Object Lessons

Objects of Personal Significance is a loosely organized theme show that handsomely fills the recently relocated and expanded Center for the Visual Arts on Wazee Street, the LoDo gallery of Metropolitan State College of Denver. The exhibit, which has a too-short five-week run, comprises a traveling section organized by Exhibits USA (a division of Kansas City's Mid-America Arts Alliance) and a homegrown response to that section assembled by center director Sally Perisho.

The local element, which adds a great deal to the show, wasn't originally intended to happen at all. Like several others, this show was planned before the center moved into its larger home, compelling Perisho to add to already outlined exhibits. As she did with the recent Picasso display (in which a traveling poster show was augmented by prints from the Denver Art Museum), Perisho demonstrates her keen curatorial skills by intelligently--though not seamlessly--enlarging an existing exhibition.

The original Objects of Personal Significance was put together by Janet Marquardt-Cherry, a Charleston, Illinois-based curator. Given the poetic title she chose for the exhibit, it's not surprising that Marquardt-Cherry apparently adhered to few rules in gathering varied artworks in an array of techniques. She did, however, limit participation to women. In some of her choices the artists depict objects; in others the topic is objectification.

The current generation of women artists are the heirs of the campus feminism that arose in the 1970s, a movement felt widely in the art world when women with BFAs confronted a hostile environment and few opportunities to exhibit their work. If feminist art activists sometimes delivered their message obnoxiously and championed the second- and third-rate among them, they were absolutely right about the fact that for centuries artists were routinely dismissed if they happened to be women.

The story is different now, though, and the need for women-only shows is not as urgent as it once was. Maybe that's why Marquardt-Cherry avoided filling the show with message images presented in political contexts and instead chose participants whose pieces--even when the topic is feminism--are part of the broad current of contemporary American art. What is surprising is how conservative Marquardt-Cherry's choices are. The show is dominated by painting and drawing in representational styles ranging from neo-traditionalism to photo-realism.

This mood is set the minute the viewer enters the center's front gallery, which is adorned with examples of realism. On the large main wall hangs a striking monumental piece by Carolyn Brady of Oklahoma. Her 1991 "Castor and Pollux/Versailles" is a large, traditional watercolor of a decorative sculpture in the gardens at Versailles. Brady places the sculpture's two lyrical male nudes in the foreground, then puts a rigidly conceived and thoroughly draped female caryatid in the background. Brady's point--that women's roles have been narrowly defined while men's have been more flexible and free--is clearly made.

Across from Brady's watercolor are two meticulous lithographs by Chicago artist Jeanette Pasin Sloan, 1978's "Silver Bowls-State I" and 1979's "Silver Bowls." The composition of both prints is identical--a group of silver articles are laid on a striped tablecloth--but the older one is in black and white, while the newer one is in color. Even when she's accurately recording reflective surfaces (the old-hat standard of the photo-realists), Sloan demonstrates her supreme technical skill by detailing every element of the still life with photographic precision.

There's more recognizable imagery in the three large rooms across the back of the center. First is a large portrait that has been paired with a broom and a framed but blank slate. The painting, "Virgin/ Vessel," a 1990 oil on canvas by Chinese-born California artist Hung Liu, takes up the topic of turn-of-the-century concubines. Liu bases her paintings on period photographs in which these women were advertised as commodities, and just so the viewer does not get caught up in romantic nostalgia, Liu makes sure the concubines' bound and deformed feet are right in the front of the painting.

Less disturbing is the expressively painted and beautifully hued oil on canvas "By the Sword," a 1990 work by prominent New York artist Janet Fish, one of the few big names in the show. Fish lays out a horizontal still life of flowers, votive candles and fruit around an upturned sword. Fish uses these specific images in thick paint to suggest the life of Joan of Arc, but this is so subtle that most viewers will not see it unless it's pointed out to them.

In the center of the gallery is "Simple Acts," one of the show's few three-dimensional pieces, a 1996 installation by Kathleen Browne of Kent, Ohio. Browne takes four antique ironing boards and arranges them into a four-pointed star. On top of each, an antique iron is set at rest, revealing a scorch in the ironing-board cover. The scorches display the words "appearance," "labor," "order" and "care." Finally, Browne attaches synthetic hair to the end of each iron's electrical cord; these ends are fanned on the floor between the ironing boards. "Simple Acts" represents a type of feminist art in which the topic is kitchen work, and the piece, which is conceptual and narrative, is one of the most compelling and intelligent in this show.

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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