Diversity Rules

It's been anything goes in the art world since the 1980s, and the upside of that scattershot approach to culture is that there's something for everyone in the local galleries. The current spring shows range from sophisticated contemporary expressions to solid traditional offerings--and nearly everything in between. At the cutting-edge side of the equation is the faculty exhibit at lower downtown's Metropolitan State College of Denver Center for the Visual Arts. On the conservative end are Rita Derjue's watercolors at Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Art in Cherry Creek. Somewhere in between, stylistically if not geographically, are Joyce Coco's representational paintings at the Brigitte Schluger Gallery, also in Cherry Creek, and Philip Tsiaras's New York imports at the Inkfish Gallery on South Broadway.

The faculty show at Metro is much better than the average group offering. Most of the time, this kind of unfocused show winds up being nothing more than a confusing hodgepodge. But Metro's art department includes many fine contemporary artists whose various efforts work surprisingly well together. Among those worth seeing in this show are beautiful ceramic sculptures by Rodger Lang; sculptures by John McEnroe that show off his ingenious approach to ad-hoc materials; and compelling abstract paintings by Homare Ikeda and Andrew Speer. Nothing, however, takes charge of the show quite the way Andrew Connelly's installation and performance piece "Coextention" does.

"Coextention" occupies the entire center space at Metro. To create it, Connelly has placed an aquarium containing two goldfish at one end of a white vinyl tarp laid on the floor. Balancing the aquarium at the other end of the tarp is a large acrylic box. The tarp has been marked with a large black "X," lined up on which are large red plastic buckets.

Sometimes Connelly himself stands motionless in the acrylic box, outfitted in a custom-made straitjacket. At other times, only the empty straitjacket occupies the box. When Connelly isn't a part of the piece, the industrial character of the aquarium, the tarp and the plastic buckets lends a cool aloofness to "Coextention"--after all, even the living fish are cold-blooded. However, once Connelly enters the box and his duration study begins--he stood without moving for nearly two hours at the opening--"Coextention" takes on a seriously unnerving quality that would have only been made worse had the bald yet hirsute Connelly been allowed to follow through with his plan to carry out his performance in the nude.

Making the viewer uncomfortable is surely the last thing on the mind of Denver watercolorist Rita Derjue, the subject of a small, self-titled exhibit at the Schlosser gallery. Derjue mostly creates intimately scaled paintings of flowers and landscapes that are in every sense traditional. But when she turns to animals, as in "Ranch in South Park, Colorado," she succeeds in putting a contemporary spin on things. Derjue flattens the perspective and employs unconventional colors: Here the cows in the foreground are rendered in Cadillac pink, grape-soda purple and lipstick red.

Schlosser is as much a crowded art apothecary as it is a gallery, and there are several other attractions stuck in and around the Derjue show. Most notable are the small sculptures by Colorado masters Edgar Britton and Elizabeth Yanish, along with several Depression-era paintings and prints by artists associated with the Broadmoor Academy in Colorado Springs. Schlosser is one of only a handful of Denver art dealers who have put a special emphasis on the historic art of the region, and Derjue's old-fashioned landscapes are a logical extension of that theme.

Just down Detroit Street, Brigitte Schluger is presenting another show with ties to traditional representational painting. Joyce Coco, which closes this weekend, focuses on the Denver artist's "House Series," a group of paintings in which she reduces houses to nothing more than walls and roofs. Though the pictorial content is minimal, Coco gets elaborate with the application of the paint, vigorously working large, indistinct areas of color to create deep, luminous shades. Schluger has described Coco's "House Series" as having a dreamlike quality, and the show has been a dream for the gallery. The word is out: This show has been a big commercial success.

Unfortunately, that's not the case with Philip Tsiaras: Horses at Inkfish, where only a few pieces have sold. But though sales have been weak, the show does have its strengths--namely, all those gorgeous, archetypically modern paintings.

The Tsiaras exhibit marks the fifth time since the mid-1980s that gallery director Paul Hughes has presented the work of this New York artist in a solo exhibit. And it's not hard to understand his enthusiasm for the Easterner, a New Hampshire native who began to establish an international reputation in the 1980s with neo-expressionist paintings that featured pointedly awkward compositions and intentionally crude paint applications.

Tsiaras has come a long way from that signature style. In the paintings from the Horses series, some of which were completed as recently as last month, he has replaced his expressionist scrawl with a classically modern approach to his title subjects. His new references are to early modern art, in particular the work of Picasso. As Hughes points out, many of the Tsiaras paintings feature Don Quixote, "and the most famous twentieth-century images of Don Quixote were done by Picasso."

Some of the best works dedicated to the mystical Spanish knight are those in which Tsiaras superimposes metallic-gold grounds over undercoats of various colors. Since Tsiaras is of Greek ancestry, this may reflect the influence of Greek icons, in which a gold panel is placed over a painted one. The diminutive size of these paintings is another indication that they may have been inspired by those religious images.

In "Golden Boys I," a mixed-media-on-canvas gem, Tsiaras has placed a gestural silhouette of Don Quixote in the center and formed a powerful diagonal with his lance. Surrounding the central silhouette are oversized horses' heads drawn in black with blue, red and white highlights that peek through the glittering gold ground. The surface of the painting has also been enlivened with a thick layer of impasto of gesso that Tsiaras apparently applied before he put on the paint. It looks a bit like rough-finished plaster--or, perhaps more appropriately, the icing on the cake.

For "Don Quixote + Friends," one of the larger paintings in the show, Tsiaras has painted black outlines of horse heads and distributed them across the canvas, then painted over and around them with a metallic gold highlighted in red. The Quixote figure, suggested by a vague cruciform, sits astride the suggestion of a horse.

In addition to the metallic paintings, the Inkfish show features Tsiaras watercolors, the finest of which is "John Doe Quixote," a work on handmade paper that places the horse and rider in profile in the center, set off by large areas of brown and blue. Tsiaras also shows a number of essentially black-and-white works that are even more self-consciously Picassoid. In "Lancer," another painting that takes up the myth of Quixote, he has scribbled a figure on horseback in heavy black paint. The diagonal of the lance divides the background into areas of warm gray and creamy white, a device seen again in "Circus," which Tsiaras has split into sienna on the top and light gray on the bottom. In both of these paintings, the figures on horseback have been reduced to a few heavy lines. But Tsiaras's interest in horses and riders is anything but nebulous; next year the artist plans to publish a fifteen-year retrospective of his equine works. The working title: "Horse Boy."

The Metro, Derjue, Coco and Tsiaras shows lay out among them the vast ground that contemporary art has staked out in the last few decades. Unlike in previous years, there is room today for disturbing installations, sweet landscapes, dreamy cityscapes and modernist revivals sitting side by side. And that's fine as far as it goes. But there's also an obvious downside to all of this visual variety: It represents the lack of any real focus in the contemporary art world--not just in Denver, but everywhere.

Metro State College Faculty Exhibition, through April 23 at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

Rita Derjue, through April 26 at Elizabeth Schlosser Fine Art, 311 Detroit Street, 321-4786.

Joyce Coco, through April 19 at Brigitte Schluger Gallery, 265 Detroit Street, 329-3150.

Philip Tsiaras: Horses, through April 30 at Inkfish Gallery, 116 South Broadway, 715-9528.