Denver is the center of the state’s art scene and a regional center, too; you’d have to go all the way to Santa Fe to find such a strong lineup of artists. The city also has a vast number of alternative spaces, galleries, art centers and museums, all of them relentlessly cranking out shows — and so many were so good this past year, it was difficult to whittle them down to the best.
Here are the top twelve shows of 2019, in the order that they were reviewed:
Yoshitomo Saito: Woven
William Havu Gallery
This mammoth, museum-quality show comprised meticulously done bronzes by well-known Colorado artist Yoshitomo Saito. One of several showstoppers was an installation that flowed over a wall, rising way above our heads, made up of 670 unbelievably realistic renditions of pine cones done in bronze. The monumental baskets showcased Saito’s advanced technical skills; they looked woven, but were welded. Saito is a conceptual artist using realism to create abstracts, and his talent at juggling these sources is what made this show a knockout.
Art of the State 2019
Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities
Back this year, Art of the State, a triennial juried show, attracts established talents along with the expected emerging artists. The selection committee included the Arvada Center’s director of exhibitions, Collin Parson, along with Joy Armstrong, then at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and Daisy McGowan from the Ent Center for the Arts. An open call inevitably leads to an aesthetic free-for-all, but Art of the State somehow neatly surveyed the range of pursuits being followed by Colorado’s contemporary artists.
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Barbara Locketz: Form. Color. Texture.
Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art
One of the great things the Kirkland Museum does is celebrate all-but-forgotten Colorado artists. This show, dedicated to the late Barbara Locketz, whose career peaked in the 1960s and ’70s, was a case in point. In the elegant solo co-curated by museum founder Hugh Grant and registrar Chris Herron, Locketz’s influences were apparent. Her abstracts, inspired by mentor Vance Kirkland, were superseded by paintings covered in metal, created in response to Robert Mangold. This aesthetic progression culminated with chic, freestanding sculptures, acrylics and some very cool jewelry.
Mario Zoots: Gentle Distortion
Doug Kacena, the force behind the two-year-old K Contemporary, has assembled some of the most-talked-about contemporary artists in town, including Mario Zoots, whose Gentle Distortion played with conceptual takes on originality. Zoots is best known for his collages, but some of the pieces in this solo flew far afield from that signature medium. Instead, collages were used as a taking-off point, with Zoots addressing the inherent appropriation of collage head on by taking his own images and then having copies made in China.
Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America
Denver Art Museum
This past summer’s Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, co-curated by Monica Obniski from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the DAM's Darrin Alfred, recast the modernist exemplars of high-brow design theories by turning them into objects of fun. The colors, the shapes, the approach itself, all tapped into the optimistic mood of post-war America. Serious Play held up over repeated visits, not just because it included the best designs of the twentieth century, but because these same designs still check all the boxes in the 21st.
Zach Reini: Not Much Will Change When I’m Gone
David B. Smith Gallery
One of Denver’s smartest conceptual artists is Zach Reini, who likes to deconstruct popular culture. His precisely-done paintings in Zach Reini: Not Much Will Change When I’m Gone were inspired by the imagery and phrases found on discs used to play pogs, a 1990s game wildly popular among children, including Reini. The imagery of the pogs has a certain affiliation with manga style, but also with comic books, horror fantasy characters, playing cards, and on and on. With this show, Reini used the pogs to render a self-portrait.
Barbara Takenaga: Manifold
The lead show in a quartet at Robischon Gallery, Barbara Takenaga: Manifold comprised gorgeous paintings that were abstract yet gave off landscape vibes, or at least naturalistic ones. The severely constrained palettes lent the paintings a contemplative air. And although Takanaga was born in Nebraska and does not self-consciously reference her Japanese ancestry in her work, many of her paintings also had something of an Asian mood to them. This was certainly the case with the solo’s tour de force, “Manifold 5," a majestic mural that was nearly twenty feet long.
10th Biennial MSU Denver Art Department Exhibition
MSU Center for Visual Art
Nobody can put together disparate material better than CVA director Cecily Cullen, and she needed that skill to pull off the 10th Biennial MSU Denver Art Department Exhibition, with works by faculty and staff of the various art departments on campus. Given the numerous fields in which instruction is given at MSU Denver, the inclusions were wide-ranging, and some of the artists in the show were also highly regarded off-campus, including Sandy Lane, Tsehai Johnson, Kelly Monico, Carlos Frésquez, Charles Livingston and Regan Rosburg.
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Eyes On: Jonathan Saiz
Denver Art Museum
Organized by the DAM’s curator of contemporary art, Rebecca Hart, Eyes On: Jonathan Saiz included 10,000 works by Jonathan Saiz that he brought together into a stunning installation. Saiz has long used small plastic boxes, enclosing paintings, reliefs, collages in miniature in them, and even etching directly on the boxes. Saiz had a wide circular pillar built, using the diameter of the columns from Karnak as his guide, and then he covered it with the boxes. When the show closed last month, he gave the boxes away, a key element of his aesthetic philosophy.
Clark Richert in Hyperspace
Clark Richert in Hyperspace, a major retrospective, filled all of the galleries on the main and second floors of MCA Denver, taking viewers from the earliest Richerts, done in the 1960s, up to the pieces made in the past few years. The marvelous exhibit was curated by the MCA’s Zoe Larkins. Richert is the personification of the counterculture, having earned his celebrity as a founder of Colorado artist commune Drop City in 1965, but he’s kept working right up to the present time. This fabulous show laid out the entire arc of his illustrious career.
Spark Gallery 40th Anniversary Show, Part I
Denver’s oldest extant artist cooperative, founded in 1979, celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 2019 with a not-to-miss show dedicated to the work of the founders. No single style defined their art, but between them, they linked various important artist groups, including those associated with Drop City, Criss-Cross and the Armory Group. The show included pieces by Clark Richert, Richard Kallweit, Charles di Julio, Jerry Johnson, Marilyn Nelson, George Woodman, Andy Libertone, Margaret Neumann, John Fudge and Paul Gillis.
Life Cycles: works by Sharon Feder & Dallas Parkins
Michael Warren Contemporary
A virtually seamless duet, Life Cycles: works by Sharon Feder & Dallas Parkins is the only show on this list that's still open (through January 11). The exhibit includes paintings by Sharon Feder and photographs by Dallas Parkins, who both capture buildings in their distinctively different mediums, with the respective results surprisingly similar in appearance. It’s hardly remarkable for Feder and Parkins to be doing related work, since they are married, but there's a twist to their story: Each was already making the kind of work they do now before they met.