Four by Four

There's an old joke about the University of Colorado in Boulder: A visitor to the beautiful Italian-style campus asks a student how to find the art building, and the student replies, "It's the ugly one." Ah, the contradictions of the art world.

Another unfortunate confluence of art and architecture can also be found at Denver's Regis University, which just three years ago launched its O'Sullivan Arts Center with the help of the Boettcher Foundation and the Bonfils Foundation. The art center is located in a rambling red-brick building immediately behind the university's wonderful Old Main, a nineteenth-century pink confection in two-tone stone by Denver architects Henry Dozier and Alexander Cazin, with wings added in the 1920s by the renowned Harry James Manning. By comparison, the art center is a plain-Jane structure that was built in stops and starts over the years--and never, apparently, with any regard for the art of design.

The entrance to the art center is as unimpressive as the building itself, marked by a minuscule sign and a dreary painted-metal door. Inside, the O'Sullivan lays out the minimum physical plant necessary for exhibitions--a shiny hardwood floor, smooth white walls and a high-tech lighting system suspended from a black-painted ceiling. But don't let the looks fool you. Behind the O'Sullivan's lackluster facade, gallery director Willy Sutton, an assistant art professor at Regis, has quietly been presenting an intelligent schedule of exhibits showcasing local contemporary art.

Sutton's current show has the comprehensive if noncommittal title Sally Elliott, Bethany Kriegsman, Jill Hadley Hooper, Beverly Rosen. What the four, who were selected by local artist Virginia Johnson, have in common isn't readily apparent. Asked if the artists were grouped together simply because they're women, Sutton replies that there "might be a way to see all the work as feminine." If so, it's the only connection.

The Boulder-based Elliott, who teaches at the University of Colorado's Denver campus, is chiefly known as an art historian, but she's also a painter who's exhibited around town for nearly fifteen years. She's represented in the O'Sullivan show by a series of gouache paintings on heavy stock paper. Elliott fills the paper with dense compositions in a wide array of pleasingly bright colors. But her pictures are ugly up close. A pointedly amateurish drawing technique, which apes folk or children's art, is used to conjure up difficult subject matter. Together, the crude drafting and weird topics make these paintings hard to appreciate.

"Sacrifice at Sacahuaman," a gouache on paper, features a pile of dead guinea pigs and a couple of scary skull masks. In "Gifts for Pacha Mama," another gouache on paper, a female vampire stands by a river and a huge snake fills the sky. These oddball paintings are said to be the product of a stream of consciousness Elliott experienced after recently visiting South America. Guess you had to be there.

More appealing are the works of Denver artist Bethany Kriegsman, most of which were custom-made for the O'Sullivan space. Kriegsman has been an art professor for more than ten years at the University of Denver and now also serves as the director of DU's School of Art and Art History. Though chiefly known as a printmaker, Kriegsman displays works here that she calls paintings but that are actually bas-reliefs.

"Girl stuff" is how Kriegsman describes her artistic beat--she paints simple images intended as commentaries on specific psychological issues. Little boats, the moon and figures in hats all refer to "the cultural rules, attitudes and behaviors, whether helpful or not, that are the baggage of growing up as a girl," says the forty-year-old artist. Kriegsman describes her work as "quasi-feminist"--a reaction, she says, to the popular magazines of her childhood, in which little girls were depicted as having a "very JonBenet, look-at-me quality."

The only piece not made for this show is also the oldest--"Universal Boat," completed last summer. The multi-part bas-relief is made of carved plywood panels that have been painted with oils. Its form suggests the simple outline of a boat with a smokestack. Kriegsman has chiseled abstract organic forms into the surface of the plywood, at times working with her eyes closed. Her more recent pieces are more geometric. In the oil on wood "Where My Soul Lives," Kriegsman has embellished the edges of the piece with cut metal that recalls the religious art of Mexico and the American Southwest. In "Jumping on My Bed," Kriegsman joins separate rectangles that have been carved and painted into a rigidly vertical composition. The piece is predominantly black and white, but at the top and bottom are lines of brightly colored stripes, which Kriegsman says represent the fringe on her bedspread.

The best piece in the show is Kriegsman's "A Prayer," an oil on wood that has been laid flat on the floor. Squares and rectangles of painted plywood have been arranged into a large Greek key shape, a motif that approximates a square spiral. These plywood elements have then been carved or marked with cartoonlike depictions of objects ranging from twigs and fruits to human body parts. The plywood pieces have been painted in an irregular yet balanced pattern of blues, greens, reds, oranges and teals.

Kriegsman is chiefly known for her work in printmaking, so it's not surprising that all of her bas-reliefs are evocative of prints--even though they're not made of paper. The individual plywood panels, for instance, recall printing blocks or even movable type.

Jill Hadley Hooper is likewise interested in printmaking, but her work is radically different from Kriegsman's, and not just because she actually uses paper. Hooper incorporates painted, drawn and photographically reproduced images that she typically assembles to refer to issues in her everyday life. In "Cup," a linoleum block print embellished with pastel and casein, a woman in a chair is seen leaning over, bailing out her living room. The woman is Hooper, dealing with an unnamed personal problem. "Cup" is reminiscent of the sophisticated illustrations often seen in The New Yorker, and, in fact, a Hooper illustration was featured in the pages of that magazine last fall. (Hooper's artwork also has appeared in Westword.)

The other Hooper pieces in the O'Sullivan show are more painterly, even those in which she uses prints or photocopies. As a whole, they seem to be a refinement and critique of her earlier paintings, which have been exhibited frequently. As with those older paintings, the details of the recognizable figures and objects in these recent pieces have been blurred, and there's also an enigmatic quality to the narratives that leaves a disturbing aftertaste. "I always think my work is humorous," says Hooper, "but once I heard someone at an opening ask if the artist was present or had she already killed herself. I guess I'll have to work on that." But hopefully not too hard--the dark quality of Hooper's work is compelling.

Hooper loves to juxtapose unlikely elements. A swarm of bees covers a woman's neck in the surrealistic "Veil," and a real standout at the O'Sullivan is "Canary and Berries," which features a canary with the head of Hooper's mother eating berries off her wedding gown. "It's intended to be a flattering portrait about my mother putting a long and not-so-great marriage behind her," explains Hooper.

Unexpected subject matter also characterizes the paintings of Beverly Rosen, the last of the featured artists in the O'Sullivan show. Rosen, a former DU art professor, recently returned to her second home in the West Indies. But even from afar, she still holds her place on Denver's contemporary scene, as she has since the late 1950s. Here she is represented by just three large paintings, a continuation of her work of the last five years in which objects are alternately revealed and concealed within expressively painted fields of color. In the best of the lot, the triptych "Does Time Hold a Bell?," Rosen puts an expressionist abstract on either side of what looks like a schematic of a machine. She also incorporates cursive writing--a device that has become ubiquitous in contemporary art, but wasn't back when Rosen first came up with the idea more than thirty years ago.

This four-woman show is well worth seeing (those unfamiliar with the Regis campus should call for directions first). But don't go expecting a true group show. Rather than an artistic quartet, this interesting exhibit features four little solos.

Sally Elliott, Bethany Kriegsman, Jill Hadley Hooper, Beverly Rosen, through February 27 at the O'Sullivan Arts Center, on the Regis University campus, 458-3576.

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