There's plenty to see besides King Tut at the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum blockbuster Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs is scheduled to run through the first week of the new year, and although the museum no longer estimates attendance during a show's run, it's clear that Tut has been popular. Additional buzz has been generated by a publicity blitz that included print ads, streetlight banners, TV stand-ups, Egyptian-themed parties, and even cocktails and salads that were specially concocted to coincide with the show.

But with all the hullabaloo, other worthwhile exhibits unveiled over the past few months have gone unnoticed. And that's too bad, because several DAM curators have been working hard to change things up, and their efforts are worth a look.

In the Hamilton building — where Tut is on view — is Marc Brandenburg: Deutsch-Amerikanishe Freundschaft. Brandenburg lives in his native Berlin and is one of a number of German contemporary artists who have been introduced to Denver audiences by DAM director Christoph Heinrich, who curated this handsome show.

Brandenburg came up during the German punk scene of the '80s, and the show's title, which means "German-American Friendship," is also the name of a rock band. His style is hyper-realist with a twist. Working in graphite on paper and using photos as studies, Brandenburg reverses the blacks and whites, producing pieces that look a lot like negatives. There are a range of subjects, most depicting people out and about on the streets or in parks. Technically, Brandenburg is as good as it gets, and the resulting drawings are breathtaking in their precision.

While his punk heritage is seen in only a couple of drawings of guitarists, his continuing interest in being outrageous is well demonstrated in the meticulously done floor drawing "Vomit." Brandenburg photographs vomit he sees on the sidewalks outside of nightclubs, then does precise copies of the images in graphite.

The Brandenburg exhibit works beautifully within Focus: The Figure, the overarching theme connecting the material on view in all the many modern and contemporary galleries on levels three and four of the Hamilton.

On the second level, in the Gates Western Gallery, is the just-opened Western Horizons. Dominated by paintings, the show was put together by Western Art curator Thomas Smith, who selected nearly three dozen works from the DAM's holdings of relatively recently done representational pieces with Western themes; most were donated with funds provided by the Contemporary Realism Group.

This collection includes both contemporary and traditional art, but it's dominated by the latter. Traditional art that's being done today occupies a separate plane that runs parallel to the one occupied by the rest of contemporary art. For many of these artists, the styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are the archetypes they work with. In the contemporary-art camp are pieces by Chuck Forsman and Donald Coen, along with a handful of others. Both of these Colorado artists have done landscapes in paint, but there's a decidedly modern edge to their depictions. Another contemporary Colorado artist, Don Stinson, tweaks the tradition by capturing an abandoned drive-in theater in paintings and found objects in a piece outside the gallery.

There's no stepping beyond tradition in the work of other artists, such as the influential Len Chmiel or T. Allen Lawson. At first glance, you'd swear their paintings were a hundred years old, an impression enhanced by the pushy formal frames that contain them. And that's true of the vast majority of the pieces on view.

The show is handsome enough, but the predominating old-fashioned mood is not really my cup of tea. On the other hand, the marvelous old modern paintings in the corridor that are not part of Western Horizons are the kinds of things that pique my interest. Don't miss a rare chance to see the two paintings from the collection by transcendentalist Raymond Jonson, on view at the same time. And the Maynard Dixon screen covered with a cubist version of the mountains is not to be missed.

Across the bridge that connects the Hamilton to the Gio Ponti tower, you'll find What Is Modern?, a large, crowded show in a gallery operated by the department of Architecture, Design and Graphics; it was put together by curator Darrin Alfred.

Alfred takes an in-depth look at innovation in design since the early nineteenth century, breaking the year-1900 barrier that typically is used as the starting point for modernism in furniture. Although graphics is his specialty, Alfred also knows a lot about design in general. The earlier display in this space, done by Alfred's predecessor, Craig Miller, looked at two tracks in modernism — craft and industry — using only chairs to do so. Alfred has opened the dialogue quite a bit by expanding the selections to include tables, storage units, lighting and — no surprise here — graphics in the form of framed posters.

Laudably, Alfred takes a chronological look at how breakthroughs in technology informed the development of modernism, and he starts with a bentwood chair by Samuel Gragg, done in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Its overall form is very sleek and incorporates a gracefully curving back, but the details — like the little hooves that mark the termination of the legs at the floor — are very different, almost precious. I loved it. One of the newest pieces in the show is "Roadrunner" chair, from 2006, by Colorado's own David Larabee and Dexter Thornton working together as DoubleButter. Made of a cheap synthetic — MDF — the chair is nonetheless very elegant with its linseed oil and pine-resin finish. In between the two chairs, Alfred has installed a wide assortment of classics from the annals of modernism, including pieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames and a raft of others. Many of these were from a bequest by Myron "Lee" Hochstetler, made when the Ponti building was first opened in 1971.

While you're in the Architecture, Design and Graphics galleries, don't miss the small but interesting Olivetti: Innovation & Identity, which looks at the Italian business machine company's post-war commitment to fine industrial design and graphics. The exhibit pairs smart-looking typewriters and adding machines with chic print ads and posters. Even the font used to spell out "Olivetti" is a masterpiece. It would be great if this show were the start of a series on manufacturers that embrace excellence in design.

The last stop on this whirlwind tour is Robert Benjamin: Notes on a Quiet Life, on view in the photography gallery on the seventh floor. Except to experts, Colorado-based photographer Benjamin is virtually unknown. Curator Eric Paddock discovered him through Robert Adams, the famous photographer who once worked here.  Paddock calls Benjamin "a photographer's photographer."

All of the photos capture everyday sights — not just Benjamin's family and friends, but domestic interiors and shop windows. Those shop-window shots are really something, with the glare on the glass adding a surrealist element.  All of the photos are done in large-format Chromogenic prints and are exquisitely rich in their range of shades. The show's title perfectly captures the character of the pictures. Benjamin has said that he has personal connections with all his subjects, and this is obvious from the loving conception of the compositions, a characteristic that seems to flow from the pictures.

Take Tut or leave it, there are still plenty of other displays worth checking out at the DAM right now. And there's more to come, with curator Nancy Blomberg unwrapping a long-awaited reinstallation of the Native Arts galleries in mid-January.

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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