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Already, the art season that began last fall and will end this spring has seen its

share of newsworthy events. Some of these developments, especially those in the publicly funded realm, seem all to the good. In November there was the completion, after five years of effort, of the multi-million-dollar remodeling and expansion of the Denver Art Museum. That effort has generated reams of positive national publicity, including an approving word from the venerable New York Times. And, as revealed by increased attendance figures, the museum's rehab has been a popular success--aside, that is, from the still-controversial entrance canopy by architect George Hoover that sadly competes for attention with Mark DiSuvero's marvelous "Lao Tzu" sculpture on nearby Acoma Plaza.

Also on the plus side is the $125,000 facelift of the Art and Art History Gallery at the University of Denver, which was unveiled to rave reviews a few weeks ago. Formerly a cramped and gloomy place, the DU gallery is now quite spiffy, with newly configured spaces, a taller ceiling and a state-of-the-art lighting system. This season has also seen the appearance of an entirely new public venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which mounted its first show in rental space at the high-rise at 1999 Broadway. It's unclear why the group hasn't yet purchased the old Vulcan Iron Works building as it said it would. But though it still lacks a permanent home, MoCA is expected to present other exhibits this year, most likely in its temporary quarters on Broadway.

While MoCA looks for a place to settle in, the 1/1 Gallery knows exactly where it's going. Faced with a huge rent increase that would have more than tripled his expenses, gallery owner and director Bill Havu has decided to leave Wazee Street, where he's been since 1991. His plan is to build a new gallery from the ground up (there's a Denver first for you) in the Golden Triangle neighborhood south of downtown. Once Havu closes his current show--a brief summary of the gallery's seven-year run in LoDo--he'll temporarily relocate to an old house at 1055 Cherokee Street, just across from the site of his yet-to-be-constructed gallery. That new building, designed by the Denver architectural firm of Humphries Poli, will be completed by mid-summer.

But not all of the news this season has been good news. Early last autumn, Inkfish Gallery, one of the city's most important exhibition spaces, closed after more than two decades of setting the standard for art display. And the Mackey Gallery, another significant cultural asset, has canceled its exhibition schedule. Though the gallery will remain open with art on its walls and its successful frame shop will keep operating, it will no longer present new exhibits.

Not surprisingly, the problems for both Inkfish and Mackey were financial in nature. Sluggish sales set against a background of rising exhibition costs were too much to bear. And as a result, many of the city's most-talked-about modern and contemporary artists have been unceremoniously set free and forced to find new representation in a suddenly more competitive field.

Many former Inkfish artists are already winding up in other galleries around town. Works by the late Denver modernist Edward Marecak (the subject of the last show presented by Inkfish director Paul Hughes) are now in the hands of Cherry Creek's Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery. Meanwhile, the prestigious Robischon Gallery has taken on another Inkfish expatriate, Boulder artist Amy Metier.

Robischon has also picked up old master Roland Bernier, one of the many artists--including sculptor Russell Beardsley and painters Jeff Wenzel and Homare Ikeda--who've fled the beleagured Mackey over the past year or so. But though Robischon, by all appearances, remains fiscally strong, it may soon join the crowd of galleries being forced to relocate. Once again, the culprit is the increased cost of doing business in LoDo, where real estate prices are inflating as rapidly as Super Bowl victory balloons.

"Of course we don't want to move," says gallery director Jim Robischon. But he has yet to hammer out a new lease with his building's owners, a fact that has caused him considerable consternation. Robischon says he's anxious "to get our location question settled so we can get back to focusing exclusively on our work: showing and selling art."

It's a noble goal--and as new shows at both Robischon and north Denver's Edge gallery make clear, good art is still being made and displayed amid the game of musical galleries.

As stressful as the lease negotiations at Robischon may be, they haven't prevented Jim Robischon from putting together a first-rate exhibit in the meantime. His current offering, Anne Connell, is a real triumph and by far the best of three shows now appearing at the gallery under the collective heading Singular Mysteries. (The other two feature works by photographer Janieta Eyre and installation artist Cameron Shaw.)

The Connell exhibit marks the fourth time in five years that Robischon has devoted a solo show to the work of this Oregon-based painter, whose links to Colorado date back to the late 1970s, when she studied art at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Connell received her BFA from CU in 1980 and went on to get her MFA from the University of Michigan before heading to Oregon.

As with her previous Robischon presentations, Connell is represented by small, exquisitely detailed oil paintings on wood panels. These works continue to express her interest in translating art history to a contemporary context: Though they're crafted using traditional materials and old-fashioned methods, they're thoroughly up to date. And despite their diminutive size, they pack a big visual punch.

Connell's abiding interest in traditional techniques leans heavily toward Italian art, including the use of gesso, glazes and gold leaf. She has traveled to Europe to learn firsthand from the examples of the masters; in fact, the paintings in the latest Robischon show were painted last year while she was in Rome. Stylistically, though, they're pure American postmodernism; check out, for instance, the many geometric patterns.

In "Seme," Connell has divided the picture's background in half, painting the left side a light creamy white dotted with stars and lining the right side with horizontal rows of parabolic curves. "Seme" (the French word for "heraldry") is anchored by an arrangement of light-colored spheres whose three-dimensionality contrasts with the utter flatness of the background.

This same tension is also seen in the superbly executed "San Marco," whose flat background has been overlaid with a foreground that creates the illusion of spatial depth. Connell has written that this painting's unifying grid of black, white and red squares was inspired by the marble mosaic floor in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. And inspired it is: Though Connell has jammed a huge amount of visual information into a tiny format, "San Marco" retains a crisp simplicity.

Connell works with grids and spheres to much different effect in the painting "No." Here the illusion of depth leads from the picture plane back to a visual stop of diagonal squares. In the mid-ground is a billiard ball propped on a stand. The inclusion of a realistically painted "No" label gives this painting a pop-art quality lacking in most of the others.

Viewers expect to see sophisticated shows like Anne Connell in the elegant front room at Robischon. Not so predictable is to find something like NeoNow, a new show that's every bit as good, in the back room of the Edge gallery. Edge's back room is sublet to artists on a show-by-show basis, and though it might not be the last place in town one would expect to find a high-quality art show (that would be the basement at Core), it comes close.

NeoNow gives viewers their first glimpse of the city's newest art star, Jason Hoelscher. This is Hoelscher's premier Denver exhibit outside of student shows, but other offers are coming fast and furious. Expect him to pop up again soon at Denver's Rule Gallery and in a group show at New York's famous O.K. Harris Gallery.

The 28-year-old Hoelscher has not yet graduated from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he's a protege of Clark Richert, Denver's great master of painterly geometry. Richert's influence is easy to see in the straight lines and hard edges that Hoelscher employs, but that's not to say Hoelscher is a Richert imitator. Instead, his paintings have a freshness that clearly distinguishes them not just from Richert's work, but from anyone else's.

The Hoelscher show consists of eight paintings, each one a gem. The works would seem to be minimalist in style, with rigidly vertical and horizontal lines and a limited palette of two or three colors. But by titling the exhibit NeoNow, Hoelscher reveals his subversiveness. The term itself is a subtle oxymoron, since "neo" indicates a revival, while the word "now" suggests immediacy. "I'm not doing minimalist paintings--those were done the decade before I was born," says Hoelscher. "I'm doing paintings of minimalist paintings." In other words, in pieces like "Periphery 14.0," Hoelscher, like Connell, is exploring postmodernism.

Denver's entire art scene could fit into the wide-open spaces that separate a flagship gallery like Robischon and a dingy rental space like the back room at Edge. But as Anne Connell and NeoNow reveal, the local art world has achieved its own form of democracy, a system under which both shows have, appropriately enough, been placed on the same playing field. That may be the best news of all this art season.

Anne Connell, through March 7 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

NeoNow, through February 8 at Edge, 3658 Navajo Street, 477-7173.

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