Hit Parade

For some reason, all of the important small public art venues in the metro area are located on the northwest side. In Boulder, there's the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, in Arvada the Arvada Center and in Golden the Foothills Art Center. Each of these municipal facilities has come to play an important role in the art world. But each is also confronted with a difficult double mandate. First, they need to serve their principal constituencies, the residents of Boulder, Arvada and Golden. That means that a visitor might sometimes encounter an exhibit of the work of schoolchildren or senior citizens. But they also need to attract the attention of the larger community--essentially, the exhibition-going public in Denver, which needs to be convinced to make the drive.

The three women who run the galleries--Cydney Payton in Boulder, Kathy Andrews in Arvada and Carol Dickenson in Golden--have all shown a talent for walking the line between satisfying the neighbors and impressing the bon vivants. That's exactly what Dickenson has done with The Photography Show, now in the second half of a too-short run at the Foothills Art Center. The "show" is actually several easily distinguishable exhibits of work that runs the gamut from the snapshots of hobbyists to some of the greatest photographs in history.

The exhibit set up in the Center's front gallery lies somewhere between those two classifi-cations. Titled The Foothills Photographers, it showcases a group of Golden shutterbugs who use the center as their home base. The selections here are somewhat uneven, but there are some fine pieces. Hank Weir, for example, comes in with two very good--and very different--black-and-white prints. In "San Xavier del Bac," Weir handsomely frames the blazing white stucco mission church located southwest of Tucson, Arizona. Equally skillful is "Dunescape," a landscape in which a row of sand dunes stands behind a scrub-covered plain. A different approach to the same topic is taken by Jay Clawson, whose black-and-white close-up shot of sand dunes recalls the classic 1930s work of the photographers of the Southern California school.

Getting something interesting out of still-life photography has got to be a tough job--at least if sentimentality is to be avoided. But Rex Bull has done it with the sophisticated and memorable black-and-white photograph "White Tulips." Also noteworthy are a pair of untitled black-and-whites of twigs in the water by Cindy Mardian, and William Carlson's color scene "Dock," which captures tied-up sailboats in a fog that diffuses the light.

In the large central gallery is a smattering of snapshots by amateurs. As a matter of community outreach, center director Dickenson approached nine large employers in Golden and requested entries for a loosely juried competition titled "Best of the Workplace." The way the jurying worked was that each entrant got at least one photo in the show. This democratic approach has its obvious limitations, but a couple of the exhibitors really stand out--and perhaps should think about joining the Foothills group. Ross McClure from the Colorado School of Mines presents two superb color photographs. In "Blue Hour, Monument Valley," the famous rock formations are silhouetted against the sunset. "Antelope Slot Canyon" catches the night-lighted red sandstone of a narrow canyon; the darkness in the shadows is purple and black. International Learning System's Bill Bangs also infuses the Western landscape with vivid color in "Red Rocks," in which the local attraction is glimpsed at dawn.

The main event of The Photography Show takes place in the Center's Quaintance Gallery, a former church nave that makes for a handsome room but is a difficult space for art display. Luckily, the photos included in Hal Gould's Classics could be propped against the walls of a gas station and would still be stunning.

Director Dickenson approached Denver living legend Hal Gould and asked him to make a selection of some of the most important pieces from his extensive collection of photographs. Gould responded by assembling a greatest-hits show that includes many photos with which viewers will be familiar--but only because they've seen them in books.

Gould was well-placed to have acquired so many of the key monuments in the history of photography--his internationally renowned downtown photography gallery, the Camera Obscura, is now in its 34th year. When he started it in 1963, Camera Obscura was one of only a handful of photography galleries in the entire country, and at the time, it was an act of courage--or recklessness--to champion photography as a fine art. But through his gallery and through the newsletter he writes and compiles single-handedly, Gould has helped change the art community's perception of the role of photography. And his influence has spread across the West and Southwest--maybe because he's the quintessential Westerner, frequently photographed wearing cowboy hats and Navajo jewelry.

The 76-year-old Gould was born on a ranch in Wyoming. As a boy, he worked with horses on another ranch owned by his father in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. He attended the Chicago Art Institute in the 1940s, where he studied painting, but he soon began to develop an interest in photography. In the 1950s he came to Denver and subsequently opened a studio in Cherry Creek, where he carried on a career as a commercial photographer.

The Classics exhibit includes a couple of examples of Gould's own work from this period. The undated--but probably 1950s--black-and-white "A Moment of Sorrow" is a portrait of a wizened old Jewish man who looks to heaven in anguish. "Monet's Garden, Giverny, France" is a 1966 black-and-white of the famous site. Gould continues to take photographs, and as recently as 1990 a photo of his--"Horse Corral, Valley Ranch, Wyoming," not included in the Golden show--was a prize winner in an international competition.

Gould's decades of experience have given him a special perspective, and it's evident in the works he's chosen for Classics. He selected photographs that he felt were the most important to the development of the medium. That's why he chose Alfred Stieglitz's nineteenth-century icon "The Terminal," an 1898 black-and-white of a horse-drawn trolley in front of a train station. Gould considers the pioneering street photograph one of the ten greatest photographs ever taken.

Another photo that Gould considers a masterpiece is one nearly everyone has seen--the 1941 black-and-white formal portrait "Winston Churchill," by Yousef Karsh, in which the British prime minister, standing with one hand on a chair, communicates a quiet confidence during Britain's darkest hour. Also familiar is the 1947 black-and-white portrait of the wild-eyed, fright-wigged Albert Einstein by Phillipe Halsman. Other noteworthy formal portraits in the show include Berenice Abbott's 1921 black-and-white "James Joyce" and the 1980 black-and-white shot "Miss Georgia O'Keeffe Standing, Abiquiu," taken by Colorado's own Myron Wood.

All of these portraits are traditional posed photographs meant to communicate the personalities of the famous people depicted. And with all the hubbub about his homoeroticism, many forget that another of Robert Mapplethorpe's claims to fame was how good he was with tradition-bound forms like the portrait. His 1986 black-and-white "Louise Nevelson," for instance, is not so different from Halsman's "Einstein," and it recalls the work of the mid-century masters.

Some of Gould's other chosen photographers take candid portraits that have an appeal that's different from their more old-fashioned cousins. Cuban photographer Osvaldo Salas reveals a personal moment between two history makers in the 1960 black-and-white "Ernest Hemingway & Fidel Castro." The author and the dictator are seen talking amicably in the dazzling afternoon light. Barbara Morgan's crisply elegant black-and-white "Martha Graham" of 1940 depicts the great choreographer in mid-dance profile.

Still-life photos are also part of the Classics show. They include the unforgettable 1930 black-and-white "Green Pepper, #30" by Edward Weston, regarded as a significant moment in the development of modern photography because Weston took a recognizable subject and rendered it in an abstract way. "Magnolia Blossom," a 1925 black-and-white by Imogene Cunningham, is likewise one of the century's acknowledged masterpieces.

Gould also includes photos of American scenes, among them O. Winston Link's "Hot Shot," a black-and-white from 1955 that surely qualifies as one of the most striking depictions of postwar culture. In the shot, a car-filled drive-in theater parking lot takes the foreground while the background is divided between the movie screen--which is showing a film of an airplane--and an adjacent railroad grade, on which a giant steam engine is speeding past.

One thing Gould's selected photographs have in common is that they actually live up to the too-often-used label "classic." Along with the shots by Link, Weston and Halsman are works by Jock Sturgis, Laura Gilpin, Edward S. Curtis and Mario Giacomelli. So pay homage to the great Hal Gould and don't miss this show. But hurry.

The Photography Show, through July 20 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 279-3922.

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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