Summertime News

"Portrait of Chelsea Cooksey," by James McElhinney, oil on canvas.

The Denver Art Dealers Association, which uses the marvelously arty DADA for short, came up with the idea of having members present coordinated exhibits in August featuring new art and new artists. Officially known as the "Introductions" series, the idea was predicated on the fact that nothing happens in the art world during the summer anyway, so why not take a chance on untested material and artists during the dog days?

Now, with August here, these shows are opening at galleries right and left. However, it's obvious that most of the members did not take to the idea as wholeheartedly as some might wish, or to the extent of the city's flagship, Robischon Gallery.

Among the offerings at Robischon is the spectacular Stefan Kleinschuster, which introduces a young Colorado painter of obvious talent and vision. The exhibit is large and sprawls over three of the four rooms up front; Kleinschuster needs every inch of the space, because his oils on muslin are monumental in size.

Considering the high quality of these paintings -- I daresay that Kleinschuster may now be ranked among the best figural artists working in the state -- it's strange that he's an unknown. He lives close by, in Loveland, but this is the thirty-something painter's very first Denver solo.

So how did Jim Robischon, co-director of his namesake gallery, find out about him? Well it turns out that Kleinschuster came in the back door. He's a former Colorado State University classmate of Jason Blamey, one of the gallery's assistants. Kleinschuster earned both his BFA and MFA in printmaking from CSU, but as this show demonstrates, he's also proficient in painting.

His works here are closely associated to one another, depicting nude or partially nude men, including Kleinschuster and his brother. The men are shown either resting or wrestling, but there's a certain pictorial ambiguity to some of them. Kleinschuster's style is expressionistic, with a frenzy of brush strokes used to convey the figure and the background. The resulting surfaces look virtually abstract-expressionist, which means that viewers need to step back from the paintings to make out the details; up close they're a riot of smears, splashes, drips and runs. In other words, gorgeous. Some of the paintings have a hallucinogenic quality with one figure transparently laid over another, but others are straightforward figure studies, such as "Man with Overturned Chair," in which a young man is seen seated in an old chair.

There's no denying that these Kleinschusters are erotically charged, and, despite their great size, there's a definite sense of intimacy. That theme continues with the two other exhibits now at Robischon, Jack Balas and Wes Hempel, which are obviously not meant to be part of DADA's "Introductions" series, because Balas and Hempel are practically household names. The neo-pop mixed-media paintings by Balas -- which are fabulous, incidentally -- also feature semi-nude young men. But instead of painting them, Balas represents them in altered photos. Hempel's elegant show is on exhibit in the Viewing Room in the back of the gallery, and it reprises a number of paintings that were exhibited in his solo here last season. Like Kleinschuster and Balas, Hempel's subjects are mostly handsome young men, but he carries out his in a hyper-realistic style set in jarringly surrealistic backgrounds.

The William Havu Gallery, another of the city's top-drawer contemporary art spaces, is also participating in DADA's "Introductions" series, but instead of presenting a solo, gallery director Bill Havu organized a museum-sized group show, life, death and in-between, in which unknowns and well-knowns mix together.

As suggested by the title, a lot of this work is disturbing or, at the very least, thought-provoking. Laurel Swab's beautifully painted female nudes are edgy because the women's heads are draped in scarves. Her sculptures are beautifully done, as well, especially "Leonardo's Wings," a funky metal female torso with skeletal bat wings. The effect is striking, and the piece has a much bigger presence than its diminutive size. Swab has been around a while, but she is not well known in Denver and thus qualifies as one of Havu's "Introductions" artists.

Another way to interpret "Introductions" is with new art by established artists, such as the group of unsettling female figure studies by James McElhinney, who lived in Denver but now resides in upstate New York. McElhinney is not interested in doing beautiful paintings, instead he focuses on a confrontational quality. The women, like the one in the oil-on-canvas "Portrait of Chelsea Cooksey," seem naked and ashamed as opposed to nude and natural. In these paintings, McElhinney completely communicates, in his stilted style, his simultaneous sexual attraction to the models and his repulsion by them.

McElhinney's naked young women aren't the only disturbing images here. Irene Delka McCray's explorations in oil paint of the impending deaths of naked senior citizens, both male and female, are really over the top. McCray's been a professional artist for more than thirty years, exhibiting widely both here and in Santa Fe, and from a technical standpoint, these pieces are incredibly accomplished. The same can be said for the nudes by Scott Parsons, another artist who's locally well known.  

A last-minute addition to the Havu show was Tony Serenpa's huge, spectacular ceramic vessels. He really does qualify as a newcomer; he just graduated from the University of Denver a couple of months ago. Serenpa, a protegé of the great Maynard Tischler, is already one of the best ceramic artists in Colorado -- even though he's still wet with pottery slip behind the ears -- and that's really saying something. Havu was made aware of Serenpa's work by gallery assistant Kate Thompson, who went to DU with the young genius.

While we're on the topic of introductions, changes have been afoot in the Front Range art world this summer. Several important art jobs have been filled, which means new aesthetics will soon be unveiled.

We won't have too long to wait at the Andenken Gallery, where new director and veteran artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy will open her first exhibit next month. She is pairing painter Sharon Smolinski with sculptors Kate Petley and Gail Wagner, who are being shown courtesy of Ron Judish, their current representative.

With so many annuals and biennials on the calendar, it will take a little longer to see the changes at Foothills Art Center in Golden. New director Jennifer Cook came on board just last week from the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, replacing Carol Dickinson, who retired this past spring after an illustrious run as director. Cook has been deeply involved with arts advocacy in Colorado; she has served on many boards, including a stint as the president of the Mountain-Plains Museums Association, which, in one of those funny coincidences, is having its meeting in Golden this coming October.

The premier art institution in southern Colorado is the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and it has a new director, too. Last winter, CSFAC director David Turner surprised everyone -- even his staff -- when he announced that he was leaving to take the director's job at the University of Oregon Museum of Art. Although Turner never admitted it, surely a part of the reason was the failed campaign to expand the center. Turner got behind the idea of putting an addition across the front of the center, which would have destroyed the character of the 1930s masterpiece by New Mexico's John Gaw Meem.

After a search that lasted several months, Michael De Marsche was selected to succeed Turner, and he took the helm last week. In 2000, De Marsche was the founding director of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University in Alabama. Interestingly, De Marsche was apparently looking to relocate out West, and he'd also applied for the Foothills position.

The Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design is another Colorado art institution with a new person in charge. Stephen Sumner takes over as president from Steve Steele, son of the school's founder. The selection of Sumner has caused a lot of trepidation, as most of the faculty and staff were rooting for Neil King, RMCAD's vice president. But though disappointed, most are willing to give Sumner a chance, since he's been making an effort to network. Steele will stay on as a sculpture teacher and serve as a Steele-family representative on the board of directors.

The news of the selection of a president is somewhat overshadowed by the college's new home. In July, RMCAD relocated from a group of nondescript roadside buildings on East Evans Avenue in Denver to a marvelous old campus in Lakewood that was originally built as the Jewish Consumptive Relief Society. The campus is crowded with charming historic structures accented by mature landscaping, all of it arranged in a delightful quad-like layout. "I feel like I'm working in a park," says Bryan Andrews, who coordinated the move that was pulled off, astonishingly, in a single weekend.

And finally, Denise Montgomery, the former director of the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts, was appointed the new director of the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film. Montgomery is a former girlfriend of Mayor John Hickenlooper, so there's been some controversy concerning her appointment, which seems to mirror Wellington Webb appointing his wife, Wilma, to head the Mayor's Commission of Art, Culture and Film. But the commission is the more powerful entity, because it has the ability to pick art, unlike the department Montgomery will head, which only does the legwork. One person close to the selection process told me that Montgomery was going to get the job no matter who else applied. I think that's called politics.  

Hey, it looks like DADA was wrong: A lot happens in the art world in the summer.

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