Faces, Places & Spaces marks Collin Parson's official debut as exhibition manager at the Arvada Center

Unquestionably, one of the most ambitious and interesting exhibits of this summer is Faces, Places & Spaces at the Arvada Center. It was put together by Collin Parson, who has only recently been named the exhibition manager. That's good news, as this show demonstrates. Parson has actually been doing the job since 2008, when former gallery director Jerry Gilmore resigned; he just hasn't been getting paid for it.

That's because then-Arvada Center executive director Gene Sobczak left the job unfilled, shifting the funding to the more lucrative theater program which, unlike the galleries, actually makes money through ticket sales. So Parson, being the last man standing in the exhibition team, was drafted into service as the center's main curator in addition to his other jobs. His highwater mark was the Robert Mangold retrospective presented earlier this year, which surveyed more than half a century of the legendary Denver sculptor's work. That show included a wide array of the artist's remarkable sculptures, along with photos, films, videos and newspaper and magazine clippings.

Even if Faces, Places & Spaces, Parson's first effort as exhibition manager, isn't up to that lofty standard — and it isn't — the exhibit has plenty to recommend it, notably the high quality of the material included. But before I get into that, I'd like to point out some non-art aspects of the show, which give it added strength.

First was Parson's outreach to many of the city's galleries to serve as allies and collaborators in the creation of the show. This produced a lot of goodwill. Second, the show is dominated by Colorado artists (in retrospect, it should have been dedicated only to them) and provides a good, if not encyclopedic, snapshot of the contemporary representational scene in Colorado right now. Third, there is a handsome catalogue for sale that reproduces examples of each included artist's pieces, thus documenting a big chunk of what's happening in this representational stylistic realm. Thus, despite being light on text (there's virtually none), the thin volume does contribute to Colorado's art scholarship — what with pictures being worth a thousand words and all. In all these ways, Parson has used the show to support the local art community, above and beyond exhibiting pieces by area players. He deserves a big pat on the back for that; other institutions in town — you know who I'm talking about — should check out what he's doing and see how it's done.

The show begins in the lower-level galleries, with all six spaces given over to portraits. This is the main part of the exhibit, and it's where most of the artists included have pieces on view. In fact, this section could stand alone as a major exhibit without the parts in the upper-level galleries or in the theater gallery. These other two parts could also function as separate offerings, so Parson has really done three shows in one.

Among the first things you'll see after entering the galleries downstairs is Adam Milner's installation that incorporates found imagery and ready-made materials. His piece, "View Photos of Me," comprises 130 portraits that have been captured from his Facebook profile. These portraits have then been digitally printed and inserted into ready-made photo frames so that the full effect apes the look of desktop family photos — well, except that there are so many of them. They are displayed on a pair of parallel shelves that follow the curving contour of the wall. It's great, being both smart and smart-looking. Milner is this summer's local emerging artist extraordinaire. Not only is his work included in this important show, but he's also one of the lucky seven chosen for Continental Drift over at MCA Denver.

Parson chose only a few conceptualists to include, though another's work is nearby to Milner's. In the gallery to the left of the entrance area is a grid of 21 small mixed-media photo-based paintings hung in three rows of seven. The paintings, by Evan Colbert, are portraits of punk-rockers from the '70s and '80s. Aping the style of lowbrow photocopied concert fliers, in which all the details of the faces have been reduced to their minimal expression in stark two-tone, Colbert somehow has the pieces come across as supremely elegant — a skill, by the way, that the artist has long displayed with his super-sophisticated yet disarmingly simple neo-pop paintings.

More traditional in their approaches are the many contemporary-realist painters Parson has included; their work covers a lot of stylistic ground, with various types of realism and hyper-realism predominating. Among this group is a veritable Who's Who of local practitioners, including Nate Baldwin, Lui Ferreyra, Monique Crine, Irene Delka McCray, Wes Magyar, Barbara Shark, Laurel Swab and M. Vlasic.

Also on this list is Sharon Brown, but she deserves to be singled out for the massive undertaking of her "Creators" series of black, gray and white oil-on-canvas portraits of artists, writers and arts advocates. In the atrium, on the principal wall and the two angled wing walls that bookend it, there are no less than 33 of these compelling and fairly large portraits handsomely installed three rows high and eleven wide. It's an amazing ongoing project and an enduring accomplishment.

Places picks up at the top of the grand staircase, but this section of the exhibit is much smaller and much less well-developed. Plus, the upper-level galleries are difficult to deal with, to say the least, since the edges of the spaces bleed into the studios and classrooms, preventing it from jelling as a discrete set of rooms. And if that's not enough, the spaces also serve as a landing, a lobby and a corridor, all at the same time!

Among the clear standouts in this section are the painterly interior views by Sharon Feder and the similarly accomplished depictions of buildings by Sarah McKenzie, who, like Milner, is also in Continental Drift. But the star of Places is Rick Dula, who contributes a pair of remarkably accomplished murals, the subjects of which are sweeping industrial landscapes, a favorite topic for him.

The last leg of the show, Spaces, is a duet pairing paintings by Lanny DeVuono and Earl Schofield. DeVuono works in a hyper-realist manner, creating installations of multi-part paintings, some depicting the sky, others the ground from the sky. Schofield's work here is made up of all aerial views, but he's done them with unwieldy encaustic, so there's an expressionist character to his renderings.

The different parts of Faces, Places & Spaces have different weights, with Faces completely overwhelming Places as well as Spaces. This winds up being the show's one shortcoming, and it bugged me when I went through it. But taking into account the exhibit's many strong points, this single complaint counts for next to nothing. Well, except to Parson, who will undoubtedly learn from this mistake.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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