Dark Room

The Colorado Photographic Arts Center recently made the surprise announcement that it is closing when the current show, Layers: Contemporary Russian Photography, comes down next week. Ironically, the show had been billed as the center's grand reopening.

Before I get into CPAC's future, I'd like to talk about Layers, a memorable show that is indicative of the kind of thing that has been the regular fare at the gallery. Despite the subtitle, the exhibit is actually a solo dedicated to Nikolai Kulebiaken, who is considered to be a contemporary master of Russian photography and whose work is widely exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. The gorgeous pieces on display were loaned to CPAC by Teresa and Paul Harbaugh, local collectors and dealers with a special interest in Eastern European photography.

Born in 1959, Kulebiaken began taking photos as a child and had his first exhibit in 1979, even before his graduation from the Mossoviet Polytechnical Institute in 1981. By 1988 his work had become known in international photo circles.

It's important to remember that in those days, Russia was part of the Soviet Union, a place where every aspect of life -- including the arts -- was strictly controlled. This meant that Kulebiaken knew little of what was happening in photography outside of the Soviet Union and was exposed only to officially sanctioned photographs. Though the Soviets initially encouraged the pursuit of vanguard art, when Stalin took over as premier in the 1920s, conservative and backward-looking styles became favored. These attitudes were still prevalent in the 1980s. For whatever reason, the Soviets allowed more freedom of expression in the field of the still life, which is what encouraged Kulebiaken, and others of his and previous generations, to do so many of them.

Kulebiaken crams a lot of visual information into his pictures. The scenes are staged, but the resulting pieces still come off as abstracts because of the way he arranges the objects. He is especially interested in the effects of light as it goes through glass and prisms, as it hits mirrors and as it changes in cast shadows. In most of the photos, images have been projected onto the objects and people, giving the scenes a fantastic and unreal quality.

Aside from the three-color Chromogenic prints, everything has been done in black-and-white silver-gelatin prints. In addition, all of the pieces are untitled, making it difficult to discuss any particular one. The oldest are from the late '80s, with most of the show dating to the 1990s.

Layers has a week and a half left in its run. Don't miss this elegant show, a worthy last act for CPAC's well-regarded gallery.

The decision by the Colorado Photographic Arts Center's board of directors to cease its regular schedule of exhibits appears to have come out of left field. As some will recall, CPAC was closed all summer to allow for a remodeling that was undertaken by landlord Carol Keller. So it's strange that CPAC didn't simply shut down at that time instead of gearing up again by unveiling the Layers exhibit, only to put on the brakes almost immediately.

"I thought that a couple of months off would energize everybody, but it didn't," says CPAC president Skip Kohloff.

Kohloff and his wife, Lisbeth Neergaard Kohloff, CPAC's gallery coordinator, have essentially run the group themselves over the past couple of decades. But both are getting on in years, and they decided to call it quits. After all, the CPAC gigs they held were unpaid volunteer positions -- which is hard to believe, considering all the work they've done.

This is not the first time that CPAC has been forced to retreat. The last time was back in the 1980s. At that time, there was $200 in the group's treasury, which was very little money even then. Since that time, the Kohloffs and others have built up the account to some $10,000.

CPAC traces its origins to a group of meetings in the spring of 1963 that were sparked by the Denver Art Museum's total rejection of photography as an art form. Because then-museum director Otto Bach had not mounted a photo show in his thirty-year-plus career at the DAM, many argued that Bach simply did not believe that photography was art.

In late 1963, founders Eugene Lang, Jim Milmoe and Glen Thursh and almost a dozen other local photographers and photo enthusiasts held CPAC's inaugural dinner at the Brown Palace. At that time, the group's permanent collection was also established, with gifts from a who's who of famous photographers including Yousuf Karsh, Phillippe Halsman, Ansel Adams and many others. This collection, now numbering more than 600 photos, is presently in archival storage and is surely CPAC's greatest financial asset.

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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