Metropolitan State College of Denver was founded in 1965, with the goal of providing higher education for students who had previously not had much of a chance to seek out a college degree, particularly minorities and low-income individuals. The concept appears to have worked, because the school continues to have both a higher minority enrollment and lower tuition than many institutions of higher learning in the state. But a lot has changed over the decades. The multi-part Auraria campus was built out, starting in the 1970s, and the institution has morphed from a college into a university; it has been called Metropolitan State University of Denver since 2012, reflecting the fact that graduate programs are now offered as part of the curriculum.
Interestingly enough, Metro has almost always had a focus on the fine arts. The remarkable founding, in 1990, of the Center for Visual Art, essentially a small off-campus, museum-like venue run by the art department, is strong evidence of that. Given its description, you wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that the CVA is a place where faculty and students exhibit their works. It is — but that’s just a small part of what goes on there. The CVA’s normal stock-in-trade is exhibits whose appeal stretches way beyond the department and into the community.
This year marks Metro’s fiftieth anniversary and the CVA’s 25th. To honor those milestones, an outdoor festival with food, drink and music will be held on Friday, July 17, from 4 to 8 p.m. in the CVA parking lot.
The current show at the CVA, Vault: MSU Denver Alumni Exhibition, is also a celebration of sorts, as it features the work of former Metro students, many of whom went on to become well-known figures in the Denver art scene. It’s been five years since the last alumni show at the CVA, so it’s about time to revisit what former students have been up to. After all, the quality of their work is the standard by which the department’s value is most easily measured.
The task of putting together Vault was enormous, as there have been thousands of fine-art graduates over the decades. This made it impossible to represent everyone who qualified by virtue of their Metro degrees, even if the CVA comprises more than half a dozen exhibition spaces. So the decision was made to organize Vault as a juried show. The jurors, Leila Armstrong and Matt Chasansky, are alumni themselves, both currently working in the arts. They winnowed down the more than 100 artists who entered to just over forty finalists. The resulting selections are a hodgepodge of different mediums and styles, which, while typical of a juried show, made the installation — ably taken on by CVA curator Cecily Cullen — a very big chore.
Vault starts off strong, with a selection of high-quality works that elegantly fill the window galleries up front, which are separated from the rest of the center’s galleries by the information desk. Anchoring the space is a small floor sculpture, Shawn Taylor’s “When I Die (Teleport Me to the Nike Store),” a pleasingly awkward cluster of disparate shapes that include facsimiles of a boulder and an antique table alongside found materials like a blue plastic bag. A lot of artists are attempting this kind of anti-formalist work, but few do it as beautifully as Taylor, who recently moved from Denver to New York.
On the surrounding walls are equally compelling pieces. There is a bas-relief made of thermoplastic tubing in a gorgeous ice green by well-established installation artist Virginia Folkestad. Adjacent to that is a very Manuel Neri-like female nude by Jason Lee Gimbel in oil on canvas. At the opposite end of the space is a spectacular abstract diptych by Daniel House Kelly that comprises collage, drawing and painting. Two signature collages by Mario Zoots provide the perfect contemplative counterpoint to the madness of the Kelly. Although there are many other worthwhile works included in the show, no other space at the CVA resonates as well as this first section does.
Back along the broad corridor, the first piece a viewer encounters is Phil Bender’s wall relief “Potato Mashers,” a grid of found kitchen utensils arranged in five rows of eight utensils each. Bender, of course, is a founder and the longtime director of the Pirate artist co-op, which was originally a spinoff of Metro’s art department when it was founded in 1980 by a bunch of recent graduates.
In the first gallery to the left is a marvelous wall construction by Mark Friday that incorporates found wooden elements, their original finishes providing a ready-made palette. Nearby is an oddball porcelain sculpture by Patrice Washington made of three conjoined white blobs, the middle one of which holds a bar of black soap. I have no idea what it’s about, but I liked it anyway. Also enigmatic are Cara Coder’s photographs, in which models push metal rods against their skin.
Farther down the central passageway is a ceiling-mounted installation by Jennifer Ghormley made of thread and handmade cloth that, in spite of its delicacy, has an architectural quality, since it functions as an arch. In the gallery to the left, which has been closed in by heavy curtains, Mickey Boyd’s digital video “Nice Try” is projected onto the wall. It records a Sisyphus-like effort in which Boyd attempts to climb a ladder while carrying a beam and fails to do so, over and over.
In the gallery in the back — the largest of the set of spaces at the CVA — are a number of interesting things, including a densely painted atmospheric abstract by Deidre Adams. Nearby is a quirky and informally composed mixed-media work by Katy Havens that trades on the same kind of anti-formalism as Taylor’s sculpture. On the other side of the room are two of Dave Seiler’s preposterous contraptions, which feature crude animation effects that are produced when a viewer turns a crank to create changing images on either Polaroid photos or movie film.
The final section is in the long gallery that leads back to the front. There are several notable inclusions, such as the artist-book-as-parody by Heather Doyle-Maier. She has scribbled on brown-paper packing pillows, embroidered them and, finally, bound them in a simple cardboard cover. There’s a plainness to this piece, the exact opposite of the more-is-more approach taken by Skyler McGee in her “Splitting Hares” diptych, in which she creates a crowded arrangement of color splashes, shapes and found imagery in encaustic with embedded composted silk and actual horse hair. The description sounds a little gross, but visually it’s very lyrical. Not far away is an abstract by Susan Helbig that’s both linear, in that there are straight lines across it, and atmospheric, because of the way the paint has been applied in daubs. Though it doesn’t look it, it’s actually a realistic copy of the surface of the tabletop on which she paints.
Given the constraints of my column, I’ve only been able to call your attention to the work of fewer than half of the Metro alumni artists who are part of Vault, which gives you some idea of how much more there is to see.
Through July 25 at the MSU Denver Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-296-5207, msudenver.edu/cva.