"Nomos," by Martha Russo, glazed and pigmented 
    porcelain on board.
"Nomos," by Martha Russo, glazed and pigmented porcelain on board.

Summer Breaks

Mark Masuoka, director of the Carson Masuoka Gallery, has put together the very impressive Ambient Lux, a group show featuring installation art that can be readily compared to the installation-filled biennial now playing at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. As many will recall, Masuoka launched the MCA's biennial series with his own back in 2001, which was also installation-heavy. But here's an even more uncanny parallel between the biennial and Ambient Lux: Masuoka quit his job right after both shows opened. At the end of the month, he's moving to Omaha to take over the directorship of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

Masuoka has been in Denver for less than five years, but in that time, he's managed to hold three significant positions in the art world -- all of them in quick succession. In 1999, he ran the once-mighty Emmanuel Gallery, but he left with little notice in 2000 to take the director's job at the MCA. The timing couldn't have been worse for Emmanuel, because when the Auraria Campus pulled its funding shortly after Masuoka's departure, there was no one there to argue its case. The gallery is no longer an important venue, but when Carol Keller ran it for nearly two decades before Masuoka took the reins, it was one of the most significant exhibition spaces in town.

In 2001, over a dispute with Sue Cannon, then the president of the MCA's board of trustees, Masuoka abruptly left the museum and immediately formed a partnership with art dealer Sandy Carson, creating the Carson Masuoka Gallery. Unlike Emmanuel, the MCA continued to prosper after he left, and Carson Masuoka has presented some of the best shows in the state during the two years he curated there, notably the spectacular Jun Kaneko solo last winter. And now Masuoka is changing jobs again.


Ambient Lux

Through August 29
Carson Masuoka Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive

Masuoka has his shortcomings -- setting up the demise of Emmanuel, for example -- but he also has his strengths. He can put together a thought-provoking and elegant show, with Ambient Lux serving as his most timely example -- and his ad hoc Denver swan song. He also has the ability to uncover unknown talents. Ambient Lux features Gwen Laine, one of a number of Colorado artists he more or less discovered and introduced to the art public.

Laine is among the four artists whose efforts Masuoka assembled for this wonderful show. Her piece, "The Place in Which," is a construction made of unfinished wood and natural-colored steel rods with dozens of framed silver gelatin cloud prints mounted on it; it's attached to the canted wall across from the gallery's entrance. Laine is one of only two local artists in the show; the other is Martha Russo, whose "Nomos," another wall installation, is in the corner behind the information desk. "Nomos" is made of glazed and pigmented porcelain forms evocative of intestines impaled onto spikes on a thick, industrial-strength foam-core board. With hundreds of individual parts, the work is an amazing feat that visually claims the space it occupies, which is exactly what a successful installation should do. But I do have to say that the biological references are sort of creepy and, in that way, unwelcome.

Much more conventionally decorative are the works by the other artists in the show: John Garrett, who lives in New Mexico, and New York's Christopher Romer. Garrett makes fiber-based installations by weaving metal sheets and wires into curtain-like wall pieces and pendant-like ceiling-hung pieces. Romer carves wood into seed shapes and then paints them with simple abstract patterns, hanging them on the wall in an all-over pattern.

Romer's inclusion was the idea of gallery assistant Jeremy Stern, who studied with Romer at New York University. Now, with the departure of Masuoka, the directorship of the gallery (which will very shortly not be called the Carson Masuoka Gallery) will pass to Stern, who formally takes the wheel August 1. "People underestimate me," says the ambitious twenty-something. "Just wait until they see what I'm capable of." Well, I know I'll be tuning in.

On July 9, Mary Cane Robinson, a nearly forgotten modernist painter from the annals of Denver's art history, died in Boulder at the age of 92. Robinson was born in New York in 1910 and showed an early proclivity for art that was no doubt encouraged by her mother, Florence Cane, a distinguished art educator who operated her own school. In 1928, Robinson traveled to Munich and spent more than a year studying with abstract artist Hans Hofmann. After returning to New York, she attended the Pratt Institute and studied there with Jean Charlot, a figural abstractionist who would later make his own brief appearance in this state's art history.

Robinson moved to Denver in 1947 and was most active from the 1950s to the 1970s. During that time, her work was exhibited at the Denver Art Museum, the Boulder Center for the Visual Arts (now the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art) and the Jewish Community Center.

Everybody was in a retro mood in the 1990s, and art-show organizers were no exception, which is how I first became aware of Robinson. Pieces of her work, which could be described as abstractions based on the figure and the landscape, were exhibited at the Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery that used to be in Cherry Creek North, and in a scholarly group show curated by Jack Kunin at the Mizel Museum of Judaica.

Like Robinson, the Mizel Museum is an all-but-forgotten piece of local art history. And though the institution is little more than an idea at present, appearances can be deceiving. It's not gone, not by a long shot. In fact, the museum has a $3 million endowment and an additional $7 million, which includes a million bucks raised at its annual dinner in June -- the one where Governor Bill Owens was given an award for his contributions to art and culture!

That Owens snafu, however, has already been superseded by a bigger story: The Mizel Museum is splitting with its sister institution, the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, effective July 31. Although it's hard to know what this means, it's not hard to tell that it means a great deal.

Two years ago, the separate though similarly named entities had joined together as a single co-operative unit to raise money for the construction of a new museum building at Denver's Jewish Community Center, on South Dahlia Street. Before the merger, the Mizel Museum had been housed in the BMH-BJ Synagogue, while the Mizel Center was already located at the JCC. The land, fronting Leetsdale Drive where the ugly metal tennis house now stands, was picked out, architect David Tryba was selected, and conceptual designs and even a model were created.

But with this split, the museum project is dead. Too bad, because it would have made a great addition to the city. The Mizel Museum does plan to pursue its own building (the venue will stay at the JCC through the end of the year), but it has given up its "free" land. Then again, namesake and benefactor Larry Mizel is a real-estate developer.

When the two institutions joined, each of their boards was disbanded, and a new, huge advisory board was put in its place. With the divorce, both the museum and the center will need to immediately re-establish individual boards.

And the JCC will have to find new leadership, since longtime director Paula Herzmark is stepping down, as is executive director Steve Berson. Word is that Herzmark was only staying on the job to build the new museum - and when that pipe dream went up in smoke, she decided to leave.

And while the Mizel Center will remain in the JCC, they have an intricate relationship as separate institutions occupying the same facility. The change in regime is just one more thing the Mizel Center folks need to worry about.

Denver made The New York Times a couple of weeks ago with a story partly about how the Mile High City had just given itself one big black eye by destroying Skyline Park. According to the piece by Patricia Leigh Brown, the demolition of Skyline made our fair city the first place in America to destroy a major work by Lawrence Halprin, a giant in the history of American landscape architecture. In a juicy bit of irony, as the bulldozers were on their way to Skyline in March, Halprin was receiving the National Medal of Arts acknowledging his accomplishments in the field of landscape design, of which Skyline Park is, or was, one of his masterworks.

I'm ashamed to say that I don't read the Times often, but apparently a lot of other people do, and a number of them called to tell me they were hopping mad at what Susan Barnes-Gelt had to say in it. Presuming to speak for all of us, Barnes-Gelt is quoted as saying, "We don't get the built environment, and we sure don't get it if it's not red brick and at least 75 years old. Against that, Halprin's esthetic was not respected or, frankly, enjoyed."

Hey, wait a minute. Skyline Park wasn't destroyed because there was a groundswell of negative public opinion about it. During the years I've covered the story, the great weight of public sentiment has been squarely in favor of saving Skyline.

Maybe Barnes-Gelt was talking about the minority, including herself, who wanted to destroy the park. You know, the same old crowd that's been vandalizing downtown for the past decade. There are the rich and powerful private property owners and developers, plus the lawyers and lobbyists these wealthy entities need in order to swing deals in which millions of dollars in public money is converted over into their personal assets. And, oh yes, there are the politicians such as Barnes-Gelt, who have been on hand to grease the wheels for them.

So you see, Barnes-Gelt is right when she says that Denverites don't get the "built environment" -- but she wasn't talking about us, the citizens at large. She was just talking about herself and the rest of the insane clown posse who have been wrecking downtown Denver all along.

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