With no exhibition director on staff at present, the art program at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities is essentially rudderless. Executive director Gene Sobczak is running the program in his spare time, but he is no art expert, and he's busy with other duties. In addition, Sobczak has redirected focus from the visual arts to the performing ones — like the center's current production of Les Misérables — which brings in a lot more bodies than even the best-attended art show. The most serious drawback to Sobczak's making the art decisions, however, is that there's no overriding vision that could shape a coherent exhibition program. In truth, though, former exhibition director Jerry Gilmore, who was forced out, didn't set out a cohesive aesthetic vision, either.
But Sobczak does have an ace in the hole, in the form of Arvada Center exhibition designer Collin Parson, who has taken on the additional role of ad hoc curator. Parson is the son of Chuck Parson, the well-known Colorado sculptor, something that has opened doors for Collin in the art world. In fact, the younger Parson told me that he met some of the most established artists in the region when he was still in elementary school.
That's essentially the backstory of how the center was able to present Dave Yust: Looking Back/Looking Forward: 1970s — 2008: Explorations in Symmetry and Inclusion Series: Circles and Ellipses — an epic show with an epic title. "When I went to [Yust's] house in Fort Collins to select the work, I saw the purple carpet and thought, 'I remember that from when I went up there with my parents when I was a kid,'" Collin says.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1939, Yust discovered his interest in art as a child and studied art with Birger Sandzén, the noted early-twentieth-century post-impressionist who lived in Kansas but came annually to Colorado for decades to paint. Yust then earned a BFA at the University of Kansas and an MFA at the University of Oregon. In 1965 he joined the art faculty of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he's been ever since.
In the early '60s, Yust was wildly innovative, moving from style to style. This summer, I actually saw an early figural piece by him, which struck me as strange, since he's known only for his abstracts. It was in the late '60s that he ultimately found the path he would follow for the rest of his career, one in which color and form became more important than subject matter, even if Yust sees references to the landscape in his work. Living in Fort Collins but being part of the Denver art world has meant innumerable trips up and down the northern end of the Front Range, and the views of the mountains against the sky along the way have profoundly influenced him.
Though the Arvada Center show is enormous, it's not a retrospective, because it focuses on only two types of the artist's work: circular and semi-circular paintings and prints done in the 1970s, and elliptical pieces created in the past couple of years. The differences between the two types are easy to see, and not just because the earlier ones are round and the later ones are oval. Yust's approach also changed from the flat, evenly painted or printed hard-edged pieces of the '70s to the expressively painted or printed soft-edged ones of the 2000s. Parson notes that many people told him they thought the older pieces were the newer ones, and vice versa. That confusion makes sense, as post-minimalism has brought back Yust's earlier aesthetic while his newer style is fairly idiosyncratic and doesn't plug in to current international trends.
The Arvada show is limited to circular and ovoid items, but Yust also does squares, rectangles and diamonds. The round and rounded works came out of his interest in breaking away from the idea that art was a window on the world, a notion with which he pointedly disagrees. In an interview specifically conducted for this show by Blake Milteer, curator at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, Yust explained that the curved shapes gave the paintings unlimited possibilities, as they could be hung with any given point at the top. Parson points out that another attribute of roundels or tondos is that they always hang straight, so there is no need to constantly adjust them.
The show opens with a stunning group of pieces. The first, a four-foot-in-diameter roundel in acrylic on canvas, is "Circular Composition #49 (Change in Scale #33)." Done in 1972, it is carried out in black and white. The light-colored ground surrounds a soft zigzag of black that runs asymmetrically around the center. It's tremendous, and its power is enhanced by the group of related serigraphs that Yust did for his Denver Art Museum solo mounted in 1975 and 1976, which have been hung on the curved wall next to it. For these prints, Yust used metallic silver paper with white circles in the middle that have been accented by black abstract forms, related to the similar devices used in the painting.
In the double-height atrium space beyond the entry are three more paintings from the "Circular Composition" series, but the room is dominated by an additional pair of enormous works, each nine feet in diameter. Although these are from the same series, they're done in vibrant colors. Yust will sometimes limit his palette, but he's best known as an accomplished colorist. (That purple carpet Parson mentioned was no accident.) These pieces also include more formal content. Using hard-edged curves that follow or otherwise refer to the overall circle shape, Yust has laid in smoothly painted shades of pink, blue, gray and brown among a host of other gorgeous tones.
The two pieces are owned by the CSFAC and make up two-thirds of a triptych; the third piece is in the collection of the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. Yust originally did them for a bank in Greeley in 1978, but the building was sold a few years ago and subsequently remodeled. The owners thought about giving the paintings to the local school district, where an art teacher wanted to cut them up to provide canvas for art students (sometimes even art teachers are philistines). Fortunately, Yust caught wind of the idea and rescued the paintings. It would have been great if all three could have been brought together for this show, but not even the Arvada Center has a big enough wall. Beyond are smaller versions featuring the same approach and also employing bold psychedelic colors, including "Circular Composition #28 (Change in Scale #13)."
Shifting to the newer work, it's obvious that the intervening decades have signaled a big change in Yust's style. The work of the 1970s is related to minimalism, whereas the newer ones are more expressionistic. In the older ones, Yust used flawlessly blended colors applied in smooth, even coats, and the margins between the different colors are tight and finely drawn. In the newer paintings, he has expressively filled in the colors with lots of visual brushwork, and in the prints, there is abundant modeling, with the array of shades made up of various tints that are combined though not blended. Plus, the intersections of the colors are feathery, if not jagged.
Some of these new works, such as the impressive diptych "Nazca Zigzag — Inclusion," are circles, but most are ovals. The selection is quite striking, especially the "Chromaxiologic Inclusion" lithographs, with the entire run of two dozen hung together as an installation. Opposite is another series of lithographic monotypes with hand coloring from the "L.M. — Inclusion" series. All of these prints hanging together cheek by jowl create a downright magical atmosphere in the room.
I know a lot of people have fallen out of the habit of checking out the Arvada Center, what with the uneven schedule — there's been a motorcycle show all summer long, for example — but this fall opener is really something else.