By clearly dividing his gallery into three distinct areas and installing the work of a different artist in each one, Bill Havu has finally come up with a successful scheme for laying out shows in his beautiful, custom-built space in the Golden Triangle. True, it's only slightly different from what he was doing before -- splitting the place into three indistinct areas -- but this little tweak has made a big difference.
In the group of spaces stretching from the main entrance to the area at the base of the grand staircase, Havu has installed Harriette Joffe, which is made up of more than twenty paintings, both oils and encaustics, by this established Santa Fe-based artist. The exhibit marks Joffe's first Denver solo, but her work was seen in town a few years ago in a group show at the Singer Gallery.
Joffe first studied art in the early 1950s at the distinguished Rhode Island School of Design and continued her education in the 1970s, earning an MFA at the City College of New York. She left the East Coast for Santa Fe in 1989.
Joffe's paintings depict crowded scenes of figures, many of them nude. The work seems firmly rooted in neo-expressionism, a type of painting that first arrived on the scene 25 years ago.
In the pair of paintings that lead off the Havu show, "Guarjira Bonita" and "Versos Para Ti," Joffe assembles a motley group of subjects, some partially nude, who are celebrating at a gala event. Nominally, the figures occupy three-dimensional space, but they're as flat as cutouts. Joffe's palette consists of muted colors, with dusty pinks and creamy light browns dominating. The paintings are all figural abstractions, and all have an approach to the composition that creates awkward tensions. If it wasn't for this aspect, they'd be too sweet, too cloying, which might be expected considering the nudes and party guests that fill her pictures.
In the space under the mezzanine is Bethany Kriegsman, which features drawings by Kriegsman, a well-known Golden artist and a faculty member at the University of Denver since 1985.
In recent years, Kriegsman has exhibited large, assembled constructions made of wood that has been stained with colored pigment to create mosaic-like wall and floor pieces. The inspiration is obvious: Kriegsman is an experienced block printer, and the elements of her constructions looked like inked blocks.
This show contains drawings that are visually similar to the wood constructions, but instead of bringing together stained blocks of wood, the artist has applied heavy coats of chalks and oil pastels to paper and then scraped down through the layers to make her incised images. Again, the link to print-making is clear: The drawings are carved just like printing blocks. There are many standouts in the show, but don't miss a separately hung group in the gallery's front-window niche that includes the gleaming "Middle of the Day" and its equally impressive companion, "End of the Day."
Upstairs on the mezzanine, Havu has put together Lawrence Argent, a small show that's all over the map in both medium and style and includes two distinct types of drawings and several types of sculpture. Like Kriegsman, this British-born artist teaches at DU, where he has headed up the sculpture department since 1993.
The Argent show seems to be a trip through some messy office in which the viewer finds various threads of ideas. The most impressive piece, and the only large sculpture here, is "Untitled (Tower Piece)." In a work that resembles a truncated arch or gate, Argent has placed an arching rectangular solid on a base made of I-beams and welded tubular steel. The metal structure is painted black. On both ends are pairs of spirals made of cast glass that are the color of Vaseline and are lighted from their interiors. Across from this sculpture is a presentation drawing of it done in graphite on vellum, one of three such drawings included.
Speaking of large sculptures, a group of outdoor ones by New York sculptor Joel Shapiro has been installed at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, with one additional piece in front of the Denver Art Museum. The al fresco exhibit, titled Joel Shapiro: sculpture, was curated by Martin Friedman and organized by the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.
Although the show doesn't officially open until the middle of next month, most of the pieces are already in place, notably those on the lawn of the DPAC, which can easily be seen from Speer Boulevard. They're classic Shapiros in that they reconcile opposite points of view: Shapiro uses elongated rectangles, often evocative of structural beams, and clusters them to subtly make references to the figure, as in "Untitled," from 1989-90. Some date back to his heyday in the early 1980s.
The prominent lawn, which is officially called the Performing Arts Sculpture Park, has an interesting and checkered recent history and an uncertain, if guaranteed to be strange, future.
About five years ago, the lawn held a sculpture titled "Solar Fountain," a collaborative piece by the late Eric Orr and New Mexico artist Larry Bell. The sculpture was not a fountain at all, but an experimental conceptual piece meant to exploit solar energy for its visual effects. It almost never worked and was repeatedly vandalized. When it was in good repair, though, it was beautiful, taking the form of a monumental translucent cup rising from a quiet pool.
Originally installed in 1981, the sculpture was set in the middle of the lawn and surrounded by formal walkways. The placement was dictated by an only partly completed plan conceived by the world-renowned architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. But because of budget constraints and DPAC don Donald Seawell's well-known antipathy for the sculpture, the plaza was never landscaped and was only minimally maintained.
In the mid-1990s, a decision was made to revamp the area, and the firms of EDAW and Carter and Burgess came up with a novel plan for a sculpture park. And they had an even more novel way of achieving it. Their first suggestion? Remove the "Solar Fountain." You know, the only sculpture there.
Everything else they did was just as bad and just as idiotic. For instance, look at that preposterous set of stairs that hysterically wend their way up to the galleria above. The stairs are meant to do double duty as seating for outdoor theater audiences, though it's hard to imagine anything that would be audible above the constant din of the traffic on Speer.
See that mangy evergreen tree imprisoned in a concrete container on the elevated plaza at the bottom of the stairs? According to documents produced for the project, that tree is meant to be decorated by artists along seasonal themes. (Apparently someone at either EDAW or Carter and Burgess had a subscription to Martha Stewart Living.)
Well, not surprisingly, no one ever got around to putting on a play at the bottom of the steps or decorating the tree. However, with the Shapiros, there are finally some sculptures in the sculpture park -- and to think, only a few years after the "Solar Fountain" was scrapped. But don't get your hopes up: The Shapiros are set to leave at the end of May.
However, there is a plan for a permanent piece for the sculpture park, a preposterous sixty-foot-tall dancing stick-figure couple by Jonathan Borofsky, which was personally chosen by Denver's first lady, Wilma Webb. The Borofsky was supposed to be paid for by private donations, but those funds have not materialized, and it looks like the public art budget for the ever-expanding Colorado Convention Center next door will be raided to pay for at least part of it. The move is both possible and legal since the site is adjacent to the CCC, and the law allows for funding in such a situation.
I'm sure some will come to love the Borofsky, but from my naive point of view, it is comparable stylistically to those embarrassing ballerinas by Ruth Keller Schweiss over at the Adam's Mark Hotel. (In what can only be seen as one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction things, Bell, of the "Solar Fountain," is doing his own stick figures not far away at the under-construction Invesco Field at Mile High -- or whatever it's called.) I repeat a prediction I made when the Borofsky was first proposed in 1998: The sculpture will become the most reviled object in Denver.
I guess we'll have to wait and see. For now, though, those marvelous Shapiros are definitely worth a look -- even if only from the window of a speeding car.
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