When the well-known and highly regarded Cydney Payton took the helm of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art last year, the art world held its breadth and waited for the unveiling of one of her signature shows. The wait ended with 5 Abstract, a look at five of the state's most significant abstract artists: Al Wynne, Bev Rosen, Bob Mangold, Clark Richert and Dale Chisman. It was the latest in a series of exhibits exploring the history of Colorado's modern and contemporary art that Payton has done since long before she was hired by the MCA. And she promises it won't be the last. Each artist in this exhibit has his or her own strong style, which is not necessary compatible with the others. But Payton gave all five separate space -- a tough job in the cramped quarters of the MCA. Sorry you missed it? Don't be. Responding to popular demand, the MCA has extended it through May.
The smart-looking Clark Richert: Recent Paintings, at Rule Gallery on Broadway, showcased a small but significant group of the latest geometric pieces by Clark Richert, a former hippie and current art guru. Richert first came to fame in this area in the 1960s, when he designed and helped start Drop City, an art commune just outside of Trinidad in southern Colorado. And though decades

have gone by, Drop City is still on his mind. A number of paintings based on some of the buildings he designed there -- riffs on Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes -- were featured at Rule. It was Richert's recent work, which indicated a new and innovative shift for the artist, that was the truly captivating part of this show, however. Instead of being dense and complicated, like many of his earlier pieces, those displayed here are quite spare. It looks like Richert has dropped back in. Kudos to the artist and gallery owner Robin Rule for giving Denver the best solo-artist exhibit of the season.

The three well-known artists in Martha Daniels, Amy Metier, Betty Woodman represent three distinct generations of Colorado artists, even if the show's title listed them out of order. Woodman is the elder stateswoman, having lived in Boulder from the 1950s until a few years ago, when she retired to New York. Daniels came next, having moved to Colorado in the 1960s when she began exhibiting her work. Metier would be last, since she came along about a decade later. But the disparate work of these three artists fit together perfectly -- not because they're all women, though that's not irrelevant -- because all are master colorists. This compatibility, so hard to achieve in a group show, is a big reason this exhibit was one of the year's finest.
Combining materials traditionally associated with sculpture, including steel and wood, with some untraditional ones, in particular a Texas Instruments Speak & Spell, upstart artist Zach Smith was the subject of the magical Internal Automata this past winter. The wonder-filled show marked Smith's formal introduction to Denver's art world. It makes sense that this new kid on the block would make his appearance at Cordell Taylor since the gallery is also new to the scene, having opened in August. Gallery director Ivar Zeile took a risk by scheduling an untried talent in the winter, high season in the art world. But the gambit paid off, and both newcomers can be proud of their accomplishment.
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.

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