The art scene in Denver does not shut down during the summer as it does in the big cities on the east and west coasts. Even here, though, there is a point when everyone seems to be taking a break--and that hiatus is currently on. The last of the summer group shows, including a pair at the venerable Robischon, are entering their final days, with most of the autumn shows coming on line in the next few weeks.
This gives us a moment to reflect on changes that have radically altered the topography of the local scene. And nothing has had a greater impact, negative though it has been, than last fall's closing of the Inkfish Gallery. For more than twenty years, Inkfish was one of the city's flagship exhibition spaces, presenting only the finest work. We are now denied the supremely intelligent and beautiful shows regularly conjured up by gallery director Paul Hughes, and many of the gallery's artists have been left without a place to show.
Another unhappy event for an important commercial gallery was last winter's cancellation of the exhibition schedule at Mackey, which remains open as a frame shop and rental space. During the five years it was fully operational, director Mary Mackey presented some of the city's most adventurous and compelling art shows.
But not all the news was bad. Renovations were finally finished at the Denver Art Museum, and despite that hideous canopy, this was good news because the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art now has a permanent home in the spacious Stanton Wing. Also encouraging was the birth of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Though its highly publicized plans to buy a building have fallen through, MoCAD has hired a director and has been scouting rental space downtown; currently under consideration are ground-floor rooms in Barclay Towers on Larimer Street.
The message from Wazee Street, LoDo's prestigious gallery row, was mixed. Both 1/1 (now called the Wm Havu Gallery) and the Sandy Carson Gallery left the neighborhood for greener pastures in the Golden Triangle. The Metropolitan State College's Center for the Visual Arts moved from the corner of 17th and Wazee streets into spiffy new digs a few doors away in the space formerly occupied by Carson and the defunct Art of Craft. A block south, the glittering new Ron Judish Gallery appeared in the area that already includes the William Matthews and CSK galleries.
Change has even hit the usually immutable Robischon Gallery, but as could be expected, it's been subtle. The gallery now holds title to the space it occupies, along with the adjacent space that serves as the Metro Center's new home. A viewing room in the back has recently been transformed into a small but handsome exhibition space, and the gallery is able to use this new area for additional shows, as is currently the case.
Up front, the warren of five rooms (including the niche which is often called the Art Forms space), is completely given over to an unwieldy--and in places goofy--group show focusing on representational imagery.
The Untitled Summer Exhibition #22B: Objective includes in its generic title some specific information about the gallery, even if it doesn't say much about the current display. The "#22" refers to Robischon's 22 years in the art-show business; the suffix "B," to the fact that this exhibit is the second in a two-part series (the first, an abstraction show earlier this summer, was indicated by the letter "A"). Though this historical notation would seem to indicate a two-decade tradition, only in the past five years has gallery director Jim Robischon divided the summer in half, with an abstract show during the first part and a representational one during the last.
The current show begins with Linda Girvin, who employs a technique rarely seen in the fine arts and more typically used by the makers of religious kitsch: the lenticular photograph, in which several images are laid one over another on a grooved plastic surface. As a result, individual images come into view sequentially, which apes animation. In the first of the Girvins, "Week Daze," a man is tying his tie, and as we walk past the piece, the man's hands appear to fly across the surface. Around the corner is the more complicated "Bracketed Agenda," in which a man and a woman seated at a table are deeply involved in a conversation crowded with gestures.
Girvin's successful use of a discredited method to create credible contemporary art is a genuine accomplishment. Gary Sweeney, whose work is displayed nearby, does the same thing. In his case, the degraded method is routing, the hobbyist's technique. For a stylistic source, Sweeney looks to mid-century advertising art. In "Death of a Salesman," he uses painted and aniline-dyed wood, routing and picking out with paint a half-tone profile of a man wearing a hat opposite a three-dimensional globe. Both the man and the globe appear on a fancy wood-veneer surface. A triangle of painted dots originates from the man's eye; beneath is a line from Arthur Miller's famous play of the same name. The quote, as disconnected by Sweeney, seems to praise and romanticize the role of the salesman, giving the line an ironic spin not intended by Miller.
In "The Mystery Spot," Sweeney is inspired by '50s tourism promotions. The piece is designed like a poster, but instead of using paper and ink, Sweeney takes up marquetry, a wood-working technique in which various veneers are laid in a pattern. On this modernist field, which successfully incorporates both light and dark woods, Sweeney places a pair of leaning women in line drawings done with paint and routing. The women are tourists at The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California, one of those specially constructed buildings that give the illusion that the laws of gravity have been repealed.
Sweeney has taken up the theme of the offbeat roadside attraction many times before, most notably in his 1995 murals America, Why I Love Her at Denver International Airport. These two wooden murals have been an overwhelming critical and popular success, unlike most of the other things in the city's $7 million adornment of DIA.
But not all the artists in Robischon's formally untitled exhibit look directly to popular culture for inspiration. Some, like gallery standard Jack Balas (whose pieces fill one of the front spaces), make references to the recent history of art, which itself has been shaped by popular culture. Pop art from the 1960s, in particular the work of Robert Rauschenberg, is obviously the inspiration for a painting such as "Manifest Destiny" and for its closely related companion "American Dream." Both are recent oil-and-enamel works on large panels of un-stretched canvas that incorporate stripes, typography and an image of a Second Empire-style sofa. Also fiercely compelling is Balas's "(Br)other," a mixed-media-on-paper that again has the Rauschenberg look. In this piece, black-and-white photocopied portraits are placed one on top of the other; in between are small hand-lettered words reading "other" and "brother." Balas unifies the piece by placing a transparent blue wash above a translucent yellow field right down the middle of the composition, through the portraits.
Floyd Tunson also tips his hat to pop master Rauschenberg. In two wall-reliefs from Tunson's Gas Pump series, the artist, using color photocopies, objects and framing, takes up the subject of African-American history. Tunson is a genius with surface effects, and his use of metal mesh screening to soften some of his images is memorable.
The Robischon show features many other well-known artists from the gallery's stable. Hung opposite the Tunsons are four of Jerry Kunkel's interrelated paintings--"Love," "Luck," "Lust" and "Light"--all done in oil and rust on panel. Around the corner is a signature Wes Hempel, "The Mending Hall," an oil on canvas in which a house floats over a meadow. A Lorre Hoffman, displayed next to the Hempel, also is a characteristic piece. Hoffman takes her archetypical house form, executes it in slate, scribbles all over it in chalk and, to carry the schoolhouse imagery still further, places a chalk eraser and sticks of chalk in a wooden holder and attaches it to the front.
One of the only real surprises in this show is the local premiere of Fay Jones, an artist who has a formidable reputation in her native Northwest. Three of Jones's large paintings have been displayed in their own discrete space--and that's a good thing, because they're fairly strange. In her complicated compositions, Jones seems to refer to myriad divergent sources simultaneously. In the stunning diptych "Shades," she uses acrylic, ink and paper on wood to capture an enigmatic scene of figures and donkeys. Her style is both naive and sophisticated as she refers effortlessly to folk art, the comics and post-impressionism. In "Chase," a woman in a white dress strikes a contraposto pose. The impression of the figure contorted in a twist is heightened by Jones's inclusion of a third leg.
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Meanwhile, in the newly reclaimed back room, Robischon presents Distant Views, a handsome show that compares and contrasts the landscapes of local legend Joellyn Duesberry with frescoes by the highly regarded Shawn Dulaney. The two women are distinguished by their ability to make paintings that function as both traditional and contemporary pieces.
Both women are painterly and interested in capturing scenery. But each has a distinct style, with Duesberry specializing in the billowing and breathless brush stroke and Dulaney mastering the technique of scrumbling and blending. In "River in Spring," an oil on canvas by Duesberry, the water in the foreground, the trees in the mid-ground and the mountains in the background have been painted with lively, expressive gestures in creamy, strongly hued pigments that clearly distinguish each element. For "Beyond Our Hearing," a tempera-on-plaster fresco, Dulaney rubs and smears her pigments, blurring the distinctions between her pictorial elements of river, mountains and sky.
The two exhibits at Robischon run for another week or so. And though many turns are sure to be in store for the gallery-going public this fall, it's certain that Robischon will remain a place where everyone wants to be--as they have this summer and for the last 22 years.
Untitled Summer Exhibition #22B: Objective and Distant Views, through September 5 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.