The Faculty Triennial documents Colorado's art history as it races by
While writing this column over the years, I have frequently thought about how my chief calling is to compose a rough first draft of the art history of Colorado done right as it races by. This kind of instant historicizing has a following in the scholarly world, and someone who embraced the philosophy — and whom I admired very much — was Stan Oliner, who sadly died last month at the age of 73.
In the 1990s, Oliner was the curator of books and manuscripts at the Colorado Historical Society, where he greatly expanded the institution's archives. He did this by gathering up old files and clippings, but also by collecting contemporary materials as though they were historic ones. It was Oliner, for example, who led the effort to immediately preserve the elements from the makeshift shrine at Columbine High School after the shootings there. But he also sought out ordinary artifacts, and would even come to Westword to collect discarded press releases, invitations, cards and other ephemera to record Colorado's culture as it was happening.
When Oliner left his curator's gig in 1999, someone at the CHS told me that he'd left the archives in a mess. I countered that he was actually a genius who had invented the archive. The organization was surely poorer without his talents — and still is.
Another person whom I admire for his historicity is Dan Jacobs, the director of the Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver. Since taking the job seven years ago, Jacobs has transformed the gallery into a vibrant place by cataloguing, researching and documenting — often with the help of students — DU's wide-ranging art collection and the many different artists who have taught there. The current exhibition, the Faculty Triennial, is part of his continuing program to "document and to stimulate Colorado's art history," he writes. Since the art department there was founded by Vance Kirkland in the 1920s, the faculty has included many of the state's most worthwhile artists.
See more photos from the DU Faculty Triennial
To a large extent, a show such as this is self-defining, since it only includes DU faculty. Nor did Jacobs have the thematic or stylistic control that would have strung the pieces together into a coherent whole. That's because the art teachers on the faculty already have their own established approaches, mediums and styles. Still, Jacobs has come through with an interesting exhibit that hangs together despite its diversity. This surely has a lot to do with the handsome installation. Jacobs has hauled out many of the temporary walls used to cut the large space into a warren of smaller rooms. This allowed him to clearly delineate and separate works that would be incongruous if he'd put them next to one another.
In prepping for the show — the third triennial in the school's history, and the second to have been put together by him — Jacobs discovered that part-time teachers who were full-time artists have always made up a large portion of the art faculty. For this reason, Jacobs included the work of lecturers and adjunct instructors as well.
As exemplified by Kirkland, DU often hosts the best-known artists in the area. In the Faculty Triennial, clearly the most famous is Lawrence Argent, who teaches sculpture. Argent, of course, is the creator of "I See What You Mean," that Big Blue Bear at the Colorado Convention Center that has become one of the most frequently reproduced symbols of the city. One feature of the piece that's little known is that it was generated by computer programs, which precisely determined its form, down to the smallest detail.
Work with a similar digital aspect is included in the Myhren show, but in this case, the pieces differ from the Big Blue Bear in a number of ways, most notably that to produce them, Argent sent the digital files to China, where the pieces were then handmade by artisans. There are two of three stone elements from a monumental public sculpture, "Your Move," that Argent did in Houston. The elements are based on the shape of gourds; the surface of one is faceted, while the other is grooved. They're quite beautiful. Argent is also represented by "Drape 1," a pulled-handkerchief form made of shaped stainless steel; it's a study model for a not-yet-created piece.
Work like this, which combines computer technology and real-world materials like stone and metal, is being called "trans-media," and it's definitely hot right now. Witness Susan Meyer's three acrylic, concrete and metal sculptures, in which topographical shapes are computer-cut from sheets of colored plastic. The cut shapes have been stacked to make miniature environments occupied by tiny little models of people. Also combining different media is a found-object installation with a camera and a computer by Kevin Curry. In his "Conjunction," viewers may step on pads and have their pictures taken; the pictures are then put online.
Jeffrey Keith is another fixture in the Denver art scene who's on the DU faculty. He's made a name for himself with abstract paintings that are something like a cross between abstract expressionism and constructivism. Keith's "Gone" is a four-panel piece done predominantly in a glossy red. Though it is quite different from his established oeuvre — the super-limited palette, the shiny surface — it still bears a relationship to his signature work, in which rectilinear smears of paint are the basic building blocks.
Mindy Bray contributes a pair of water-media works in ink and gouache on paper that at first glance look like paintings. They're densely composed and meticulously done, with "Hedge" featuring layers of foliage in an all-over pattern and "Recycling Center" a puzzle of simple shapes in bright colors. Both of them are gorgeous.
Rafael Fajardo's poster-like digital prints are taken from a computer game about drug smuggling that he's produced. In this series, "Paper Craft (in) Action Figure," cartoonish figures and objects are laid out in patterns like paper dolls. The patterns can be downloaded from the Internet, cut out and assembled into three-dimensional objects. The show includes a number of these in sheet form, and a few, including the charming "Yellow Narco Submarine," are presented in their 3-D versions.
Printmaker Catherine Chauvin has done two traditional lithographs but has also created a wall piece made of folded Post-It notes that form the shape of a cape — specifically, a feathered garment given to Captain Cook when he first visited the Hawaiian Islands in the eighteenth century. Chauvin's "Post-It Cloak" is fairly compelling and very unusual.
When I think of art at DU, ceramics always comes to mind first, because the now-retired Maynard Tischler spent decades building this particular area of instruction there. Tischler was succeeded by Mia Mulvey, whose work was included in the Denver Art Museum's Overthrown this past summer. Her piece in the triennial is "Sylvae," a multi-part bas-relief based on twigs finished in a gun-metal gray. Another ceramics teacher, Lauren Mayer, does work that is remarkable for the way it shows off her stunning technical abilities. This is exemplified by "There is no room for me to rest in a thief," a convincing rendition of an old, beat-up chair done in white porcelain. It bears an uncanny relationship to Tischler's classic pieces in its use of hyper-realism to convey mundane objects.
The show is too large for me to discuss everything. But Deborah Howard's mixed-materials paintings are notable, as are the cell-phone photos by Roddy MacInnes and the blurry color digital photographic prints by Jessie Paige. Digital imagery is a big deal at DU, which has impressive high-tech facilities. Among artists using various computer-aided approaches are Jim Good, who's done a poster based on his name; the digitized Super 8 film by Sarah Gjertson; and the animation by Laleh Mehran and Chris Coleman.
The Faculty Triennial is a snapshot of who's who at DU right now, and that alone makes it worth checking out.
See more photos from the DU Faculty Triennial
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