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Alisa Zahller had just been hired as the assistant curator of fine and decorative art at the Colorado History Museum when she was handed the job of organizing the season's major exhibit. The result was Quiltspeak: Stories in Stitches, an intelligent, engaging and beautiful show that examined the history and sociology of quilt-making in Colorado. Ably designed by David Newell, the show included quilts from the late nineteenth century to the early 21st. One quilt, from the 1880s, was made of scraps of cloth on which famous figures had signed their names; another was put together from silk patches (originally World War I tobacco premiums) decorated with flags of the nations of the world. And there were dozens of contemporary quilts, sporting both traditional and new techniques and styles. The show was the first one Zahller had ever organized, anywhere, and it revealed her talent as a curator.
Although Chain Reaction highlighted six installations by Boulder artist Gail Wagner, all six came together as a single, seamless work. Wagner's specialty is forms made of crocheted rope that is dyed, painted and accented by tiny, sewn-on charms. Her preferred shape is a circular appendage that sometimes looks like a worm, sometimes like a tentacle, and sometimes like some unknown microscopic life form. Nevertheless, rather than being disgustingly visceral, the pieces were enchantingly visual.
Only the stout of heart and the sharp of eye have the courage to historically evaluate the material culture of our own time. But that's exactly what R. Craig Miller, the Denver Art Museum's curator of architecture, design and graphics, has done with US Design 1975-2000. Still open, the exhibit includes photos and models of buildings, chairs and teapots, posters and Web sites. Miller lays out his elaborate story in four chapters, beginning with postmodernism and ending with a revived modernism -- with retro and expressionism sandwiched in between. Some of the most important old master figures of the period, such as Michael Graves and Robert Venturi, are examined in depth, as are some emerging international design stars -- notably, Karim Rashid. Miller's done such a good job that the show, which is accompanied by a groundbreaking catalogue, has attracted the attention of the international design press, and that puts the DAM's architecture, design and graphics department on the map.
Maybe it was the change in the millennium that put everyone in a retrospective mood, but for whatever reason, history has gotten a lot more popular lately. Cable TV and popular magazines are jammed with it. Colorado's art world has not been left out, with a number of historical exhibits having been presented over the past few years. Colorado Landscapes and the New Age of Discovery was an intelligent and ambitious show of this type. It was organized by guest curator Doug Erion, who also wrote the informative, if idiosyncratic, catalogue. A neophyte when it comes to curatorial practice, Erion is a noted landscape painter and a serious art collector, so he did have a handle on the material. The exhibit consisted entirely of landscape photos and paintings, but they were a varied bunch, running from traditional views to early-modernist ones. The artists ranged from those who just passed through the state to those who call Colorado home. It was a great scene.
Simon Zalkind, director of the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, has long been known for his high-quality exhibitions. The most recent case in point is Revolutions: Generations of Russian Jewish Avant-Garde Artists, which is still on display. It's a knockout that examines modern and contemporary art by Russian Jewish artists. To produce it, Zalkind teamed up with Mina Litinsky, director of the Sloane Gallery, a nationally known venue for contemporary Russian art and the oldest gallery in LoDo. Together they came up with a show rich in visuals and ideas that included a who's who of vanguard artists from the early Soviet era, plus a number of postmodern political artists from post-Soviet times. Some of the big names include El Lissitzky, Sonia Delaunay and Marc Chagall, as well as Komar and Melamid, who were given their own gallery at the Mizel, in which a rejected public-art commission for Denver's new Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse is laid out. Politics and art don't always go together well, but in this pithy show, they made excellent bedfellows.
The Gates Family Foundation, in celebration of the millennium, commissioned Barbara Grygutis of Tucson to create "Common Ground," a mammoth sculpture, for the recently completed Commons Park. Northeast of the intersection of Little Raven and 15th streets, the park is close to where Denver's first settlers established their camp. The sculpture, completed last fall, is a serpentine stone wall that snakes through the park. Made of Castle Rock rhyolite laid by craftsmen from Brighton's Rock & Company, the piece is meant to suggest a bend in the river, while the path that runs alongside it evokes the trails of the Indians and the pioneers. In some places, the sculpture's contours reflect the mountains to the west; in others, the linear profile of the city. Since the park is only a few years old, it has little in the way of trees, flowers or grass. Unquestionably, the coolest thing about it is "Common Ground."
For most of its history, the Denver Art Museum paid little attention to the art of the American West, so vital to our region. But if the museum turned up its nose at Western painting and sculpture, private collectors did not. Among the top rank of these collectors are Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, the couple that started the Jolly Rancher candy company and were thus able to find the money needed to gather thousands of works. The loot ranges from paintings and sculptures to an entire stagecoach. For years, the Harmsens shopped their collection around to institutions in order to find a permanent home for it, and there were even plans a couple of years ago to build a Harmsen Museum in Lakewood, but that never happened. Then, in a surprise move last summer, the DAM announced that the Harmsens were giving their collection to the museum. The huge gift led to a change in programming at the DAM, which will now give additional weight to regional art -- and not just old cowboy and Indian paintings, but modern and contemporary art as well. To the DAM, we say: "Welcome home."
Last year, the powers that be in Englewood took stock of their town, and they didn't like what they saw. Possibly for the first time, the complete lack of cultural amenities seemed to matter -- so city leaders began casting about for something they could do to change the situation. At the same time, the Museum of Outdoor Arts, facing a substantial rent increase at its Greenwood Village facility, was looking for a new home. It was a match made in heaven. Englewood gave the museum free rent for twenty years in spacious offices on the second floor of its civic building -- a rehabbed department store that also houses the library and the municipal courts -- along with use of the many public spaces in and around Englewood's CityCenter, the development that is replacing the old Cinderella City shopping center. The new project has a long way to go, but the MOA's collection will surely help.
Denver's Museo de las Américas is one of the only institutions anywhere that focuses on the art of the Southwestern United States, along with that of Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean, and it programs it all from within the modest facilities on Santa Fe Drive. But Museo director Jose Aguayo has always been a big dreamer. Ten years ago, he brought the Museo from dream to reality, and now he'd like to do the same with a dramatic and architecturally significant planned addition and alteration of the currently non-distinct building. The design -- cooked up by RoTo Architects of Los Angeles, a nationally renowned firm headed up by famous architect Michael Rotondi -- completely reconfigures the space, adding studios and a row of artists' lofts. The most exciting feature will be an elaborate facade reminiscent of the fabulous Mayan Theatre's -- a logical choice, since both are meant to recall the architecture of the ancient Mayans.

Best Rediscovery of a Nearly Forgotten Colorado Artist

Edgar Britton

It's common wisdom that once an artist dies, his or her work should soar in value, but more often, the artist fades from the collective memory. That's what happened to Edgar Britton, who in the 1950s, '60s and '70s was Colorado's most famous sculptor. But last year, nearly twenty years after his death, in 1982, Britton was back in the center ring. Not only was he the subject of a pair of simultaneous shows at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center and the Coburn Gallery on the Colorado College campus, but his life and work were the subject of a cogent if unusual monograph written by CC professor Jane Hilberry. The unconventional nature of the Hilberry book is fully revealed by its somewhat outlandish title, The Erotic Art of Edgar Britton. It was good to see one of the best artists in the state finally being given his due.

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