"Untitled No. 6," by Mark Travis, mixed media on canvas.
"Untitled No. 6," by Mark Travis, mixed media on canvas.

Up, Up and Away

Nearly two weeks ago, Studio Aiello Gallery opened its doors with a juried exhibition straightforwardly titled the Grand Opening Group Show.

Studio Aiello is the first phase of an ambitious project called the Aiello Center for Contemporary Art. Located in a lightly rehabbed 1940s commercial building in a former industrial neighborhood a mile and a half north of Coors Field, the gallery -- along with several vacant lots and a couple of ancillary buildings -- will grow into the ACCA in the coming year if all goes well.

The ACCA is envisioned as a cross between the Arvada Center, Pirate and Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. When it's completed, it will include the gallery and a studio/workshop in an annex building with shop facilities, communal spaces and individual artists' studios. A sculpture garden, which will double as a space for performances and special events, is planned for those vacant lots (now filled with an unsightly collection of old pickup trucks and wrecked sports cars). A gathering place for artists, the Dialog Cafe, will occupy one of the other small buildings on the site. Finally, there will be a metal foundry available to the community.


Grand Opening Group Show

Through October 3
Studio Aiello Gallery, 3563 Walnut Street

The programs being contemplated by the ACCA are every bit as ambitious as the plans for the facility. Exhibitions will be presented in the already-open gallery and in the sculpture garden. Professional classes and workshops will be held in the annex and the foundry. There will be an artist-residency program, as well as a graduate-student program and a curatorial residency. Not only that, but the ACCA also wants to reach out to the community in the form of public art projects and classes and activities aimed at children and families.

The center was the brainchild of the late Karen Aiello and her artist-activist son, Tyler. Karen was a Denver realtor and developer who purchased the ACCA property in 1995. At the time, mother and son hatched the idea for the arts center. Fate intervened, however, and two years ago, Karen Aiello died suddenly of cancer.

With her death, the property passed to her three children, including Tyler, who is the force behind the ACCA.

That the property is family-owned -- outright, with no pesky mortgage -- means that the center is more than a mere pipe dream, even if it's hard to imagine that it could actually achieve all of its goals in a single year.

But it has already passed one significant milestone: It opened.

To say that the reception that marked the opening was a rousing success would be an understatement. (This, despite the fact that it was held on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.)

"We had over 700 people," says Aiello. "At times there were over 300 people in the gallery, and nearly as many out on the sidewalk." He notes that because of the crush of visitors, the cops checked out the place -- and the crowd -- periodically through the night.

But the party almost didn't happen. Just hours before it was set to start, Monica Petty Aiello, Aiello's wife and facility co-director, collapsed. "I fainted in the office," she says.

The problem, it seems, was a pair of shoes. "I was wearing these Betsey Johnson platform shoes -- six inches tall in purple velvet and carved walnut -- and I started to lose feeling in my feet right before I fell."

Luckily, Petty Aiello's mom, Marilyn Festa, was visiting from New York and was in the office at the time. Festa revived her daughter and then placed a frantic call to designer Johnson ("My mother's an old friend of Betsey's," says Petty Aiello). But Johnson was no help, so Petty Aiello took matters into her own hands -- or feet, as it were -- and self-prescribed a pair of black suede sandals, which kept her upright and conscious for the rest of the evening.

As it turns out, staying awake was no small accomplishment, because the reception went on until early the following morning. "We were open the next day," says Petty Aiello with a sigh, "and I kept saying to Tyler, 'Let's put up the "Closed for Special Event" sign,' but he wouldn't let me."

Aiello chimes in: "I spent that day lying on the floor and realizing that putting on a juried show was a lot more work than I thought it would be."

The first step in bringing the show together came early this past summer, when Aiello assembled a celebrity jury composed of himself and three other art professionals: Jerry Gilmore, acting director of the CU Galleries at the University of Colorado at Boulder; Clare Cornell, a computer-imaging coordinator at Metropolitan State College of Denver; and Kathy Andrews, longtime curator and director of fine-arts programs at the Arvada Center, who recently began her new gig as director of Metro's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo.

A call for entries went out, and 85 artists responded, submitting more than 200 slides. Twenty artists were accepted for the show; interestingly, the chosen few were almost evenly split between artists with established reputations and new arrivals on the scene. In the latter group are a number of students from CU-Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins whose work has never been seen in Denver. And although most of the artists are from Colorado, there are a few from other states, including New Mexico and New York.

Inside the front door and up a short flight of steps, the Grand Opening Group Show gets under way in a formal entry space with a large and elegant abstract painting titled "Clock," by emerging artist Adam Stacey. The quasi-figural painting, which incorporates cursive writing and scribbled images, is hanging over a console table.

Closely associated is a color-field painting by Wendi Harford installed on the other side of the entryway. The painting's surface is a combination of painterly flourishes and found images. The predominating colors -- whites and icy greens -- are set off perfectly by pink and red accents. Harford's been around for a while, but she rarely exhibits her abstract paintings. That's too bad, because from what I've seen, she does consistently high-quality work.

Beyond the entryway is the first of two large exhibition spaces. In the center of the room is Patricia Aaron's "At Rest," an intriguing sculpture made from three wagon wheels connected by an axle. The wheels are of different sizes and have been arranged along the axle from smallest to largest. The whole contraption is covered in black flocking. "At Rest" is one of four Aarons in the show; displayed near it is "Solo," a found cherry-picker's ladder that resembles a giant, whimsical chair.

The hardworking Aaron seems to be everywhere at once right now. In addition to contributing to Group Show, she was commissioned by Englewood's Museum of Outdoor Arts to create a light projection for an exhibit called Earth's Geometry, which opened the same night. An Aaron sculpture is also part of the New Urbanism exhibit at Lowry, and her solo show at Spark, called ARTFORMS, is currently on display at the co-op. Gosh, I hope she's gotten some sleep.

Another represented artist who's been exhibiting for some time is Lorey Hobbs, whose "Weathered" is the first painting in the main gallery space in the front. It's a juicy neo-abstract-expressionist confection that marks a distinct stylistic shift for Hobbs.

The biggest surprise of the show is the reappearance of Mark Travis, a painter who essentially dropped out of sight ten years ago, showing only once or twice after being one of the best-known and most-exhibited contemporary Denver artists of the late 1980s.

The two untitled Travis paintings at Studio Aiello are very different from his earlier work. Whereas before he was completely non-objective, in these new paintings Travis has placed representational images -- vague though they are -- front and center. These painterly subjects are surrounded by drippy and vaporous non-objective passages.

I, for one, am glad that Travis is back.

Near the Travis pieces is a dark and remarkable mural-sized painting titled "Charon's Canoe II," by Eastern European immigrant and newish Denver resident Marius Lehene. The heroic style of the painting recalls the baroque.

The paintings, and even Aaron's sculpture, lend the front space at Studio Aiello a contemplative atmosphere, if not a dark mood. The ambience lightens up considerably in the next space, where conceptual art is seen alongside neo-formalism, with a dash of post-modernism thrown in for good measure.

One of the first attention-catching pieces in this second part of the show is Christopher Lavery's "Trace 14," a dead pine tree wrapped in a cocoon created from nine miles of string. The string has been perfectly wound, probably with some kind of machine. It has a lovely off-white color that is perfect with the brown of the tree's stump and twigs.

Lavery is one of the emerging artists making their Denver debuts at Studio Aiello. On opening night, there was another Lavery piece, called "where there was something forgotten." Made of a 600-pound block of ice embedded with baseball bats, it has since melted.

Nicholas Silici is a well-established artist who is represented by one of his marvelous minimalist concrete paintings, "Semblance." Other noted artists in this part of the show include Peter Illig and Jeff Starr (who is showing his lesser-known sculptures rather than his better-known paintings). But few people will be familiar with the neo-pop pieces by the aptly named Kelly Newcomer.

Another newcomer, Mary Pat La Mair, has created a wall installation made of small painted shelves on which content-charged found objects -- parts of dolls, cosmetic devices -- have been placed. The shelf arrangement is symmetrical and radiates out from a central point.

Immediately to the right of the La Mair installation is a mini-auditorium created from a pair of black-painted canted walls with a large projection television at one end. The setup is used to present New York artist Leon Grodski's video "Great Balls of Fire" which is shown by request. The video, taped on September 11 and 12, 2001, intercuts scenes of the burning and collapsing World Trade Center, seen from Grodski's apartment in Brooklyn, with commentary by an articulate homeless man with a taste for irony. On opening night, another Grodski video, "Je Vais sur la Terre qui ne Reste pas" was projected onto the outside of the Studio Aiello building.

This new gallery is really something else, and if the Aiellos are able to pull off the rest of their contemporary art center, I can safely say we ain't seen nothing yet.


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