Among the Denver area's many opportunities for artists, the annual associateships at the Rocky Mountain Women's Institute are unique, offering studio space, a stipend and a supportive atmosphere to a select group of visual and performing artists and writers.

Originally designed to give women artists a place to work on ambitious projects they might not otherwise attempt, the RMWI has evolved, with men now encouraged to apply and more associateships available. This year's Associate Showcase Exhibit, on display at the Boulder Public Library, features the work of Jeffrey Richards, one of the institute's first male associates, along with installations by Deborah Horner and Dorie Klein and some unimaginative nudes by Margaret Neumann.

Richards's "Quilt for My Mother" is a compact but mind-boggling feat. Using thousands of variously colored pennies, he built a floor covering based on a traditional Amish quilt pattern. With its painstakingly rendered perspective and shading, this oddball "quilt" at first looks like a painting. The realization that the mosaiclike construction is nothing more than pennies placed loosely on the floor comes as a surprise; it's almost like seeing such folk-art achievements as the Mona Lisa re-created on a grain of rice, or the Taj Mahal made out of butter. The fact that the "quilt" will be destroyed at the end of the exhibit furthers the sense of ephemeral whimsy.

The piece also says something about relative values--in the graded shades of the copper pennies, their status as legal tender and their intrinsic worth. For example, a bronze sculpture is considered valuable as much for the expense of the bronze used as for the skill that went into the sculpture's creation and the beauty of the completed piece. Copper pennies, on the other hand, are almost universally considered low in value, even a nuisance. But by turning them into a fragile, labor-intensive work of art, Richards changes the humble coins to treasure.

Deborah Horner also deals with value and meaning in her multilevel installation "OBJECT: object." She began her project by making small sculptures out of hammer handles and plaster that vaguely suggest alien or fantasy tools, then gave the "tools" to strangers in exchange for things they had in their possession. Horner later visited her sculptures in their new homes to photograph the various ways in which they were being used. The process concluded with a questionnaire for the new owners: "Are they tools or are they art?" "Does art have to cost a lot to be good?" "Is the art in a museum different from the art in your home?" and "What makes some objects art and others craft?" The completed installation--part museum piece, part potlatch--includes the tools and their photographs, along with the personal objects Horner collected in trade. These glimpses into strangers' personal lives are fascinating and fun, and Horner's questions (listed in the accompanying artist's statement) prompt viewers to examine their own attitudes about art and craft.

Similar in medium to Horner's piece but far removed from it in tone, Dorie Klein's photo-installation "Detoxification Into Perpetuity: The Rocky Mountain Arsenal" electrifyingly documents the history of Colorado's infamous Superfund site. Klein combines vintage photographs, interviews and documents provided by arsenal officials with her own, current photographs of the contaminated area and the wildlife that now uses the land as a sanctuary. The more recent pictures reveal the dangers lurking within the arsenal's toxic prairie land: Deer develop festering leg sores from wading in poisoned swamps; ducks die by the thousands after diving into polluted ponds.

By enclosing many of her photographs behind a barbed-wire security fence, Klein creates a metaphor that targets the arsenal as an entity that hides its devastating reality behind spiky walls of secrecy. Her extensive use of text (mostly quotations from government or newspaper reports about the facility) is representative of the reams of confusing--but informative--material that spews out of the site in place of substantial cleanup efforts. This is a chilling piece, and one that should be seen by anyone living within the arsenal's range.

Rocky Mountain Women's Institute 1993-94 Associate Showcase Exhibit, through October 30 at the Boulder Public Library, 1000 Canyon Boulevard, 871-6923.

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Hart Hill