Art Review: Life Gets Real — and Surreal — at the Arvada Center

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The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is one of the shining lights of Colorado’s cultural scene. As an exhibition venue, it’s very large and includes space not just for  art exhibits, but also for theater, dance and art education. And the exhibit program is a standout, thanks to exhibition manager Collin Parson and gallery coordinator Kristin Bueb.

I’ll confess that I think the best shows at the Arvada Center are the enormous solos that are mounted from time to time, like the ones that were dedicated to Robert Mangold and David Yust. But my second favorite type of exhibit there — and the one that is more commonly seen — is the group shows organized according to some stylistic theme. One advantage to these shows is that they give multiple artists a chance to have their pieces featured, often mixing local artists with those from elsewhere in the country. One such exhibit, Conscious and Unconscious: Subjects of the Real & Surreal, is on view right now.

Organized by Bueb, the display is broken down into three parts, a decision that reflects the center’s floor plan. Bueb used the main-level spaces to explore contemporary surrealism and the upper-level galleries to highlight realism. But this stylistic division looked easier on paper than it was in reality, Bueb explains: As the works came in, she began to realize that the two approaches sometimes overlapped, so it became a judgment call as to where certain pieces landed.

The show opens in a gallery that sets some context for the first topic, surrealism. First up is a quartet of drawings in the “exquisite corpse” tradition, wherein each of three artists creates one-third of a single drawing. Not unlike a parlor game, the method is associated with the surrealists of the 1920s but may actually date back to the Dada artists of the 1910s. This initial section also includes “The Exquisite Corpse Machine,” by Andy Malone, as well as a film about surrealism.

Things really begin to jell in the next gallery, however, where some beautifully made works are on view (give me exquisite over “exquisite corpse” every time). There are some remarkably detailed ceramic wall sculptures by Russell Wrankle, including “Hare Muzzle,” a strikingly realistic dog’s head with a limp hare strapped to the muzzle. Wrankle captures the real-life appearance of the animals perfectly — an amazing feat, considering that they are done in glazed ceramic, of all things.

The Wrankles go perfectly with a pair of major paintings by Kevin Sloan, which are marked by a tremendous precision in their rendering; the surrealist aspect only comes in, as it does with Wrankle’s work, with the juxtaposition of subjects. In Sloan’s “Our Modern Animal,” it’s an octopus in a landscape with a pocket watch hanging to one side. Sloan apes the style of historic European realism but adds contemporary content through his odd combination of elements, each of which has been captured and painted in the traditional way.

Digital photos by John Bonath are hung adjacent to the Sloan, and they work beautifully in this spot. Bonath, a pioneer of digital photography, has long been interested in creating examples of contemporary surrealism in which figurative elements, such as a hand or even a person, are camouflaged by a dizzying array of other subjects that have engulfed them. There’s a lot to recommend in the rest of this sprawling show, but this gallery represents a high point.

In the next section, a lowbrow aesthetic takes over from the decidedly highbrow aspects of Wrankle, Sloan and Bonath. This includes some crazy comix drawings from Donald Fodness. In “Nature Maker (Making Nature),” Fodness covers the paper with cartoon faces, complete with lots of eyeballs. But because the faces collide with one another and are only partially carried out, the whole thing reads like an abstract. Nearby are two C. T. Nelson paintings that are tremendously painterly and include many expressionist flourishes — but within the dense skeins of pigment in one of them, “Tower of Babel,” is a lineup of men walking and other recognizable elements. Reveling even more in kid culture are the two fake-fur-covered skateboards by Peter Cunis, which tip their hat to Méret Oppenheim’s famous fur-covered cup and saucer, an icon of the first phase of surrealism.

Other standouts on the main level include Irene Delka McCray’s paintings, especially those depicting wrinkled fabric, and over-the-top photo-realist paintings by Scott Fraser. Among the latter is the lyrical “Golden Mean in Red, II,” in which Hershey’s Kisses rain down on a depiction of a classic spiral in red against a dark ground. Beyond is an entire gallery given over to Evan Mann’s videos, “Particular Worlds” and “The Otherworldly,” which are supplemented by props, displayed like sculptures, that the artist made to use in these atmospheric works.

This first part of the show, which is also the largest piece, culminates in an installation that includes paintings and objects by Melissa Furness. Various elements are brought together to convey a conceptual rendition of a church, complete with ceiling and altar. Furness enlisted sculptor Rian Kerrane to create iron elements, including two madonnas and an altar rail. The piece is kind of crazy, but it’s much better resolved than was her installation in the Biennial of the Americas’ Vis-à-Vis exhibition.

Realism and conceptual realism are showcased in the upper galleries, and there is a lot of great stuff, including Anna Kaye’s remarkable “Fever.” Kaye has been looking at wildfires for several years, creating marvelous drawings of burned forests. “Fever” is a clever advancement on that idea. It’s a drawing of a twig with a video projecting the moving image of a flame running on top of it. Two photo-realist paintings of flowers peeking out from paper bags, by Sarah van der Helm, are also choice. The work of Paula Peacock is unusual and makes the point that the borders between realism and surrealism are very flexible; her painting, “Flight of the Passing Fancy,” an irrational still life of partly peeled apples hanging in a window, is every bit as insane as the Fraser downstairs. Before leaving this second part of Conscious and Unconscious, I need to mention a great sculpture, “Family Heirloom 2,” by Tyler Wayne McCall. It’s made of a found shop dolly and what looks like a beat-up cardboard box — but in a surprising twist, the old box is actually made of fired clay.

The final phase of the show highlights realism as applied to portraits and other depictions of people. There is a strong realist figural scene in the Denver area, and some of its best-known proponents are represented here. Peter Illig and Monique Crine are two of the top contemporary realists in town, and Lu Cong exemplifies the pinnacle of the current traditional realist scene. Bueb also included up-and-comer Ron Gerbrandt, whose abstracted realism comes out of the British figural movement of a half-century ago.

Conscious and Unconscious is the Arvada Center’s main summer offering, and, sad to say, like the season itself, it’s rapidly heading to a close.

Conscious and Unconscious, through August 30 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.

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