Any curator looking to find the best women artists from the Front Range over the last twenty years would do well to read the roster of the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute. Begun in 1976, RMWI's annual search for female (and, since 1993, male) artists, writers and performers boasts an impressive track record for discovering and assisting newcomers with subsequently stellar futures.

The institute's 1976-1994 Retrospective Exhibit, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, is a formidable showcase for RMWI's past visual-arts associates and also offers an opportunity to reflect on the dynamic changes in the last two decades of contemporary art in Colorado. Unfortunately, the exhibit itself lacks a clear perspective.

Labels are not dated, so the years when the works were completed, as well as the period each artist spent at the institute, remain a mystery. And some of the pieces have been displayed elsewhere, making it even harder to place the art in a historical contest. A binder of artist statements accompanying the exhibit is helpful, but important questions remain unanswered: Is the art shown part of the actual project the associate worked on at the institute, or does it represent the artist's current or dominant style? Did the artist continue working in her field after leaving RMWI? How did the work hold up against its contemporaries? Without some sense of where these artists fit into the framework of their time, it's difficult to judge their strengths--much less the success of the RMWI.

While the absence of such information makes the overall exhibit a confusing jumble of styles and media, several individual pieces are compelling in their own right. For example, Elizabeth Buhr's deceptively clumsy and naive sculptures are curious and challenging; working with earthy materials such as salt or wax, she carves small objects meant to mimic certain "womanly" art forms, but with a subversive edge. Carved-salt sculptures like "Gerund" seem familiar at first, resembling curiosities from antique stores. In retrospect, though, they make gentle fun of those comforting objects.

Another maverick is Jan Johnson, whose rebellious, soft-focus oil portraits of friends and relatives manage to capture each sitter's symbolic character along with his or her likeness. Johnson's "Eric" shows a nude man dressed in a silly hat with flowers, a pose and costume that expose the foolishness and vulnerability of the person being portrayed. Yet the foolishness is calculated, making the portrayal less of a lampoon and more of a dreamy meditation on conventional roles of men in relationships and society.

Other standouts include Carley Warren's "Pediment XXI" and "Pediment XXIII," which appear to be dignified architectural models of Roman and Greek columns. Up close, though, we see the truth: These sturdy posts are crocheted from string, turning them into sendups of women's art in a man's world. And once again, Virginia Folkestad steals the show--this time with her quietly powerful "Envy," an installation that presents a comparison between two odd, artist-made "pigtails," one of rich, plump wax, one of scrabbly wire.

Although the execution of this exhibition is flawed, the talent on display is a testament to RMWI's role in supporting some of the region's most intriguing talents--male or female.

Rocky Mountain Women's Institute 1976-1994 Retrospective Exhibit, through January 15 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 871-6923.

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