Gallery Talk

When we tuned in last fall, there were two groups vying to open a new museum in Denver dedicated to contemporary art. One group included such well-known Denver artists as Dale Chisman, Mark Sink and Linde Schlumbohm. This group dubbed itself "CoMoCA," which stands for the Colorado Museum of Contemporary Art. The other group was made up of some heavy-hitting collectors, most notably Sue Cannon, who was the driving force behind the effort. They called their planned institution the Galleries of Contemporary Art.

Well, everything's changed now. The Co-MoCA group has essentially disbanded, and many of its key supporters, including Chisman, Sink and Schlumbohm, have joined the Galleries board. In part because of this newfound cooperation, the Galleries proposal is rolling full steam ahead. Exhibitions are even being planned for this fall in the marble-lined public spaces of the downtown high-rise at 1999 Broadway until the group's proposed purchase of the Vulcan Iron Works building, near the Auraria campus, can be finalized. Architects are being interviewed to design the new facility, and a national call has gone out for a museum director. It's all quite exciting, but there are still some kinks to work out.

Most urgent--as is clearly shown by the most recent mailing from the Galleries--is the budding museum's desperate need for graphic-design help. The art world maintains a very high standard in this area (appropriately so), and no art-world entity can expect to get much attention--or much respect--if it uses ugly stationery.

Secondly, the Galleries of Contemporary Art is an awkward moniker that defies intelligent abbreviation and should therefore be changed. Here's an idea: Since the CoMoCA group has moved virtually en masse over to the Galleries camp, why doesn't the Galleries group just take the name, too? After all, CoMoCA is a memorable name that is both straightforward and lyrical, while Galleries of Contemporary Art is not.

One name that is of course unavailable to the Galleries because it's already been taken is the Denver Art Museum, which despite the implied profanity of its initials always has something sacred to see. That's true even this summer, when it seems like the DAM is devoted half to exhibitions and half to hard-hat areas. The Morgan Court galleries on the first floor remain closed for reinstallation, as does the entire sixth floor, now being remodeled. Both of those spaces will reopen next fall--at which time the rebuilding and expansion of the Bach Wing, already well under way, will still be months from completion.

The remake of the Bach Wing, by AR7 (the successor firm to longtime Denver architectural group Hoover Berg Desmond), is cause for great reservations--not the least of which is whether or not the intended cream-colored paint scheme will help tone down the wing's bombastic entrance canopy on Acoma Plaza. As it stands, painted in primer orange, it interferes with Mark di Suvero's magnificent "Lao Tzu" sculpture, which is sited nearby.

You can check out the color clash for yourself on the way to see three small yet worthy shows currently on display. In the Close Range Gallery on the first floor is A Passion for Photography: Gifts From Ginny Williams, a collection of photos recently donated to the DAM by the wealthy art patron. On the second floor in the smallest of the Architecture, Design and Graphics galleries is the tiny gem of a show To Have and Behold: Twentieth Century Design Acquisitions. (The space in which the show is being presented is a converted freight-elevator lobby that curator Craig Miller has turned into a display space for cogent and exciting shows like this one that flaunt the department's newly acquired design and decorative items.) Around the corner, also on the second floor, is the third rotation of New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996, part of the DAM's ongoing look at the development of modern furniture.

The Close Range Gallery is a flexible, custom-fitted space that grows and shrinks according to the needs of the exhibits presented under its auspices. This time assistant curator Jane Fudge has divided it into two different rooms, presenting the Williams photographs as two separate shows. In the first room are selections from internationally known photographers such as Sandy Skoglund and Joel Peter-Witkin; in the smaller second space is an in-depth display of the work of the late Denver photographer Wes Kennedy.

Ginny Williams today is only a part-time resident of Colorado, spending most of her time in New Mexico working on a pet project in Santa Fe. But during the 1980s, she was a Denver force to be reckoned with through her Cherry Creek gallery, Ginny Williams Photography, which was a center for serious art exhibitions--and not just photographs. (Today the gallery is open only by appointment.)

The group portion of the latest Williams show, though, is weak and disappointing. Trendy artists like Skoglund and Peter-Witkin haven't held up so well during the decade that has elapsed since both were hot. To Williams's credit, she eschewed the worst of the intentionally provocative gross-out material that made Peter-Witkin famous. But compare the shop-worn qualities of Skoglund and Peter-Witkin to the freshness that still clings to Ruth Bernhard's magnificent gelatin silver print "Angelwing," created more than fifty years ago. This photo of a back-lit seashell dates from 1943, and it's one of the better pieces in the generally uneven group section. Also noteworthy is the 1988 color photomural "Portrait," by German photographer Thomas Ruff, a crisply focused effort that records every pore and blemish on the face of its unidentified male subject.

The strong suit of the Williams show is the solo portion devoted to Kennedy. Williams was an early Kennedy enthusiast and as a result had the foresight and the resources to assemble a portfolio of 25 rare, early shots. Most of these have been included in the DAM exhibit, and they clearly demonstrate Kennedy's considerable gift for the medium.

Kennedy died in 1993 at the age of 36, his art career and his life cut short by AIDS. And though he never said so, seeing these photographs all together drives home an undeniable point: From the start, Kennedy's topic was his own impending death. This is clearly seen in the 1986 black-and-white photograph "Untitled (Best Two out of Three)," which features Kennedy playing cards with a skeleton.

Helping take the viewer's mind off the morbid if beautiful Kennedy photographs is the brightly colored art glass found upstairs in To Have and Behold. The exhibit is a testament to curator Miller's genius at making the most from the least; with just three pieces of glass, he has illustrated the similarities and differences between the Italian and Scandinavian approaches to the art form. Miller puts a 1950s "Canne" vase by Venetian legend Paolo Venini next to the "Applet (Apple)" vase from 1950s Swedish master Ingeborg Lunden. Just to drive home the point, Miller sticks in the middle a 1970 untitled vase by Finland's Tapio Wirkkala, which, despite its maker's Scandinavian roots, was made in Venice and looks entirely Italian.

In addition to mid-century art glass, To Have and Behold also includes examples of product design, dinnerware and, most engagingly, silver flatware and hollowware. Falling into the last category is the splendid silver-plate-and-wicker tea set made by France's Christofle in 1957 to a famous design by Italian virtuoso Lino Sabattini.

Several pieces of furniture make up the last rotation of New Concepts, which, like To Have and Behold, was organized by Miller. On a series of low stages that wind around one of the larger Architecture, Design and Graphics galleries, Miller has placed groupings of chairs and tables that walk the viewer through most of the last 200 years. Included are several furniture classics, including Michael Thonet's "Side Chair #18," made in Vienna in the 1870s, and nearby, the classic "Pernilla" chaise lounge from Swedish designer Bruno Mathsson.

It wasn't especially radical of Miller to include an example of Shaker furniture as part of the development of modern design--in this case, the circa-1890 "No. 4 Sewing Rocker," made of maple with a woven wool seat. But he does stick his neck out with the Empire-style ash, oak, maple and beech "Elastic Side Chair," by Samuel Gragg, from the early nineteenth century. The painted peacock feathers on the back and the hooves on the chair's feet seem particularly classical. However, the elaborate steam-bending of the wood clearly links this piece to many later developments, especially the use of plywood, as is seen in the newest chair in the show, the 1989 birch-veneered "Ply-chair," by English designer Jasper Morrison.

These three shows at the DAM have an admittedly quiet appeal, and none are ever crowded with visitors. But it's worth your while to dodge the heavy equipment and construction tape in order to take them in.

A Passion for Photography: Gifts From Ginny Williams, through September 14; To Have and Behold: Twentieth Century Design Acquisitions and New Concepts: The Industrial Revolution, 1776-1996, through June 30, 1998; Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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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