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.
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."

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