Alternating Currents

Denver artist Julie Puma is on the cusp between being an emerging artist and an established one. With her installation Letters to Stanley in the Balcony Gallery at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, she moves one step closer to the latter. The show has been very well received and has made her better known than she's ever been.

The two-part installation is intensely personal, dealing with the recurring theme of breast cancer in Puma's family. Her mother died of the disease when she was a little girl, and her sister succumbed to it just a few years ago. Puma herself decided to have a double mastectomy when tests revealed that she was prone to developing the potentially deadly condition. But the show also has a universal quality to it, considering how widespread the disease is among women and that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Puma uses various styles, including pop and conceptualism (that's right, I'm calling conceptualism a style), to produce the somber piece. Across the back of the gallery, facing viewers as they enter, is a curtain made of color photocopies of family snapshots and the "Letters" Puma's mother wrote to "Stanley," her husband. Lying on the floor in front of the curtain is a rectangle of river rocks, some of which bear the transferred images of the letters and the photos on them. Like all successful installations, this one takes over and transforms the space.

Letters to Stanley was originally supposed to come down on Thursday, October 13, but that's Yom Kippur, so the Mizel is closed, and no one's going to be taking anything apart then. For this reason, the show's been extended through this Sunday, October 16. Be aware, though, that the Mizel is always closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

Down the hall, in the Mizel's Singer Gallery, are two solos organized by exhibition director Simon Zalkind: Incognito, a large presentation installed around the gallery's outer walls and dedicated to the paintings of Denver artist Steven Altman; and Crowded, a small show hung on a set of dividing walls that focuses on drawings by New Yorker Elliot Green. The two artists' works have virtually nothing in common, but as usual, Zalkind has made them fit together. Taken as a whole, the Singer looks just great -- and that's as usual, too.

"Steve Altman is one of those artists that I've kind of watched on the periphery for years now," Zalkind says, "and the reason he's on the periphery is that he doesn't elbow his way into the center. But every time I've seen his work, I've thought it was strong and deserved an audience."

Zalkind selected Altman for a solo because he had a sufficiently large body of strong work, and because there were enough transitions in his stylistic development to make for a really interesting show. These pictorial changes can be roughly described as going from the '90s abstract-expressionist pieces to the figural abstracts of the early 21st century that incorporate text. Now he has seemingly made his way back again, with the latest painting being abstract expressionist, albeit of a very different stripe than the earlier ones.

Altman has been exhibiting since the 1980s and garnered a modicum of fame around here back in the '90s, when his work was shown at Robischon and at the long-gone Grant Gallery. His style of that time can be characterized as airy, with just a few scribbled lines and a smear of paint here or there on an otherwise blank canvas. When I first saw his pieces of this type more than ten years ago, I thought they were gorgeous; seeing a group of them at the Singer, I still feel the same way. The passage of time has done nothing to diminish them, which is amazing, since lots of stuff that looked good in the '90s looks stale today. Three enormous ones -- "Pink #1," from 1997, and "Canvas #1" and "Canvas #2," both done in 1998 -- have been hung in the front corner and look marvelous together.

In the past five years, Altman's career has continued to flourish, with regular appearances in exhibitions and a raft of public-art commissions. However, that notoriety didn't come from these fabulous abstracts, but from his more difficult pieces, which feature the use of felt and of representational imagery in the form of figures. These works are mystical and childlike, as illustrated by the mixed media on canvas titled "Infinitely Suggestive," from 2003.

In his most recent pieces, Altman is still incorporating felt -- particularly in "Union" -- but it's more thoroughly unified with the painted parts. "Union," a mass of heavily painted smears that was done earlier this year, is so different from almost everything else in the show, it made me wonder if it's a predictor of things to come.

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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