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Though still in its inaugural year, Ron Judish Fine Arts has already established itself as one of the city's most interesting galleries. Although director Ron Judish has earned this reputation with excellent exhibits featuring nationally famous artists, he doesn't ignore local talent. And his current show, 3, is a real charm.

Grouping three artists is a natural, given the three-part design of the gallery's layout: a large showroom up front, a narrow center space and another large exhibition room in back. As arranged by Judish, one of the best show designers around, each artist has his or her own defined space but is also presented in relation to the others. As a result, despite the fact that Judish has assembled three very different kinds of art by three very different artists, his sensitive and intelligent installation creates connections for a surprisingly seamless exhibit.

As viewers enter, they encounter the high-tech color work of Denver photographer Bob Coller, an in-depth display smartly arrayed around the grand front gallery. These large, closely related Type C photographs from 1998 share the same unusual framing: They're mounted behind borderless sheets of clear acrylic panels attached to the wall with thick, clear plastic tabs at the top. Coller's use of plastic heightens the sheen of the already shiny photos, adding to the incredible luminosity he's able to achieve. The photos are so radiant, they look like they're back-lit--but they're not. "Euclidean Boxes," for example, is so toned up it suggests nothing less than stained glass.

Coller's photographs, which he calls "photo collages," are the result of a complicated, multi-step process. He takes a close-up still-life photograph using either a 4-x-5 or a 35mm camera, then takes the negative (or, in some cases, a transparency) and scans it into a computer. On a monitor, Coller takes the original image and repeats it in a spiral, like a kaleidoscope, multiplying the new image into an all-over composition. The dense, repetitive pattern is then printed digitally onto traditional photographic paper, so that the pieces, while revealing their metamorphosis through newfangled software, still retain the character of good, old-fashioned color photographs.

The tension between old and new is also reflected in Coller's subjects. He photographs blossoms or leaves, the kinds of things most often associated with nature photography. By arranging floral and other organic forms into mathematical patterns with a computer, Coller links his photos to one of the main currents of contemporary art in the 1990s: the reconciliation of nature to culture. But the resulting patterns are also reminiscent of early modernism--both the motifs of nineteenth-century English designer William Morris and the ornament by turn-of-the-century Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. (As an ad hoc supplement to the 3 exhibit, viewers may want to look through the gallery's large front windows up the block to the very Sullivanian 1906 Sugar Building by early Denver modernists Gove and Walsh. Like Coller, they used organic forms to geometric ends.)

The lighthearted and decorative character of Coller's photos provides a dramatic counterpoint to the sometimes disturbing conceptual sculptures of Ira Sherman, which are next up in 3. Sherman's signature is the interactive kinetic sculpture, exquisitely crafted and often meant to be worn in performance pieces. And many of them are not only dangerous-looking, they're downright dangerous to the wearer--and, occasionally, even to bystanders. Sherman's 1988 "Explosion Injection Former" is a baroque tangle of steel, brass and plastic that fastens over the shoulders like a harness; when worn, it simulates the creation process and actually produces, via gunpowder, a symbolic work of art. While producing the symbolic piece--a small, circular metal shape--"Explosion Injection Former" tightens around the wearer to suggest artistic suffering. But even at rest, without those controlled explosions and inflicted pain, "Explosion Injection Former" looks menacing.

Even more ominous in appearance and intention is "The Arbitrator," a three-part sculpture from 1995-1997 made of steel, brass, stainless steel and plastic. Like "Explosion Injection Former," it's designed to be worn as a harness--in this case, by two people, who negotiate a disagreement. When activated, "The Arbitrator" applies pressure to the wearers in timed increments; taken to its logical end, "The Arbitrator" is capable of actually killing its fearless, if hapless, wearers.

Some of Sherman's sculptures displayed in 3 overtly refer to human sexuality. "The Seed," a 1993 piece made of stainless steel, plastic, brass and aluminum with both electrical and pneumatic features, is a fortress for the storage of frozen semen: a vacuum jar chilled by liquid nitrogen. When an intruder approaches, motion detectors are tripped and the piece's position is shifted, hiding the jar. Though "The Seed" is not meant to be worn and is instead a more or less conventional sculpture (in structure, if not in content), it does have a wearable element. The semen-containing jar may be removed and worn as a necklace for short periods of time.  

In a very different mood than the unsettling Sherman sculptures are over a dozen small, quirky and enigmatic mixed-media paintings by Jill Hadley Hooper that fill the spacious back gallery. These paintings, which were created by Hooper for the 3 exhibit, are widely divergent in terms of palette, style and subject. But they do have at least one thing in common: Hooper's combination of sweetness and angst. The 1999 "tindersticks," for example, offers a naive rendering of an artichoke set on a field of yellow and grayish-green, a charming effect betrayed by the odd seated man holding up the giant vegetable on his back.

Little figures, both male and female, show up in many of Hooper's paintings. In the retro-traditional "seattle," which recalls illustrations from old storybooks, Hooper places a black crow in profile on a sea of flowers arrayed on an ocher ground; an enigmatic little figure is tucked under the crow's wing. In another Hooper standout, "valentine," a reclining Venus statue à la Antonio Canova is surrounded by blue, cloud-like trees. The bucolic scene is completely framed by a painted black border with a row of vertical gray diamonds running across the top. The diamonds contain the enigmatic motto "Aqua," Latin for "water."

As displayed at Ron Judish, these three artists play together beautifully. But given enough room, they also star as soloists.

A block away from Ron Judish, The Mayer Collection of 20th Century Works, at Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts, takes a more expected approach to a group exhibit: many artists, none seen in depth. As indicated by the exhibit's title, the works come from prominent Denver art collectors Jan and Frederick Mayer (builders of the brand-new Mayer Mansion just a few doors from the CVA). But the title is misleading, since everything in the CVA's Mayer Collection is to be sold off and thus will no longer be property of the Mayers. After the show closes February 9, a liquidation auction will be conducted on the premises by Christie's auctioneers; the proceeds will go to the Denver Foundation, earmarked to fund the CVA, which is part of Metropolitan State College of Denver.

The Mayers' acquisitive habits date back to 1964, when the oil-boomers came to Denver and began collecting pre-Columbian pottery. That spectacular collection was given to the Denver Art Museum, where it is currently on display. Working with Ann Daley, the DAM's respected adjunct curator, they soon expanded into Spanish Colonial art and modern watercolors and prints, mostly from the early to mid-twentieth century. (Selections of these Mayer-owned prints are now on display in two other shows, at the Singer Gallery and the Philip J. Steele Gallery.) The Mayers also worked with then-art consultant Simon Zalkind, who selected many of the pieces of contemporary art that appear in The Mayer Collection.

The show reveals that the Mayers were interested, if only briefly, in a wide range of contemporary approaches. They apparently supported almost every art trend of the last twenty years, from hard-edged abstraction to its polar opposite, neo-expressionism. Some international big-name artists appear here, but the most interesting pieces in the show are a handful of works by some of this city's big-name artists.

There's a wonderful, if modest, untitled 1985 woodblock by Dale Chisman, a great abstract painter; in this print, he clusters jagged black shapes in a tight composition. Equally stunning but large, airy and lyrical, is Scott Chamberlin's untitled 1991 powder-pigment drawing. Chamberlin, who is best known as a ceramic sculptor, places a dark, smeary blob, vaguely shaped like a wing, opposite a set of looping lines, some crisply drawn, others feathering the pigment into the paper. Boulder artist Kay Miller also employs organic abstract forms in the oil on canvas "Stone Seed" of 1983-86. The painting, though small by Miller standards, is characteristic of her work: awkward compositions carried out in extremely thick paint.

In a fabulous untitled painting from his "Argon Series" of 1980, Clark Richert covers the surface with thousands of tiny squares and lines. Although he uses touches of blue, red and other bright colors, the overall color scheme is muted, dominated by various warm shades of gray and punctuated by off-white.

The Mayer Collection also includes the work of a few old-timers on the local contemporary scene whose work has only rarely been seen in recent years. There's an elegant collage on Masonite from the 1960s by Boulder artist Gene Matthews, as well as an interesting oddball Ivan Wilson drawing from the 1970s.

The Mayers should be lauded for donating their collection to support the CVA. Still, it's a shame they decided to sell off contemporary Colorado art, particularly the Richert, rather than keep it a focal point of their collection.  

3, through February 13 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5556. The Mayer Collection of 20th Century Works, through February 9 at the Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207.

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