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Western Expansion

"Untitled," by Paul Sarkisian, resin-encrusted lithographs.
James Bludworth

Ron Judish Fine Arts, which will close for several months on Saturday, is set to decamp from its tony Wazee Street location within weeks and move into new and greatly expanded accommodations on the ground floor of a historic church in northwest Denver. And, while gallery director Ron Judish has only just confirmed this story, word on the move has been out for a while -- making it, if not the worst-kept secret in the Denver art world, then the second-worst.

"We're looking, we're planning, we're intending, we're hoping to move," Judish says. "But it could all fall apart tomorrow." There's no doubt about one thing, though: Summer Stock 3, the dazzling group show now gracing the prestigious gallery, will be the last presentation made at the current location.

Judish opened his gallery in the spring of 1998 -- with the help of an investor -- and the place immediately became one of the city's finest venues. His formula was fairly simple. First, the gallery's digs are handsome and well thought out; the former copy shop was turned into three formal exhibition spaces, an informal one and an office. In fact, the gallery has always felt like a little museum. Second, Judish put together a lively group of artists whose work spans a breathtaking range of styles and media. The artists themselves are diverse as well and include big-time international names along with people snatched right out of the local alternative spaces, art schools and college art departments. Finally, Judish has a gift for installation. Every show has been beautifully laid out, and even when the pieces have sometimes been jarringly dissimilar in appearance or intent, the shows have always made sense, if only aesthetically.

But these accomplishments weren't unexpected. Sure, it was Judish's first attempt at directing his own gallery, but he'd been fantasizing about it for decades. And he'd gained the necessary experience over the years, working as a curator and gallery director in Denver, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

The vacant church that will house the new gallery (if all goes according to plan) is at 30th Avenue and Vallejo Street in the very up-and-coming Highland neighborhood. The venerable structure is a landmark in every sense of the word. Not only is it an important example of nineteenth-century architecture, but it towers above the adjoining buildings and is easy to see from a distance. The elevated Speer Boulevard viaduct offers a particularly nice view of it.

Built in 1890, the monumental stone building was designed by the Denver firm of Kidder and Humphreys. Originally called the Asbury Methodist Church, it is one of the city's finest examples of the Richardsonian-Romanesque style, a vanguard manner first developed by Boston architect H.H. Richardson. The style is marked by simplicity and straightforwardness, a reaction against the excessive detail associated with Victorian buildings. It was the most sophisticated style of its time, providing an important early prototype for the slightly later Chicago school of commercial architecture that would help launch the modern movement around 1900.

The ground floor, where the gallery will be located, has historically been used as the community hall. It is enormous by private gallery standards, measuring some six thousand square feet. "It will be the biggest, the grandest commercial gallery Denver has ever seen," Judish says, barely containing his enthusiasm. (The church's beautifully appointed, vaulted nave is on the second floor, and the gallery will not be using this space.)

Judish plans to create four separate galleries. One will be devoted to rotating presentations of the gallery's stable of artists, two will be given over to separate, changing exhibits of the type presented currently, and the final gallery will specialize in photography. He would also like to create an outdoor sculpture garden. "We've developed a niche for monumental sculpture," Judish says. "There seems to be a hunger for large-scale sculpture lately, and we've done very well with major works by Erick Johnson and Emmett Culligan and others in recent months."

Judish hopes to re-open in his new space by mid-September, but that's hard to imagine, because work has yet to begin on the renovation.

Although the final arrangements are still up in the air, the plan to close the LoDo gallery is not. Thus, Summer Stock represents Judish's Wazee Street swan song. But that's not the only reason to see it -- the work included is of an unbelievably high quality.

The first thing we see as we enter is a new painting by John Hull, a nationally known artist who lives south of Denver. Hull is a contemporary representational painter whose fluid lines and compelling sense for composition recall the work of the old masters. But Hull adds a twist by depicting the dark and seedy side of life, as in "Acts 26:14, KJV," an acrylic on canvas from 2001. In this riveting painting, Hull captures a night scene in which a group of people are standing around outside. It's hard to say what's happening, but the two guys on the sidewalk look like they might be menacing the guy in the street. One disturbing detail is the unkempt and shabbily dressed little girl standing between two of the men.  

Across from the Hull is a sculpture by John DeAndrea, whose fame also goes way beyond the state's borders. Though best known for his hyper-realistic sculptures of nudes made of painted polyvinyl, the piece here, "Amber," from 2000, is a bronze bust. Sitting on a black marble base, the piece has been patinated in a deep Renaissance brown.

Adjacent to the DeAndrea is another bronze sculpture, "She," by Denver's Michael Brohman. This work is a nearly eight-foot-tall flattened, headless figure of a woman covered in a yellowy gold patina. "She," like other Brohman pieces, pays homage to the mid-twentieth-century work of Swiss modernist Alberto Giacometti both in style and in the way the figure has been conventionalized.

Nearby is an elaborate wall relief by Denver's Erick Johnson that's enigmatically titled "If It Quacks Like a Duck." The roughly circular piece is made of mostly found or ready-made materials that Johnson has altered, including painted wood, steel ratchets and connectors, a domed screen and a crudely sewn cloth coverlet.

In the main portion of the front room is another Johnson wall relief, "What He Say?", made of steel and painted wood. It looks kind of like a giant trussed-up baseball bat and, unlike the other relief, is signature Johnson.

Although Johnson is a mid-career artist who exhibits nationally and whose pieces are included in major private and public collections, at Judish, his work is seen right across from that of Joshua Daleigh, an artist whose career is just getting under way. Daleigh's "Untitled" is a pine-and-mahogany plank that's been lightly carved and assembled in a vaguely constructivist arrangement.

In between the Johnson and the Daleigh is a majestic abstract painting by Jeff Wenzel, "Red Fish II," done in his characteristic materials: torn paper adhered to wood that's covered with oil, ink and tar. Wenzel's solo show a few months ago is one of the best exhibits Judish has presented.

The same could be said for a show a few years ago featuring New York photolegend Andreas Serrano. Next to the Wenzel is Serrano's "St. Michael's Blood I, II," a 1990 cibachrome diptych. The two halves are stacked, and each depicts a different part of the same white figure of St. Michael. The field on which the statuette is seen is vivid red, the result of having been immersed in blood. "St. Michael's Blood" is part of an infamous series of pieces by Serrano that combine Catholic statuary with bodily fluids. The best-known of these immersion pieces is, of course, "Piss Christ," which almost single-handedly shut down the National Endowment for the Arts about ten years ago.

Judish has also included some of Denver's most interesting experimental photographers in the show, including Kevin O'Connell, Dan Ragland, Sarah Timberlake, Ron Pollard, Bob Coller, Patricia Barry Levy and David Sharpe.

In the side gallery are two striking paintings by newcomer John Morrison. The color fields that dominate both paintings are particularly nice. These color fields are subtly yet richly varied in tone and are thus remarkable.

Also compelling is the single Bruce Price painting, "Decorative Transgression of Utopian Geometry," which has been hung across and down from the Morrisons. This pattern painting of diamonds contrasts flat brown shapes with creamy, minty blue-green ones. Price, one of Denver's premier post-minimalists, has done a whole series of these diamond paintings, and it would be great to see them assembled together in some future show.

The next leg of the exhibit is dominated by two monumental works. To the left is "Host," a mixed-media on canvas by Seattle's Ken Kelly. The 1990s pattern painting has a decidedly Oriental feeling, not unexpected for an artist working in the Northwest, but it also includes references to the baroque and to art nouveau, which could be considered surprising. To the right is "Untitled," by Santa Fe's Paul Sarkisian. This piece is made of resin laid over lithographs on a panel. The lithographs are nine interconnecting prints that Sarkisian did in 1971 when he was a fellow at New Mexico's Tamarind Institute. The lithographs, which together form a rectangle measuring seven feet wide and nine feet tall, are printed with nearly photographic images of the front of a house. The source for the prints was a painting Sarkisian had done in 1971 that was 27 feet long. The resin transforms the lithographs by obscuring the soft tactile quality of the rag paper on which they are printed, replacing it with the hard, shiny, translucent plastic coating.  

The final portion of the show includes some neo-pop paintings, based on magazine covers, done by emerging Denver painter Colin Livingston. The influence of Warhol is recognizable, but Livingston's versions are clearly updates of the pop master's conceptions. Also here is an installation by Gail Wagner, a Boulder artist whom Judish snagged a couple of years ago after he caught her particularly strong outing at the Edge co-op.

When Ron Judish opened his gallery three years ago, Denver's art world was decidedly enriched. Now that the gallery's going on a several-month hiatus, it will be notably diminished. But if it all goes the way Judish expects it to, a new gallery will make an even bigger impact this fall, and it promises to be better than ever.


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