A new exhibit at the CVA features work by Metro faculty, including the late E. C. Cunningham

Metropolitan State College has a special place in Denver's art world. Not only does it have the biggest set of visual-arts departments in the state, but it has its own mini-museum, the Center for Visual Art, long a fixture in LoDo and now the jewel of the Santa Fe art district. These two factors come together in Collective Nouns, a group show featuring members of the art faculty from the college.

To organize the show, center director Jennifer Garner sent out a call to Metro's full-time professors, half-time instructors and adjunct teachers; those who wanted to participate were asked to submit work. That means the group was a self-selecting one and that the included works were also self-chosen. Garner and assistant director Cecily Cullen were then left to lay out the show in a coherent way, which, given the stylistic diversity, was no easy task.

One of the first things I noticed was how many of the artists were ones I'd never heard of. Garner had the same reaction, despite the fact that she is on the faculty herself. "With artists working as adjuncts, coming in for a semester or two, there are a lot of them I didn't know at all before the show went up," says Garner.

One artist who is well known is E. C. Cunningham, who died in October 2010. Part of Collective Nouns is a show within the show titled E. C. Cunningham: From Wichita to Nighthawk. Cunningham was best known as a printmaker, and there are some prints in the display, but the work shown here consists primarily of two sets of photos that document a pair of performances he staged on a piece of southern Colorado land he owned called Nighthawk.

The performances, "Nocturnal Directions" and "Nighthawk Project," concerned the National Forest Service recommendation that trees should be thinned on mountain land so that there are no more than five per acre. Cunningham chose an acre of his Nighthawk land to serve as an example. To begin, as he would at every stage, he photographed it, revealing that it was heavily wooded with pines. He then chose the many trees that needed to be removed to bring the total down to five. To mark those trees as doomed, he covered them in black-and-white-striped fabric. The wide bands of black and white, especially in the context of the woods, suggest prison uniforms from the chain-gang era. He then cut down the marked trees. Finally, on the stump of each now-removed tree, he placed an LED light as a kind of memorial.

In addition to the photos documenting these two performances, there is an installation made from the logs used in "Nocturnal Directions." These tree trunks, covered in the black and white fabric, have been suspended from the ceiling, with the LED lights strung along the windows behind them.

Lastly, there are two lithographs depicting the Nighthawk scenery, among several other things, the most unusual of which is a mixed-media painting that's been done on a repurposed printing plate. A second part of the Cunningham show is on view at Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus, featuring a survey of the artist's prints.

The Cunningham section launches a theme that appears over and over again in Collective Nouns: that of conceptual art. This sensibility, in which ideas or narratives are included either implicitly or explicitly, is a characteristic that's seen in photos, paintings, works on paper and, as in Cunningham's case, installations.

At the front of the main part of the show is "Wirbel," by Brian Evans, an installation in which three aluminum rods arc off the wall. Each is segmented and topped by a small propeller. As the propellers turn, the rods move and flex according to custom electronic controls that replicate actual wind speeds. It's so delicate that it's almost invisible until you're right on top of it.

Down the main hallway and filling an entire gallery is "Exploding Carpet," by ceramics whiz Tsehai Johnson. On the floor, a square has been suggested using small, white, organically shaped elements. In the center is a cluster of the elements, with some suspended from the ceiling so that they appear to be floating. It's gorgeous.

Other noteworthy installations include Peter Bergman's "Institute of Sociometry," in which he uses mail, works of art and a computer to bridge art and social science; Michael Bernhardt's "Naming a Thing Doesn't Make It Real, Except When It Does," a wall-length assemblage of works on paper and three-dimensional constructions; and Derrick Velasquez's "Thinking in Circles," a towering wooden construction the size of a shed surrounded by integral benches with knitted panels draped around its sides.

Like installations, photos and other photo-based techniques are easily amenable to conceptualism. And in at least one case, there's a conceptual installation made up of digital photos. That piece is "Growing the Home," in which Lisa Abendroth has made 45 mock grass-seed packets complete with artist-designed logos and descriptions — which are typically humorous — paired with shots of front lawns, some of which are ratty and overgrown.

Another photo installation is by Cinthea Fiss, who continues her poignant documentary series "I Photograph to Forget," which captures the living vestiges of the long-gone '70s punk era in rock music — something she and her husband were a part of.

In an unlikely harmony are the two photos by Edie Winograde that are related to her interest in photographing historic re-creations, and one by Sean Rozales. In both cases, the artists are interested in deconstructing the Western image. In Winograde's case, it's the element of pretense; in Rozales's, it's the false antiquity of the computer print. Still, their pieces are clearly Western in character.  How transgressive of them.

Not to be left out, conceptual paintings and works on paper are also on display, with many artists now teaching at Metro clearly having a taste for juggling representational images with abstract ones. An example is "Tangled Garden," by Barbara Veatch, which combines realism with post-minimalism. Across the horizontally oriented panel are four vertical color fields. In each of the fields are representational images, including an insect wing and a cluster of twigs that are either incised or painted. It's really striking.

Susanne Mitchell's "The Visitors" combines photography and drawing in a gorgeous monotype. Using an exaggerated vertical leaf, Mitchell stacks the composition with various elements that need to be read separately because their details require a close inspection of the different parts.

Other pieces that take compatible approaches include Jeneve Parrish's "Portrait of James Pullen...," which merges constructivism, patterning and representation onto a single sheet, and Kay Tuttle's "Forest," in which broken fields of stale pastel colors are used to set off the severe linear depictions of trees that have been laid on top.

I'm not sure what to think of Carlos Frésquez's surrealist-inspired portrait "El Meso-Moderno Series #3," except to say that it's really something. Frésquez has centered an awkwardly proportioned, disjointed head-like shape on a heavily painted ground. The form seems to refer to Picasso, while the terra cotta color invokes the Mayans.

Other noteworthy pieces include Mark Brasuell's "Plains," a lyrical abstraction with a vibrant and at times metallic color scheme; Anna Kaye's remarkably meticulous "Afterglow," which could be a photo but is actually a drawing; and Sara Sanderson's compelling "Coral Nursery," another drawing that could also be a photo.

With more than forty artists in Collective Nouns, it's impossible for me to mention everyone. The exhibit is so vast that it provides something of a snapshot not only of what's happening now at Metro, but what's going on in town, too, since so many members of the faculty are practicing artists in Denver.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia