Andenken Gallery
The inner workings of the art world are hard to explain. Consider last winter's 32/26, at the Andenken Gallery, which paired 32-year-old painter Karen McClanahan with 26-year-old sculptor Jonathan Stiles. Though neither artist had a familiar name, the show somehow generated a tremendous buzz. In fact, the word on the street was out before anyone had even seen the work. Even stranger is that 32/26 lived up to the hype. McClanahan's chaste, neo-minimalist paintings were fabulous -- and although they had nothing in common with Stiles's various types of modernist sculpture, the pairing was inspired nonetheless. During the course of the show, a who's who from Denver's art scene, including curators and gallery directors, came through, and McClanahan and Stiles suddenly found themselves being talked about by everyone. Certainly nothing better could have happened to a couple of former unknowns.
A couple of years ago, Mark Masuoka resigned as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art just as his first major show, Colorado Biennial, was set to open. The exhibit was his view of contemporary art in Colorado, and because he quit, he was never able to follow up there. Luckily, he's been able to do it as the exhibition director of the Carson-Masuoka Gallery, where a number of his productions have come out of Colorado Biennial, most notably FABstraction, which opened in the innocent days of Labor Day weekend. Highlights included atmospheric paintings by Amy Sloan Kirchoff and nature-based ones by Chad Colby, two young painters who recently moved to Denver. And by displaying John McEnroe's conceptual installations, Masuoka pushed the definition of abstraction. The thought-provoking show provided some badly needed beauty in the dark days following September 11.
In John Hull, Ron Judish Fine Arts presented a series of ten riveting paintings that laid out a tension-ridden and sorry tale in a downright cinematic way. The saga begins at a picnic from which an underage girl runs off with a roughneck biker. She's eventually found, but not before a gun is drawn and the police are called. The emotional series is loosely based on a real-life story Hull recalls from his teenage years in small-town Oregon. Because there are so many characters in the paintings, it's hard to follow every detail, but the gist of it is clear enough. The many players lend the parable the power of an epic, and Hull says the series was partly inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses. This literary bent is remarkable, as is the artist's masterful and painterly technique. It's no wonder Hull's work is seen at top galleries around the country.
Wes Hempel: Fictional Accounts was the perfect title for this show, because every picture told some kind of story. But truthfully, it's hard to say what those stories were, despite the fact that all of the paintings were done in a strictly realistic style. Over the years, Hempel has conjured up various surrealist worlds in a number of ways, and this exhibit included some examples of his earlier work, such as his signature floating houses. But for these most recent pieces, he captured a land somewhere over the rainbow, a place where the sky was filled in by the old masters, the rooms were fitted out and arranged by the Ancient Greeks, and a young man who looks like he stepped right out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue is seen sitting on the floor right in the middle. Is Hempel's world the best of all possible ones? Perhaps not, but it was surely worth the visit.
Though abstraction began pushing aside other styles almost a century ago, modern artists have persisted in their desire to capture the human figure. The Human Factor, at Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts, proved the point. Half of it was a traveling exhibit highlighting objects from Nebraska's Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, including paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures by important American artists such as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Louise Bourgeois. The other half, organized by the CVA's then-director, Sally Perisho, was made up of the work of established contemporary Colorado artists like Matt O'Neill, Jeff Starr and Floyd Tunson. Insisting on a local slant was just one of Perisho's great strengths. No one knew it at the time -- not even Perisho -- but the show was her swan song at the venue after a triumphant ten-year run.
Although Skip Kohloff has long been one of the guiding forces behind the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, he has almost never allowed his work to be exhibited there. But when he retired from Cherry Creek High last June after 25 years as the head of the school's photography department, he finally let CPAC give him a richly deserved retrospective. And you know what? Denver got what Kohloff deserved, in the compelling déjà-view: A Retrospective Exhibition: R. Skip Kohloff, which examined the photographer's work from the 1970s to the present. The show included nearly 100 photos demonstrating Kohloff's relentless experimentation with the effect of light on his varied subjects. That may sound trite, but not in Kohloff's hands -- or through his lens.
Since the 1970s, the Foothills Art Center has consistently presented the region's most important annual ceramics exhibit. The most recent version, Colorado Clay 2001, lived up to the tradition. Center director Carol Dickinson called on Wayne Higby, a world-class, New York-based ceramic artist with considerable Colorado connections, to help. Higby grew up in Colorado Springs, studying with artist Mary Chenoweth at the Bemis Art School there and, later, with famous ceramist Betty Woodman at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Higby selected artists, and not artworks, for this exhibit, and in line with this philosophy, those who were chosen were seen in depth. His choices -- though made blind -- were predominantly the work of women artists, including Vicky Hansen, Mary Cay and Martha Russo. This isn't that surprising, though, since women have helped mold the field of ceramics for a long time.
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.

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