Looking Back

It's hard to imagine, but at one time regional growth meant something more than the grand opening of another shopping center or the umpteenth big-box hardware store. In the 1970s, new construction also meant a cultural coming of age for metro Denver.

The decade began with the completion of the Denver Art Museum's shimmering new building in 1971. Soon after, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts was constructed, and so too was the Auraria campus. The cultural building boom even extended to the suburbs--well, at least to one of them.

Twenty years ago this summer, the city leaders of Arvada unveiled an ambitious addition to the local cultural horizon--the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Built on a hillside overlooking the town, the original building housed theaters, galleries and classrooms. This wonderful building is still there, though it has been swallowed up by the insensitive additions tacked on a few years ago.

Arvada's status as the cultural leader of the suburbs has never really been challenged since. Sure, Aurora and Littleton and even Greenwood Village have their own tiny museums, but the facilities in Arvada are in a league all by themselves.

Among many events being held this year to celebrate the center's twentieth birthday is the ambitious group show 20/20 Vision: An Anniversary Exhibition, closing this weekend after a too-brief run. Organized by Kathy Andrews, who has worked as a curator at the center since 1984 and became gallery director three years ago, the show highlights the quality and diversity of 48 artists whose work has been presented at the center in the last two decades.

Space constraints prevented Andrews from staging a truly encyclopedic survey. But as she began looking through the files, she detected a trend: From the start, the center has encouraged the local art scene. "We're proud of what the center has done for Colorado art and really feel we have the responsibility to keep it up," Andrews says. She's right to be proud. The Arvada Center presented the first major Hispanic art show in the region and organized the first exhibit to track the history of local women artists, along with many other firsts.

But Andrews was committed to more than just reflecting ethnic or gender diversity. She also was interested in featuring the wide range of art forms presented at the center and in reflecting the passage of time. So she chose artists whose work was displayed at the center in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and then asked them to submit recent samples, many of which are just a few years--or months--old. As a result, the viewer has a chance to see what artists have been up to in the decade or so since their work was last seen at the center. (Regular gallery-goers may not have quite as much catching up to do--a number of the featured articles have been recently presented elsewhere.)

20/20 Vision occupies the ungainly maze of spaces that inhabits the upper galleries at the Arvada Center, the uncompromisingly non-functional character of which is the legacy of the recent remodeling. It's impossible to really make sense of these confusing spaces--which thankfully are scheduled for some remodeling themselves--but Andrews has done her darnedest.

One of the most obvious lessons of this new exhibit is that painting and drawing stand head and shoulders above other media as the forms of choice for most of the best artists working in the Denver area. The paintings and drawings in the show reflect a wide range of styles from representational to abstract and everything in between. Since the thrust of the show is contemporary art, traditional work has allegedly been excluded, though Don Coen's "The Goose Hunters," an acrylic-on-canvas from 1994-95, comes pretty close. Only Coen's method of applying paint with an airbrush is truly contemporary; the composition itself, which depicts a trio of hunters on a snow-covered field, is reminiscent of historical views of the same scene.

That's also the case for Fran Metzger and David Mesple, who have long worked in what might be called hyper-realism. Both artists reveal an almost unbelievably fanatical attention to detail in a pair of dense drawings. Metzger captures a close-up scene of a table set for lunch in 1993's "Black Beans and Polenta for John," which looks almost like a photograph but has actually been created with colored pencils. Just to make it more daunting, Metzger has set the perfectly done plates of food and glasses of wine against a blue-and-white checkered tablecloth. Her handling of the transparent glass and the rumpled napkin constitutes an amazing technical feat. Mesple takes a similar approach in "Incandescent Visions of a Dark Earth," a 1996 pencil drawing on a gigantic gessoed canvas. But instead of the photographic accuracy of Metzger, he distorts his figures into fantastical and magical beings. Using only the black of the pencil against the white of the gesso, Mesple is able to uncannily capture the play of reflected light.

Other artists take a more expressive approach to the rendering of recognizable subjects. In the 1995 oil-pastel-on-paper "Retreat," Jerry Johnson presents a lyrical Western landscape, conventionalizing and simplifying his view of a mostly brown and green tree-covered hillside. Judy Lightfield's 1996 acrylic on paper "Replicant" is stylistically compatible with Johnson's piece, though instead of a scenic overlook, Lightfield zeroes in on just a pair of trees. Her palette, like Johnson's, relies on earth tones.

Also working in an expressionist style is Carlos Fresquez. In the 1996 oil-on-board "Las Manos Que Curan (The Hands That Heal)," Fresquez utilizes translucent oil washes that allow the wood grain of the board to show through. His dense scene of an encounter between Indians and their Spanish conquerors is topped by a pale-red figure in agony appropriated from Picasso's famous 1930s anti-war masterpiece, "Guernica." The picture has been unified by a nine-part grid of black squares, on which are placed small good-luck charms called milagros. From the left side of the canvas, a cartoon character's gloved hand--is it the Cat in the Hat?--points to one of the milagros. The reference to children's cartoons and the creamy color of the ground, along with the pale colors used to flesh out the figures, hardly prepares us for the subject of the sensitively created scene: The Spanish soldiers are chopping off the Indians' hands.

Among of the best pieces in the show are the abstracts, especially those by Clark Richert, Virginia Maitland and Jeremy Hillhouse. Richert is represented by one of his most recent efforts, "The Complex Cube," a 1996 acrylic-on-canvas. This effort marks a return for Richert to the world of non-objective painting after several years during which the artist became interested in representational work. It's a delight to see him back to his signature style. Maitland's "Sand Dunes," an acrylic-on-canvas from 1991 that incorporates glitter, is very typical of her work. A large color field takes the center of the picture, framed by brushy streaks of toned-up pigments. For the last several years, Hillhouse has been trying to turn the landscape into an abstraction, and he continues the effort with "Prairie Skin," a 1996 acrylic-on-canvas. Two blue lines are laid across a painterly field of yellow and white with a little red and blue mixed in for highlights. Okay--it might be the prairie.

Other art forms don't get the play that painting and drawing do in 20/20 Vision. Photography, for example, is hardly represented at all, and neither is printmaking. Sculpture is also scarce, although several of the most interesting works in the show are three-dimensional.

Scott Chamberlin's "Hohl," a glazed terra-cotta wall relief completed this year, literally stands out, as the artist's work always does. A white organic shape evocative of a heart has been paired with a black form in the shape of a wing mounted on the left side. Chamberlin's finger marks in the clay are used as a highly visible element of the design.

Also working in clay is Martha Daniels. Her "Robot Worker Supporting Collapsing Urban Infrastructure Vessel," made with clay, majolica and glazes, is dense with forms and decorations. The robot figure is undertaking an effort doomed to failure: holding up falling girders, which have been expressed formally in a riot of lines. This piece is a tour de force both aesthetically and technically, and it is as complicated as Chamberlin's piece is simple.

A 1995 steel, marble, Lexan, hardware and concrete piece by Charles Parson titled "The Fragility of Permanence, Tandem" and a twenty-foot-tall spray-painted paper column by George Peters called "Expanded Texts" are two other noteworthy sculptures. Though the works are very different--as different as steel is from paper--both sculptors look to the nature of their materials to determine the character of their individual creations. Taking a thoroughly different tack from the conceptual abstractions of Parson and Peters is Carlos Santistevan's "Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe," a mixed-media sculpture from 1996. This piece, made of a bent saw blade, a saucepan and an axle cap, continues Santistevan's interest in placing traditional Hispanic religious art in the context of neo-expressionism. As usual, it works.

It obviously was impossible for director Andrews to accurately survey all the shows that have been presented at the Arvada Center over the past twenty years. But 20/20 Vision is a gallant attempt. If this is 20/20 hindsight, keep it coming.

20/20 Vision: An Anniversary Exhibition, through September 8 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 431-3939.

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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