Naked Ambitions

The Denver Art Museum has undertaken one extensive remodeling job after another in the last few years. And the efforts have gone a long way toward increasing available space within the masterful if quirky building, the work of Italian modern master Gio Ponti and his Denver collaborator, the able James Sudler. The first projects undertaken--still not completely finished--expand exhibition areas on the upper floors, where the space available for art had been eroded by the growth of offices and storage rooms.

More recently, construction crews have concentrated their efforts on the first floor, where the museum in 1995 unveiled the new Stanton Galleries off the elevator lobby and, last summer, the Morgan Court Galleries in the space formerly occupied by the museum's restaurant. (Director Lewis Sharp says the magnificent lamps on mounted standards designed by Sudler that once commanded the restaurant's space have been retained with the hope that the museum might one day restore the original dining room.)

Multiple changes are also in store for the DAM's Bach Wing, under a design completed by the Denver architectural firm of Hoover Berg Desmond. Soon the wing will feature a restaurant and an expanded gift shop, as well as a new entrance on Acoma Plaza, across from the west doors of the Denver Public Library. (The spectacular stainless-steel-tube entrance off Civic Center Plaza will be retained, as it should be.) The new entrance will be marked by a horn-shaped skeletal canopy, which one hopes won't distract from the "Lao Tzu" sculpture by Mark diSuvero that the museum installed on the plaza last spring.

Of course, there is a downside to all this remodeling: The first floor of the DAM is all but closed. The Bach Wing has been barricaded--it is a hard-hat area, after all--and the Morgan Court and Stanton galleries are between shows, the Japanese photography exhibit having just closed. So other than the espresso cart and the gift shop, the only thing of interest on the museum's first floor is an exhibit in the temporarily expanded Close Range Gallery: John DeAndrea, which is nearly halfway through its four-month run.

DeAndrea would seem an obvious choice for a DAM presentation. Though he has lived in Colorado nearly all his life, his works have been exhibited widely across the United States and Europe. But while individual pieces by DeAndrea have been shown at the museum over the years, this exhibit marks the first time the Morrison-based artist has been given a solo show. A visit to the exhibition suggests a possible explanation for the delay: DeAndrea's hyper-realist approach to the nude human figure, which can be perceived as jarring and confrontational by some observers. And there has been some of that. One female security officer has already refused duty in Close Range for "religious reasons." And an elementary-school teacher has requested that docents skip the show when giving her class a museum tour.

Overall, however, there have been fewer problems than expected. Show organizer Jane Fudge, DAM's assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, says she doesn't "even like to think about" those who object to the nudity in the show. The nude is a traditional subject for artists, Fudge notes, and "we are an art museum!"

Born in 1941 and raised in northwest Denver, John DeAndrea embraced painting as his medium while a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the mid-1960s. It wasn't until graduate school at the University of New Mexico that he first turned seriously to sculpture. According to Fudge, DeAndrea was inspired when he saw a friend casting fiberglass to make kayaks.

While still in Albuquerque, DeAndrea began to use fiberglass to make life casts of body parts. He dropped out of UNM and returned to Denver, where he soon produced the signature work that would bring him worldwide recognition. The first sculptures to anticipate his mature style were realistically cast nude figures finished in automotive paint--just like kayaks. But soon DeAndrea was carefully blending latex acrylic paint into realistic fleshtones, making his sculptures look more and more like real people.

DeAndrea's interest in the figure was out of step with most of his regional contemporaries, but it put him on the cutting edge of international contemporary art. In the late 1960s, super-realistic depictions of recognizable subjects were beginning to appear, mostly from painters who created work with photographic detail. DeAndrea sent photographs of his sculptures to Ivan Karp, director of New York's influential OK Harris Gallery, which had become a showcase for many of the photo-realists. As Fudge says, "The rest is history." Karp gave DeAndrea a solo show in 1970, the first of six he would receive at OK Harris (a seventh show, planned for this coming April, will include several of the pieces on display at Close Range).

The basic problem for a sculptor like DeAndrea is how to come up with an original way to depict the human figure--especially in light of the weight of a few thousand years of tradition. By making his casts from actual human subjects and by carefully recording every pore and blemish in form and color, DeAndrea has done it. But though he has clearly broken with traditional realist sculpture, he makes abundant references to it. His models are young and attractive, in the tradition of the idealized nude best exemplified by the sculpture of the ancient Greeks. His meticulous recording of the details of the skin's surface--warts and all--conjures the opposite sculptural current associated with the Romans. And that's not all. DeAndrea also manages to quote from the Italian renaissance, from the baroque style and--oddly, given his penchant for detailed accuracy--from the impressionists. All the while, he remains strictly contemporary--maybe even postmodern.

This delicate balance between tradition and innovation is easily seen in the first piece the viewer encounters at Close Range. "Liv," a 1983 rendering of DeAndrea's young daughter, is uncharacteristic in a couple of ways. It's a bust instead of a full figure, and it's made of bronze, not polyvinyl (which has replaced fiberglass as DeAndrea's favored material).

The first room at Close Range also includes a piece that will already be familiar to many: 1983's "Linda," a reclining nude in polyvinyl with oil paint and natural hair. "Linda" is one of the DAM's best-known pieces, but it hasn't been out on display in more than a year and a half. It portrays a young woman lying face down on a white rectangular stand that is integral to the sculpture. She has been demurely posed, her breasts hidden and her waist draped with a cloth.

Also in this first room is 1991's "Released," a polyvinyl sculpture finished in oil paint and natural hair that DeAndrea intended as a response to Michelangelo's "Rebellious Slave." He has fashioned a nude woman striking a contrappasto pose while holding her arms behind her back. The full frontal nudity--complete with pubic hair--combined with a pose that suggests bondage gives the piece a disturbing quality that's enhanced by DeAndrea's use of the grisaille approach to finish, in which only black, white and gray are used to color the figure.

In the small side gallery off the first room is another example of DeAndrea's treatment of grisaille, "American Icon," from 1991. The piece commemorates the four Kent State University students shot down by Ohio National Guard troops during a Vietnam War protest in 1970. DeAndrea has re-created the scene made immortal by John Paul Filo's photograph: a female student wailing over the fallen body of a young man. If "Released" is disturbing, "American Icon" is downright creepy, its two eerie figures in tableaux combining to produce an all-consuming installation.

Less disquieting are the fully hued figures in the main Close Range space on the other side of the front gallery. A real standout in this group is "Ballet Dancer," a polyvinyl sculpture from 1993. Its title subject stands before a mirror at her practice bar--the mirror and the bar are real. She is dressed in tight-fitting rehearsal clothes, but, as in "Linda," the real-looking clothing is polyvinyl, not fabric.

Sometimes DeAndrea does use real clothing as an element in his sculptures. "He needs to get clever in disassembling and reassembling the clothes around the sculpture," Fudge explains. "They're not like mannequins--you can't pull the arms off." That use of real clothing is seen in another of the show-stoppers in the main space, "Mother and Child," a 1995 polyvinyl sculpture again finished in oil paint and natural hair. On a pair of staggered stands, a seated woman cradles a corpulent child. The piece bears more than just a casual resemblance to the Italian baroque style.

John DeAndrea provides a rare opportunity for an in-depth look at the work of a homegrown master. And it's a perfect fit for Close Range. The rest of the main floor at DAM may be shuttered and dark, but DeAndrea's brilliant sculptures look right at home in the spotlight.

John DeAndrea, through March 16 at the 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