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Western Civilization

The history of art in Colorado has yet to be written, so those of us with an interest in the topic have to get our information in dribs and drabs, chiefly through exhibitions. Of course, that's only one of the reasons to see Colorado Collections II. Others include the incredible...
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The history of art in Colorado has yet to be written, so those of us with an interest in the topic have to get our information in dribs and drabs, chiefly through exhibitions. Of course, that's only one of the reasons to see Colorado Collections II. Others include the incredible scope of the show -- it features more than a hundred paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings -- and the wealth of heretofore little-known pieces. The works reveal a true Colorado style -- or, more properly, styles -- from the show's target period of 1900 to 1950.

Although the exhibit is billed as being displayed in the Denver Public Library's Vida Ellison Gallery, most of it is actually hung along the broad curvilinear corridor that runs across the building's entire seventh floor. That's good, because the gallery itself is a thoroughly unpleasant room in which to see a show. Its north wall is made up almost entirely of windows that provide a great view of the Civic Center but let in far too much light for effective art viewing. Perhaps movable walls could be placed in front of the windows as a short-term solution.

Because Colorado Collections II is so good, though, it's possible to ignore the Ellison's limitations -- but just barely.

As indicated by its title, the show is the second in a series highlighting art made in Colorado -- both by local artists and by those who came from other parts of the country to work here. The initial exhibition was presented in 2001; its focus was material dating from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and it was mostly made up of pieces from the DPL's own collection. This time around, more than two-thirds of the works are on loan from private collectors.

"The collectors were so generous," says Kay Wisnia, the show's curator and a key member of the Western History staff. "They were so enthusiastic about the show, and all of them were so excited about seeing their pieces included in the exhibit. I was offered so many works that the show could have been almost twice as big as it is, but there simply wasn't the room to include everything."

Prominent among the private collectors who participated are the recently deceased Dusty Loo and his wife, Kathy, from Colorado Springs. During the past several decades, the Loos, the former owners of Current greeting cards, amassed an incredible collection with an emphasis on artists from the Broadmoor Academy and its successor institution, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The quality of the Loos' collection is at least on par with that of the Denver Art Museum's Harmsen Collection.

Another Colorado Springs-based collection, put together by Nelson and Susan Rieger, is also sampled in Colorado Collections.

Considering the participation of the Loos and the Riegers, it's not surprising that the exhibit includes a number of pieces done in Colorado Springs, Colorado's art center for the first half of the twentieth century. But Denver is well-represented, too: The DPL's own Denver-centered collection is supplemented by loans from the Kirkland Museum as well as a variety of private collectors, notably Lee and Jennifer Ballentine.

Wisnia tried to get works by as many different artists as possible, but she did not set out to create a historical show, or one based on stylistic analysis. Instead, her choices were purely aesthetic ones. The show has been installed the same way -- aesthetically -- but some placement decisions appear to be a concession, at least in part, to space limitations. Actually, it looks as though Wisnia did it this way because it's the only possible way the pieces would fit together, sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.

Nonetheless, some broad historical and stylistic observations can be made, regardless of where or how the works are hung. I like things in chronological order, so I'll start with the oldest pieces, which are examples of post-impressionism -- both plein-air painting and expressionism from the 1910s, '20s and '30s. For the most part, these paintings are by the studio masters of the Broadmoor Academy, particularly Birger Sandzén, William Potter and Robert Reid.

There are four Sandzéns in the show -- two prints and two paintings. The paintings are done in Sandzén's famous signature style, which is marked by wild colors, heavily applied paint and virtually abstract forms, though all of it is in a landscape format. There's only one piece by the essentially forgotten Potter, "Freyessee Cañon, Colorado," a dreamy and gorgeous 1930s expressionist landscape made up of slashes of rich, dark colors. The still highly regarded Reid is represented by two oils: "Sunset Point Sublime," from 1921, and "Estes Park," from 1931.

During the 1930s, a regionalist scene sprang up in the area, and Wisnia has selected some wonderful pieces from that time. Standouts include an untitled oil sketch by Allen Tupper True that's a study for a transportation mural. Especially nice are the painting's speeding roadster and a woman sashaying toward an Airstream trailer. The study isn't dated, and the whereabouts of the finished mural is unknown.

Interestingly, True served as a model for one element of another great regionalist painting, "Mountain Picnic," a 1936 oil by Louise Ronnebeck. According to Wisnia, the painting, which shows a large picnic in the foothills, includes not just True's portrait, but portraits of many artists on the Denver scene at the time, including Ronnebeck's husband, Arnold, who was also a major player in the local art world. Colorado Collections provides a rare opportunity to see the work of both Ronnebecks.

A stylistic variant of regionalism that could be called "cubo-regionalism" also found proponents in Colorado in the '30s and '40s. In it, views of the American scenery are rendered in a reductivist and geometric way, something true regionalists would never have done. There are many examples of the approach here, including several marvelous Charles Bunnells and a major painting by Hugh Weller called "Evergreens" that has hung in the Western History Department from time to time.

Given the arcane nature of the material involved and the obscure art-world position of the Vida Ellison, I'm amazed at how much positive word of mouth Colorado Collections II has engendered. But the recommendation to see it is a smart one: It's a beautiful and captivating show.

Regional modern and contemporary art is the focus of Taos Art Today, at the Foothills Art Center in Golden. The show, which was organized by Foothills director Carol Dickinson, is presented in four distinct parts, each with its own title.

Taos Art Today begins with Earl Stroh: Paintings. Modernist Stroh was born in New York in 1924 and went to New Mexico in the 1940s, first as a student at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and soon after as a resident in the Taos art colony. Taos was a center for modern art in the 1940s, and as a young graduate, Stroh studied with Andrew Dasburg, one of its most prominent modernists.

Viewing these pieces also brings to mind Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, two other Taos artists whose work is related to Stroh's. Dasburg, Bisttram and Jonson were all transcendentalists, and among the styles each worked in was a geometric abstraction based on the landscape -- not unlike the Colorado cubo-regionalism seen in Colorado Collections II.

A good example is Stroh's fabulous "Sky of Seas," an undated oil. In this almost entirely abstract canvas, clouds have been reduced to rectangles of icy greens, frigid blues and chilly lavenders. It's stunning.

A few of the Strohs are abstract-expressionist. Two of them, "Ariel" and "Paradigm," are from Foothills' own collection. In both, Stroh has covered the surface in thick, all-over painterly patterns; he apparently loaded his brush with more than one shade at a time so that different colors could be applied in different places with one brushstroke. His tremendous hand-eye coordination allowed him to carefully control this hard-to-maneuver method.

Stroh, who is 78, is still working. He's been interested in printmaking in recent years and has executed work at Albuquerque's world-renowned Tamarind Institute. Director Dickinson is particularly proud of the Stroh exhibit and was delighted that the artist was able to attend the opening in Golden last month.

Taos and nearby Santa Fe have a longstanding cultural connection. In a sense, the towns represent two sides of the same coin, and that's how Dickinson has handled the matter in the second part of this show. Victor Goler: Santos Carvings looks at an artist who actually lives in Santa Fe but whose work is on permanent display in Taos, at the respected Harwood Museum.

Goler is a santero, meaning that he makes santos, religious statuary of carved and painted wood. His work looks like real Spanish baroque, and his statues could just as easily have been made in the seventeenth century as in the 21st.

The young artist, who studied for a time in Denver, comes by his old-fashioned interests honestly: His family has been involved in the conservation of the antique santos of New Mexico for years, and Goler himself runs a conservation-and-restoration shop in Santa Fe.

The third portion of Taos Art Today is titled Northern New Mexico Prints. This part was organized by Jennifer Lynch, a printmaker at the University of New Mexico's Taos campus. Lynch cast a wide net and doesn't grind any particular stylistic ax here, although there is a lot of abstraction. Among the many worthwhile items on display is the perfectly done "Bebek II," by Garo Antreasian. On a black ground, Antreasian has placed arching and intersecting lines in ever-changing pale shades. Also very nice are the predominantly orange color-field abstractions by Lisa Burge.

There are some prints in the show, such as Joel Greene's "Arroyo," that subtlely recall those hard-edged transcendentalists from Taos's history, especially Dasburg.

The final section of Taos Art Today is Moving Mountains, which pairs two closely associated neo-expressionist painters from Taos, Alyce Frank and Barbara Zaring. For more than 25 years, friends Frank and Zaring have been painting the same subjects side by side. Here the slightly differing works hang next to one another.

Frank and Zaring not only acknowledge their relationship, but they herald it. In one instance, each completed half of a piece called "Moving Mountains Diptych."

The four-part Taos Art Today has a lot to offer, making it worth the drive to Golden, even if only to see those Earl Strohs.

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