Mile-High Offense

Ignorance is bliss, but in Denver's art world, it's much more than that. These days it's seen as being the best indicator of personal integrity.

A good example of this can be found in the city's approach to public art. In that arena, art disciples are outnumbered more than ten to one by community activists, politicos and contributors to Mayor Wellington Webb's campaign. Artists, collectors, dealers, curators and other members of the art community have been largely excluded based on the belief that since they're a part of the scene, they will invariably favor their friends instead of conscientiously addressing the tasks at hand. As a result of this suspicion, even in the cases where they have been allowed to participate, their ability to affect the selection of objects has been marginalized.

The legacy of this practice is not just the lackluster work that characterizes so much of the city's recently completed public art but the way the process continues to demoralize the city's art scene. Imagine if the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, instead of casting to the four winds the more than $10 million spent in the last few years on public art, had thrown it at the local art market--which, to be frank, really could have used it.

There's a variation on this theme of ignorance equating integrity: the "out-of-town juror," who descends from the mountaintops--or, more likely, Manhattan's skyscraper tops--to tell the rest of us what's worthwhile around here by putting together a juried show. This kind of juror is seen as the best choice for an objective evaluation of the material submitted because he is thought to be free from the prejudices bound to plague any local. But just as it does in the realm of public art, asking outsiders to make the decisions almost always leads to disappointing results.

For proof, one need look no further than the much-anticipated--and virtually scene-shattering--Denver Zip 802, exhibited now in two halves at Auraria's Emmanuel Gallery and the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History Gallery. Sponsored by the University of Colorado at Denver, the 802 show is a revival of an exhibit that Emmanuel Gallery director Carol Keller organized in 1985. Keller's idea at that time was to provide recognition for the city's art community, something she saw as desperately lacking. It's a pity that Keller, who routinely puts together better shows than 802, wasn't given the responsibility for it.

Instead, the Auraria Higher Education Visual Arts Committee (including Keller, Lorre Hoffman, Rodger Lang and Patricia Lehman) decided last year to get an out-of-town juror to eyeball the local stuff. They chose nationally known New York-based critic and art historian Donald Kuspit.

If not everyone on the scene could say they had actually read what the good professor had written, everyone had at least heard his name, so a great excitement surrounded the show. Denver artists were invited to submit slides, and nearly 200 of them did. But live by Kuspit, die by Kuspit. It was apparent, given Kuspit's written remarks, that he viewed the Denver scene as second-rate and provincial, and he proved it to himself by putting together a second-rate show.

Many well-respected artists were rejected by Kuspit in favor of lesser-knowns, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it did tend to dash the hopes of established talents who might have anticipated being discovered by the New Yorker. The howl of wounded pride heard especially among many local painters was deafening last spring when Kuspit's selections were announced. And as a result, several artists got together in a snit of activity and created an alternative to the 802 show, the just-closed Zip 802 Declined at the co-op Pirate gallery.

The fact that people felt strongly enough to assemble this protest exhibit underscores the importance that had been attached to Kuspit's choices. The Declined show was modeled after the original "Salon des Refuses," which was created in Paris in 1863 because the regular contemporary survey shows presented by the Academie Francaise often fenced out the Impressionists, among others. Many Parisian artists felt they had been unfairly excluded, so they put on their own show.

Of course, the appropriation of the Refuses tradition by the Pirate crowd suggests a shameless hubris on their part (comparisons to the Impressionists, indeed!). But there's something else the show revealed: that 802 has been viewed by local artists as a substitute for an annual exhibit of contemporary art, an unheard-of concept around here.

Declined was a mixed bag. But it did capture a truth about art in Denver that its more upscale counterpart does not: We have a lot of good painters in town. Some of the better works that were left out of 802--and which the show really could have used--were the signature abstract paintings by Steve Altman and Dale Chisman. Also compelling: the gauzy and atmospheric representational paintings by Tree Laurita and Jennifer Kinkaid, along with the quirky surrealist compositions of Matt O'Neill, Jeff Starr, Eric Zimmer and Steve Batura. Other 802 rejects thankfully salvaged by the Salon keepers included a retro 1950s monotype by Mary Mackey, a heroic charcoal drawing by Bill Stockman, and the slick and conceptual photocopy montages of Roland Bernier and Annalee Schorr.

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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