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It's been a hectic few weeks for Carol Keller, director of the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus. When she hasn't been scrambling to protect a permanent collection of photographs from art thieves, she's been pulling a few capers of her own--in her case, perfectly legal ones.

First, the thievery. A baker's dozen of important photographs has just been reinstalled in an inner lobby of the University of Colorado's classroom building at Auraria. The collection, which includes works by the likes of Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott, had been out of circulation for more than a year, and we finally know why: It seems that somebody stole four of the photos, which have never been recovered. As a result, the remaining pieces were removed to the safety of storage while a new security system was devised--the photos are now bolted to the walls.

The reinstallation of the photos was supervised by Keller, who at precisely the same time was getting ready for the opening at Emmanuel of the exhibit Visions: Contemporary Colorado Photography. Keller's right when she describes the juried show as one of the best things the gallery has presented in the last few years. And she admits to being surprised by the happy turn of events. "You never know with a juried show," she says. "Who's going to enter? What will the juror do? But in this case, everybody came through."

Though Keller installed it, Visions is largely the work of the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, a Denver-based nonprofit whose heart and soul are photographers Skip and Lizbeth Kohloff. CPAC's sole purpose is the advancement of photography in the mountain region. Toward that aim, the group has for more than 35 years sponsored exhibits, lectures and seminars and assembled a permanent collection of more than 600 photos. The collection, which spans the history of the medium, is housed at the Colorado History Museum.

Entry in the Visions exhibit was limited to Colorado artists, each of whom was allowed to submit up to five slides. It was then left up to nationally known photographer and University of New Mexico photography professor Patrick Nagatani to sift through the nearly 700 slides that poured in. It took Nagatani five days to separate the wheat from the chaff and select the 52 photographs by 40 photographers that the show comprises.

Nagatani viewed the slides with what is known as the "blind" approach, meaning that he wasn't told the names of the artists or given any other information about the pieces. The idea behind the blind method is that the juror will tend to make his choices on artistic merit alone. That wasn't quite what was done by Nagatani, who based his selections, according to his written statement, on the touchy-feely vagaries of what "moved" him. Some choices appealed to him "psychologically, others emotionally, and most visually," he wrote. How enlightening. Still, it's hard to argue with the high-quality show that resulted from his idiosyncratic approach.

The true revelation in Visions is that Colorado photographers are embracing a wide variety of styles. They range from directly printed black-and-white or color photography to more up-to-the-minute methods such as computer-generated imaging. But viewers won't be surprised to find that most of the best things in the exhibit come from that old standby of fine-art photography, the black-and-white shot.

A case in point is the platinum palladium print "Untitled," by Denver photographer Kevin O'Connell, an atmospheric landscape in which a cloud-streaked sky hovers above desolate plains. Though quite small, O'Connell's photo has a big presence, owing to the sublime beauty of the scene and the blurry details and grainy texture he achieved in the darkroom.

Shaun Gothwaite, a well-known figure in Denver circles, has also dispensed with clarity in a striking pair of silver prints, "Blackbirds" and "Medicine Wheel Offering." But whereas O'Connell gets his vaporous effect through printing techniques, Gothwaite gets hers by taking direct transfers from pinhole negatives, a method in which she was a local pioneer. "Blackbirds" reveals a sky dotted with black streaked smudges--the blackbirds of the title. In "Medicine Wheel Offering," a heart-shaped form is pierced by a wire. Both pieces are from a series Gothwaite dedicated to her late husband, Louie Aran.

Denver's David Sharpe is also interested in primitive photography. For the pinhole photograph "Estimation of Vacance," Sharpe has taken two small, bright shots of dry land and positioned them on either side of a large, dark, gloomy view of mountains. According to his written statement, "Estimation of Vacance" is about society's disregard for water--the same topic, by the way, that Sharpe addresses in a solo show that closes this weekend at Spark gallery.

Mark Sink is another prominent Denver photographer who made the cut for Visions, but he's no primitivist. Unlike Sharpe or Gothwaite, Sink uses a conventional modern camera. In the silver print "Lani Above Shannon," he has posed four young women in a roughly circular arrangement, their nude forms barely emerging from the dark black background. Though Sink has chosen attractive young models with breasts bared, he has shot them slightly out of focus and placed them in an ominous and unnerving dream-like setting, thus draining them of even a perfunctory eroticism.

A number of photographers in Visions have submitted black-and-white photographs characterized by tight focus and sharp details. Boulder's Allen Birnbach creates a scene of swamp plants in the silver print "Florida #24"; the plants are a metallic gray and the water black and menacing. Joseph Amran of Denver takes a more unconventional approach in the mixed-media piece "Face #11b," printing a half-tone of a child's face on rice paper and then sandwiching it between two sheets of glass that have been hung from the ceiling. The backlighting aimed at the glass causes the white parts of the halftone to glow luminously.

The silver print "Lillian," by Mike Mancarella of Denver, has a more conventional allure. In this portrait shot, Mancarella has posed the old woman of the title standing in an interior doorway; the room she's entering is filled with scores of framed photographs that surround her on the walls. Mancarella's use of existing portrait photographs as the background for his own portrait of Lillian is not just clever--it works to give the picture a truly effective visual orientation.

Taking Mancarella's grid concept even further are two photographers who've created installations by laying out repetitive patterns of photographs. The artist currently known as Dana uses candid black-and-white silver-print portraits for her grid, interrupting them occasionally with small text panels. The variety of her subjects and the narrative content of the text give the piece a compelling richness. Sarah Marquis Timberlake, meanwhile, takes individually framed color landscapes and arranges them around a tight grid of black-and-white photos of sand dunes. The many nearly identical photos read like a geometric abstraction.

Denver's Bob Coller also flirts with geometry, though on a much smaller scale. In his photo collage "Marble River," the artist has cut photographs of silt and gravel into small squares and placed them in a tile-like grid. Coller has then surrounded a large central image with smaller shots, which function as a frame.

Few artists got more than one photograph into Visions, but two Denver photographers, Daniel Salazar and John Bonath, were honored by having all five of their submissions accepted. Each has a distinctly different technical approach--Salazar uses photo montage while Bonath employs computer-generated prints--but from a picto-rial standpoint, their work is strikingly similar.

In the five archival Fujichrome montages by Salazar, the artist has taken found images of Mexican men and decorated his subjects with feminine articles. In "Huerta en Tutus," Salazar uses an old sepia-toned photograph of a group of Mexican men in uniform; as a rejoinder to Latin machismo, the artist has "dressed" each soldier in a pink tutu. In "El Valiente," Salazar takes a playing card that shows a young man walking and appends to his arms a box of Huggies and a baby. Other gender-bending sight gags include "El Mandilon," in which Pancho Villa appears wearing a bandolier of bullets and an apron, and "Geronimo con Groceries," in which Salazar catches the famous Apache chief on his way back from shopping.

Humor, however, is surely the last thing on computer wizard Bonath's mind. His five Iris inkjet prints instead convey his vision of a peculiarly stilted and mysterious netherworld. Bonath's world is filled with weird wooden cones and hands and, in three of the prints, threatening human figures. In "An Open Heart Is a Blessed Heart," a young women stands amid an array of wooden objects including a birdhouse. She holds a bright-green parrot in one hand, and with the other she peels away the wood-grained veneer that covers her body, revealing her breast. In "The Primal Soul Is a Blessed Soul," a nude black man wearing a mask emerges from a background that includes stylized--and severed--wooden arms.

Visions has much to recommend it to gallery-goers. And despite the odd jury system that was used, the final verdict is a good one. As Keller says, "It really shows how far local photography has come in the last few years." But if you go, please don't steal anything other than a glance.

Visions: Contemporary Colorado Photography, through December 17 at the Emmanuel Gallery, on the Auraria campus, 556-8337.

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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