Expressing a variety of minority views through art is the goal of two exhibits currently on view at Golden's Foothills Art Center. According to center director Carol Dickinson, the shows also are intended to reflect how minority artists can use their art to "triumph over victimization."

The Holocaust is a kind of apotheosis of hostile majoritarianism, and it's a little-thought-about consequence of the Nazis' war on the Jews that is Susan Cooper's taking-off point for her moving installation Recollections: Lost Synagogues of Poland and Russia. Not content to simply exterminate the Jews, the Nazis attempted to erase all evidence of Jewish life in Europe--a horrific campaign Cooper conveys through her metaphorical depictions of lost houses of worship.

Those familiar with Cooper's work have watched how, in the last ten years, her tightly controlled geometric compositions have literally gotten up off her paintings and turned into three-dimensional objects. The Foothills installation offers a good example of this stylistic attribute. Here, wall panels in low relief have been meticulously constructed out of wood, then carefully detailed with paint. Each panel depicts a double row of buildings that have been pushed together into a single form. In the front row are the small village synagogues; and in the back, the large urban ones. The constructions seem to float ethereally on the gallery's walls and are separated from one another by wall-hung carvings of bare trees just emerging in early spring.

Cooper imbues the entire installation with a depth of meaning that is nearly palpable: The installation was inspired by the murders of her aunt, uncle and cousins at the hands of the Nazis.

Notably less somber in its effect, though equally serious about exploring the struggle of minorities against the majority, is The Triumph of the Human Spirit. Organized by Dickinson to complement Cooper's show, the exhibition brings together a diverse group of artists who represent not only various ethnic and racial groups, but divergent art styles as well. Included are examples of both traditional and contemporary art.

Among the traditionalists is sculptor Ed Dwight, who displays bronze busts of great jazz artists like Miles Davis and figural groups such as a scene of slaves shackled with chains. Also illustrating the enduring power of traditional art are some very finely done impressionist paintings by Quang Ho, which record a recent trip back to his former home in Vietnam.

The real strength of this second show, though, is found in the realm of contemporary art. Floyd Tunson presents a handful of pieces, including "Delta Queen II," an exquisite wall construction that incorporates found materials and a lighted photo box. Carlos Santistevan contributes "When I Smell the Roses," an AIDS-related wall relief made from one end of a crib.

One of the few contemporary paintings is "Chiapas Warrior de la Tierra Madre" by Carlos Fresquez. Fresquez has painted the figure of the title and then obscured him by laying linear and virtually transparent patterns on the painting's surface. These patterns depict various manmade objects such as an airplane, a gun and a shovel, as well as evocations of the natural world: leaves, palm trees and a jaguar.

Anchoring the exhibit are a single sculpture and several lithographs by internationally known Texas artist Luis Jimenez. In a way, Jimenez's work lies between the traditionalists and those who embrace contemporary issues. In the 1970s Jimenez was among the first generation of artists to look back to the American scene painters of the 1930s for inspiration. But Jimenez updated his historic sources by also referring to pop imagery. It's a winning blend easy to see in the 1980s hand-colored lithograph "Vaquero," which manages to look like a WPA mural and a movie poster at the same time. Interestingly, the show also includes the 1993 print "Denver Mustang"--a rendition of the proposed monumental sculpture by Jimenez that still has not been installed at Denver International Airport.

Both of these Foothills shows go beyond making predictable points about ethnic diversity. They also indicate how today's art scene is a big tent under which old-fashioned painting and sculpture can peacefully co-exist with cutting-edge political commentary. And all of those efforts can still share the same topic: tolerance for our differences.

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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