work of Boulder artist Gail Wagner. Well-known in the area for her crocheted installations that alternately evoke sea life or micro-organisms, Wagner has exhibited widely in a variety of local spots over the past dozen years, most recently at Edge and Ron Judish Fine Arts. Many pieces previously seen at Edge and Judish are reprised here, along with a raft of things that have never been exhibited before.

Wagner earned both her BFA and her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her interest in biomorphism is shared by a number of her former teachers and fellow students, enough to constitute a veritable movement, with adherents not just in Boulder but in Denver, too. As is the case with many of them, an interest in feminism underlies Wagner's work. In her statement, she writes, "Women were associated with nature, and by extension, with chaos and disorder." By "infesting and infecting" the "sterile human environment" of the gallery with her work, she continues, she hopes to reconnect "nature and culture." It's a worthy pursuit, and one that, if not fully realized here, is at least realized well enough.


It�s Alive!!, Outside In and Archipelago: An Intimate Immensity

It�s Alive!! and Outside In
Through August 18 and August 25
Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada

Archipelago: An Intimate Immensity
Through September 11
Denver�s Museum of Contemporary Art, 1275 19th Street

Directly at the top of the Center's double set of stairs is an elaborate installation that doesn't so much infest or infect as it does inspire. The eye-catching work, "Conglomeration," from 2002, comprises elements constructed from Wagner's signature crocheted and otherwise manipulated yarn, which has been painted and dyed in an array of reds, purples and oranges. The magical piece shows off Wagner's instinctive sense both for color and for the arrangement of her complicated, multi-part pieces.

Wagner often attaches small novelty charms in an all-over pattern to a particular element or group of elements. In "Conglomeration," she used tiny metal sandals that, from a distance, look completely abstract dangling from a wall-hung part of the piece. The pewtery-silver of the charms is gorgeous against the dusty burnt-orange used for this detail.

In the next space, Wagner has put together a number of related pieces that function as a single installation. The translucent labels used to indicate individual titles are, in fact, the only clue that there is more than one work here. A number of the sculptures are done in a retro palette of orange, green or yellow, or in some combination of the three. These include the very cool "Furcula," the evocative "Bleb" and the over-the-top "Scion," all from 2002. The works hang down from the ceiling above viewers' heads, creating the illusion that you're walking underwater through an aquarium -- an interesting effect, to say the least.

One of my favorite pieces in the show is "Cumulus," which dates back to 1998 and which I've seen before. It's a wall-mounted stack of crocheted cones that hang limply in a tight, rectangular grid. Especially effective is the muted bluish-purple, a combination of paint and dye.

In several works, Wagner incorporates ready-made industrial materials, a technique that doesn't always succeed. The successful pieces are those in which cylindrical conduit and conduit joints have been used. In some, Wagner has combined the ready-mades with the yarn pieces, making it seem as though the sculptures are extruding from -- or are maybe just oozing out of -- the wall or floor. Those pieces in which porcelain plumbing fixtures are used don't really work, however, because they never transcend being what they clearly are: sinks and toilets and the like.

Wagner is unquestionably one of the most interesting sculptors and installation artists working on the Front Range. It's Alive!! is an absolute must-see.

Next up: the bad. Well, maybe not bad, but not really good, either. I'm referring to the exhibit in the Arvada Center's lower-level galleries, Outside In, whose main problem is a failure to function credibly as a group show. Clearly, this is the result of there being only the thinnest tissue of a concept behind the show -- that all of the works have something to do with nature.

Most of the artists selected for Outside In are very good, however, so I decided to approach it as several separate presentations instead of a single-themed show. I recommend that you do the same, because the parts are much greater than the whole.

The first section, installed in the entry gallery, is filled with abstract paintings by Chad Colby, a young artist who came to the area a couple of years ago to teach in the art department at Metropolitan State College.

Colby's paintings are all related and appear to have been created through the use of multiple landscape images laid over one other, but include totally abstract elements as well. In "Blueprint," an oil on canvas, jagged yellow passages stand out on a background that's mostly swimming-pool turquoise, with accents in forest green. It's hard to discern any recognizable subject in this painting, but for some reason it suggested a mountain landscape to me.

One of the best of the Colby batch, "What the Waving Grass Revealed," has been hung separately around the corner. In this painting, a row of ovals overlays identifiable landscape details. As in "Blueprint," the colors are great: There's a lot of red and even more green, in shades ranging from dark to light and from pure green to yellow-green. Colby's sense for charged-up color schemes is clearly his strong suit.

In the first of the side galleries are works by a couple of distinguished contemporary artists: Brad Miller, a onetime resident of Woody Creek who now lives in California, and Creighton Michael, from upstate New York. The pairing looks good, although neither artist's work is related to the other's.

Miller is internationally known in the field of ceramics, but he's represented here by wooden sculptures and drawings. The wooden sculptures are assemblages of twigs that have been cut into a simple shape, such as an egg -- as in "Uno," that is sitting in the middle of the floor. The drawings, which are new, have been created with a small flame that Miller uses in lieu of a pencil. They're absolutely gorgeous.

Michael's paintings are small, with delicate lines and ghostly imagery. The surfaces look waxy, and many places look as though they've been rubbed out or erased. Several of the pieces have been paired as diptychs, such as "Landscape 496," an oil on canvas. Michael's delicate, abstract-expressionist-style paintings look really smart with the Millers, but I think it's a shame that each artist wasn't given his own space.

Next are wall-hung sculptures and functional articles made chiefly of finely cast metals, including sterling silver, copper and brass, by Denver's Yuko Yagisawa. Using nature-based imagery, such as seed pods, she makes small, finely-crafted sculptures, bowls and vessels that have a jewelry-like quality. Yagisawa sees these pieces as reflective of her Japanese heritage; they also relate to the classic art-nouveau work of Danish jeweler Georg Jensen, which itself was based on Japanese art.

Interestingly, Boulder artist Pamela Olson is doing much the same thing as Yagisawa, but instead of metal, she uses cast porcelain. Olson is the real revelation of Outside In; her white-on-white installations are showstoppers. "Life Cycle" is a wall relief that resembles an old coverlet made of cast-porcelain seeds and flowers arranged in a circular motif.

The most fabulous of the Olson installations is "Transformation," a veritable sea of white porcelain leaves hanging from the ceiling. The maple leaves are each hand-cast, and the piece has been perfectly lit so that it projects innumerable shadows against the walls, resulting in a lyrical effect. I couldn't stop looking at it.

Less successful are Denver artist Deborah Horner's ecology installation and New Mexico artist Michael Berman's disjointed photo-based one. I had the idea that if Berman took away half of the elements in his piece, something good could be salvaged, but there's no saving Horner's. More than anything else, these two installations are what prevent the rest of an otherwise good show from holding together as a coherent presentation. It's still worth seeing, though, if only to check out those incredible Olsons.

Finally, we come to the ugly -- and I mean butt-ugly.

I'm referring to Archipelago: An Intimate Immensity, at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art; it's a travesty that's going to trespass on the space all summer long.

The first time I saw the show, a couple of weeks ago, it was nowhere near ready. Carpet scraps covered the floors, and rolls of carpet covered one side of the staircase; dying plants faced the window. Partially completed wall paintings were being worked on, and sculptures were scattered here and there. The museum was closed at the time, but I'd been invited to come early to interview New York artist and would-be curator Ann Shostrom, the ringmaster of this circus.

From the windows on the Lawrence Street side, the place appeared to be totally wrecked, as though vandals had worked their craft for hours on the interior. My first thought was that whoever was responsible should be hunted down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Turns out the place looked just as Shostrom intended. I briefly wondered if I could make a citizen's arrest.

Before I go on, I must say that I found Shostrom to be a very nice woman -- gracious, polite, welcoming. But the interview was not very enlightening, because of the things she had to say -- though she said them beautifully.

The show's title is indicative of the way Shostrom thinks: 'Archipelago,' 'Intimate,' 'Immensity.' Please. But the trite poetics perfectly reflect the show.

No, I take that back. The show's not even that good: It's a confused hodgepodge.

Nearly a week later, I went back, and the show still wasn't ready, even though it was set to open in just 48 hours. As more and more pieces arrived from around the country and from Europe, along with quite a few from around here, the crowded effect became positively claustrophobic. The Colorado artists in the show were selected by MCA director Cydney Payton, so there is one good thing I can say about it: As usual, Payton has done her best to include locals.

As the show got closer to completion, it got worse. There may be some good things here, but as with those "Where's Waldo?" cartoons, I just don't have the patience to find it.

A lot of people in the Denver art world have been clamoring to see just this kind of show -- one that purportedly outlines the cutting edge of contemporary art -- and they've put a lot of pressure on Payton to come up with one. All I can say is, I hope they're satisfied.

But don't take my word for it. Check it out for yourself -- and, trust me, you won't believe your eyes.


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