Sandy Carson Gallery

Sandy Carson Gallery is featuring two sculpture shows in the front and a large print show in the back — the latter being a late addition intended as an introduction to the gallery's new owners and a new era there. I've covered the changes previously, but here's a recap: Sandy Carson sold her namesake gallery to Jan and Bill van Straaten, who own Riverhouse Editions, a fine printer, and the van Straaten Gallery in Steamboat Springs.

The first sculpture show is Life Is but a Dream: Caroline Douglas, which highlights the Boulder artist's interest in magic realism and whimsical subjects that have a children's-storybook quality. Figural ceramics has had its ups and downs, and the medium invariably brings to mind figurines like Hummels, which, I don't need to tell you, is not a good thing. But the rough and folksy clay modeling that Douglas employs — and, even more so, the gorgeous glazing she carries out — clearly separates her work from Grandma's bric-a-brac. The pieces depict people and animals, sometimes put together in unlikely pairings, and often feature disjunctions of scale between them, as with the giant rabbits on either side of a seated woman in "Family Portrait," a three-part sculpture.

In addition, Douglas's works are clearly technical triumphs that would be a real challenge to fire without mishap for anyone but a truly accomplished ceramicist. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and this recent batch is the product of a three-decade-long career. Douglas earned her BFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and later spent time living and teaching in Scotland before moving to Boulder.

Some of these pieces were previewed in Colorado Clay at Foothills Art Center a couple of months ago, including the two-part standout "Spoon Bending"; in both parts, a child is riding a giant fish. In a similar vein is "Night Ride Home," in which a little girl is astride an enormous fox. The most elaborate of Douglas's sculptures are the boats filled with figures, including "Slow Boat to China" and the even more ambitious "Summoning the Wind," which has a batik-dyed sail (how Boulder!).

I only have two criticisms of the Douglas show: It's too crowded, and the life-sized figures don't work well with the other pieces; I wish they'd been left out.

The second sculpture show, Clearing: Marc Berghaus, is made up of a heterogeneous group of mechanical sculptures by this Kansas-based artist. Despite the distance between his studio and the Mile High City, Berghaus has had an ongoing presence here in the form of exhibits presented during the past ten years. He's best known for his photos, which he's been doing since the 1980s and which Sandy Carson has shown before. But this is the first time the gallery has showcased his three-dimensional creations, previously exhibited at Artyard Contemporary Sculpture.

The Clearing pieces were done over the past fifteen years or so, but the show begins with his newest one, 2007's "Freeway Chase," which is very cool and pretty unforgettable. For this contraption, Berghaus has set a rotating cylinder at a diagonal perched on a motorized stand. He's painted the surface of the continuous side as though it were a miniature highway. Held slightly above the moving cylinder are small model cars that seem to be driving on the highway. A portable TV screen that viewers can look through creates the illusion of watching TV while the car chase unfolds from the perspective of a helicopter camera.

"Freeway Chase" makes an interesting comment on video art, since the piece is a mechanical imitation of it, as opposed to an electronic or digital one. Plus, the frame of the TV screen also comments on photo-based mediums. Berghaus doesn't mask the stuff outside of it as a real television picture would, so we see what's beyond that defining box, including not only the cylinder, but also the machines below it that allow it to turn.

Another work based on a turning cylinder and related to photography is "Zoetrope #1," from a few years ago. A zoetrope is a proto-film projector in which still photos mounted on the inside of a cylinder are glimpsed through an aperture as they spin by. The idea is to create the illusion of moving pictures by lining up the separate photos precisely. Berghaus uses black-and-white images of the sky and creates the highly convincing illusion of clouds moving naturalistically as the wheel is spun.

Clearing also includes some Berghaus pieces that deal with sound. "Tapestry #1 (Giuco Piano)," from 1997, is a retro-'60s chess table made from electric guitars that are pieced together like a puzzle, complete with a found Star Trek chess set in place. In another, "Randomized Red Piano," from 2005, a mechanism strikes toy piano keys at wide intervals — which must be driving the gallery's staff absolutely crazy.

Reflecting on the Douglas and Berghaus shows, it's clear that they have nothing in common, nor do they bear any similarity to the print exhibition, Riverhouse Editions, that fills several spaces in the back of the gallery. Founded in 1988, Riverhouse carries out prints for artists and provides residences for them while they spend two to three weeks creating their pieces with master printer Susan Hover Oehme. Works completed there are in the collections of public and private museums and institutions around the world.

The van Straatens have attracted nearly four dozen artists to Riverhouse, and many of them are big names in the fine arts. When they opened the printer, they were already seasoned art dealers in Chicago, and they used contacts that they had made there. That's how Riverhouse got off to such a quick start, as revealed by some of the prints in the show, which date back to the 1980s. In this group is Alex Katz's remarkable and gigantic "3PM," a 1988 woodcut in which two people are having a conversation, and Al Held's "Pachinko," from 1989, a riot of color and geometric forms crammed into the rectangular picture plane. Though undated, I think Eric Fischl's "Horizontal Images (color)" was also made in the 1980s. A scene of nude bathers at the beach, it's better than most of his paintings.

Riverhouse really hit its stride in the 1990s, and the biggest portion of the exhibit is given over to prints pulled then. Abstract artists were especially attracted to Riverhouse. Falling into this category is Sol Lewitt, whose self-explanatory "Brushstrokes in Different Colors in Two Directions" is one of the stars of the show. Lewitt has gone to Riverhouse several times; this print was done there in 1992. Also from the '90s is "Untitled 78," by Lynda Benglis, done long after she was famous, and Fred Tomaselli's "50 Vs for the center of your face," created just as he started to make a giant splash.

The show also includes some recent prints. The newest of them, done late last year by Kiki Smith, is a matching pair titled "Noon," done in aquatint and drypoint. In each, there's a detailed portrait of a young man set off-center. One is a redneck in a straw cowboy hat, the other a Latino with shoulder-length hair. The implication of the title — and the fact that Smith did two matching prints — combined with the serious expressions on the men's faces suggests that the artist is attempting to conjure up a showdown out on the street.

Over the next few months, the gallery will transition into a new course set by the van Straatens. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the place got a new name. Already, many artists have been asked to pick up their work and are now free agents, a difficult route for them to follow. I just hope that some of my favorites — like Homare Ikeda, Jeff Wenzel and Quintín González — are kept on. Only time, and the van Straatens, will tell.

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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