Laura Merage is an accomplished photo-based artist whose work I've reviewed a few times during the past decade. Her photos and photo-based pieces are supremely elegant and extremely sophisticated, as is she. More relevant to my story this week, however, is her other career, as a generous philanthropist with a spiritual and financial interest in the fine arts in Denver.
A couple of years ago, Merage began to fantasize about creating what she calls an "art incubator" and an "urban laboratory." The goal would be to stimulate both emerging and established artists by providing them with state-of-the-art studio space and by putting on "challenging" exhibitions. She dubbed the non-profit enterprise RedLine to convey the idea that artists could cross the line to success with the help of a support system — namely, studio space that is partly or wholly subsidized. It's a practical and pragmatic approach, and one of the things that make Merage's idea so exciting is that she's put her money where her mouth is.
The first step was to secure a location for her dream factory, and she opted to purchase an existing building rather than construct a new one, like MCA Denver did. Merage found a mundane-looking 1970s concrete-block warehouse formerly used by a vacuum cleaner parts distributor. Although the location was in Curtis Park, just outside the downtown business core, it wasn't an obvious choice for a cultural institution since the neighborhood is somewhat edgy and run-down. In fact, she told me that her husband, David, thought she was out of her mind to be buying there. But Merage turned out to be prescient about the neighborhood's possibilities, and it has since come up considerably in the world, with lots of new construction over the past few years.
To move the project forward and to make a splash, Merage brought on the well-respected Denver architectural firm Semple Brown Design, with a team headed by Bryan Schmidt. The transformation of the plain-Jane structure has been remarkable under his leadership. Schmidt has added visual interest to what was originally a design-free box by appending flat rectangular boxes clad in wavy metal shingles that wrap around the corner facing the intersection of Arapahoe and 24th streets. Though these flat boxes don't add any space to the inside, they do help to visually break up the basic shape of the building by suggesting a more complicated volumetric configuration than actually exists. On the other side of the Arapahoe Street facade, Schmidt added vertical metal fins, and they serve in the same way, breaking the box in our mind's eyes, if not in reality.
One aspect of the exterior that I didn't think I'd like is the mural by resident artist and RedLine boardmember Tom Guiton. It's not that I have anything against Guiton; it's just that I tend not to like outdoor murals. In fact, I tend to hate them. (When city officials inappropriately annihilated some of these wall paintings in preparation for the Democratic National Convention, I thought it was terrible in principle, but no great loss in practice.) But I have to say that Guiton's mural, which was carried out by an army of volunteers, is lots better than most; even more astounding is that it doesn't spoil the appearance of the building at all, which is my chief complaint about outdoor murals. The handsome landscaping, done with dry-land plants that were also planted by volunteers, was designed by Mark Meadows, who likewise volunteered his time.
If the outside of RedLine is good, the inside is even better and indicates that the place could become a major cultural player, not only as a spot for artist studios or as a meeting hall, but because the enormous gallery space is so fabulous. At this point, however, RedLine is considering an intermittent schedule, and that's too bad, because regular changing displays would be the easiest way to get people to come back again and again. But RedLine is still defining itself, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Merage come to this same conclusion once the hubbub of the October opening subsides. At least I hope so.
Right inside the front door is the swank-looking reception area, with a lobby populated by chic and comfortable-looking furniture and a built-in information desk. This area was adjacent to the old loading dock, and the overhead panel doors were replaced with glass ones, creating a well-lighted interior. On the wall behind the desk, and on a parallel wall around the corner, old wooden planks that were recycled from a disassembled mezzanine are used as paneling. This was an idea Merage herself pushed, and the bourbon-colored patina adds a visual richness to the spaces.
Beyond is a handsome library, still being stocked with books and magazines, and around the corner is an unbelievably capacious community room that could easily do double duty as an adjunct gallery. Straight ahead is a spectacular exhibition space surrounded by studios that I'll get to in a minute.
The studios are populated by two categories of artists. The first group, called "Visiting Artists," includes Merage, Guiton and three very well-known Denver artists: Margaret Neumann, Clark Richert and Bruce Price. These "Visiting Artists" have free studio space and are expected to mentor other artists at RedLine as well as students who use the facility. The other group, "Resident Artists," have spaces with nominal rent; they had to apply for the privilege and be vetted by a selection committee. Respected local artists Virginia Folkestad, Bob Koons, Viviane Le Courtois, Steven Read and Jonathan Saiz are included in this group, along with nine others.
The inaugural exhibition in the large gallery is through a glass, darkly, organized by Jenny Schlenzka, curator at New York's P.S. 1. The title was inspired by the classic Ingmar Bergman film of the same name, but Schlenzka discovered while preparing the exhibit that it originated in the Bible. Schlenzka is from Germany, and watching the elections made her want to do a political show.
However, not everything has an apparent political message, most notably the initial work, "Self-Portrait As Us," by Douglas Gordon. Using a publicity shot of the cast of the old TV show Dynasty, which was set in Denver, Gordon has burned holes in all the faces, obliterating them, so that viewers can imagine their own reflections in the spaces where the faces were. This was the first piece Schlenzka chose, and it had a personal resonance for her. When she was growing up, her grandmother's favorite show was Der Denver Clan, which is what Dynasty was called in Germany.
The artists Schlenzka selected all have national reputations, but here's an interesting fact about through a glass, darkly that tends to support an idea I've long promoted: that Colorado artists are as good — or even better — than artists anywhere. The one truly incredible piece in the show, and the only one that coherently expresses a political point of view, is by Annette Roberts-Gray, an artist who lives not in Manhattan, London or Berlin, but in Glenwood Springs, where she's been for the last 25 years. The piece is called "In Honor, In Memory, A Reminder of Individual Sacrifice and the Cost of War," and consists of a large set of shelves painted gray with a wall running parallel to it, creating a hallway. On the shelves are 1,000 hand-thrown porcelain vases, all approximately the same size and all impressed with the names of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's both brilliant and deeply moving, and it reminded me of similarly thought-provoking conceptual pieces such as the Vietnam War Memorial — "the Wall" — and the AIDS quilt.
RedLine is the latest evidence of the culture boom raging in Denver, and I for one think that in terms of the place's potential, the sky's the limit.
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