Cool summer shows at Ice Cube and Walker Fine Art

I don't need to tell you that Colorado's weather has been a scorcher and that, less metaphorically, parts of the state itself have been scorched, including my sister's neighborhood, Mountain Shadows. Her house was spared, luckily, but this once-handsome area of Colorado Springs will never be the same. The Waldo Canyon fire burned the nearby Flying W Ranch to the ground; a '50s-era dude ranch, it housed many irreplaceable items, including architectural and decorative elements from the long-gone Ute Theater. That fire also threatened the Air Force Academy, a masterpiece of modern design by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The AFA is the state's most significant example of mid-twentieth-century architecture, and Walter Netsch's Chapel is world-renowned. At the end of June, the danger from the approaching flames was so imminent that the campus was actually evacuated.

On that same day, June 26, the Flatirons fire near Boulder caused the evacuation of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a runner-up to the AFA as the most important mid-century-modern architectural complex in Colorado. A masterful brutalist-style work by I. M. Pei, the cast-in-place aggregate structures are perfectly at home in the natural setting — unless, of course, that setting happens to catch fire.

So in just a matter of a few hours, Colorado came within a sixty-mile-an-hour gust or two of losing a big chunk of its world-class built environment.

Back in central Denver, the fear of wildfire is as remote as the western suburbs. Still, the heat has been omnipresent, and the plethora of masonry and paving just makes matters worse — which made Ice Cube Gallery sound like an attractive escape from the 100-plus-degree temperatures. Not only is it located in an old ice factory in RiNo, but the two solos at Ice Cube, Regina V. Benson: Wading In and Jane McMahan: Absence, are also pretty cool.

Both artists are represented by installations; Ice Cube is becoming a local center for that art form. On the right side of the capacious venue is Benson's Wading In, on the left McMahan's Absence.

See more images: Photos: Stay cool at summer shows at Ice Cube, Walker Fine Art

Benson is a fiber artist who lives and works in Golden — and who herself has experienced evacuation, as she revealed in her solo last year, On Fire, in which she used dyed fabric to convey the visual effects of a wildfire. This year she has water on her mind, and her installation, Wading In, is her version of a deep-sea dive. Conceptually, Wading In is a direct aesthetic heir to On Fire, even if the ostensible topic is the exact opposite.

Viewers need to make their way through Wading In, a somewhat serpentine corridor; Benson has suspended panels of synthetic fabric from the ceiling to create a pair of roughly parallel walls. The fabric has been dyed and discharged, resulting in a very cool-looking blue, with the imagery of a walk through the ocean. In places, the piece is accented by schools of jellyfish, which are also suspended from the ceiling; they're made out of white synthetic fabric cut and molded in order to depict the creatures.

An interest in natural imagery is also a key component of McMahan's Absence. McMahan lives in Boulder and has been exhibiting her paintings, drawings and installations for more than a decade. She's hasn't shown much in Denver, however, making this Ice Cube installation a rare chance to see her work here. McMahan labels herself an environmental artist, and Absence backs that claim. On the floor of the gallery, she has arranged metal trays to form a line that runs the length of the space; in the trays, she has planted moss and arranged a few preserved butterflies on top, as though they've alighted on the plants. A cloud-like shape made from twisted lengths of shiny barbed wire hovers above, suspended from the ceiling. The overall shape of the wire tangle mirrors the lineup of moss-filled trays; attached to the wire are many preserved butterflies.

Like the trays, the moss and the barbed wire, McMahan bought the butterflies from a commercial supplier — and that's part of the point. In South America, Africa and elsewhere, butterflies are being farmed like a crop. So in McMahan's piece, as on those farms, butterflies are decidedly not free, and their fate is to wind up as a decoration — or, in this case, as an art material.

As disturbing as it is with its use of dead insects, Absence is definitely beautiful. Then again, the eye-dazzling character of the butterflies is exactly what puts them in danger.

Furthering my quest for a cool experience on a hot afternoon, I headed down to the Golden Triangle, where Walker Fine Art is located. The current show there is Save It for Later, which showcases paintings and other works by Eric Corrigan and sculptures by Mark Castator. In pre-opening publicity, the show was billed as a collaboration between Corrigan and Castator, but as it came together, Save It for Later wound up more of a conventional duet, with each artist's work standing alone. That was definitely better; the oeuvres of the two artists are so distinct that one or both would have had to change his stripes in order to make their pieces work together.

Corrigan is a Denver-based conceptual artist who works with neo-pop and neo-dada ideas. Though he's interested in installation and new media, the work at Walker mostly comprises paintings — that old fine-art standby. Many of the paintings feature photo-transfers of found images, such as newspaper ads and photos. A few concern Corrigan's travels, others the culture at large. That's the case with the diptych "Unlimited Cash," an oil-and-silkscreen on canvas that indicts the art market. Corrigan has replicated a print advertisement in which a company offers to purchase pieces by major artists; in it, he reduces the fine arts to their grossest level: money. Other standouts among the Corrigans include "Blow Yourself" (not what you think) and "Chelsea."

The sculptures and wall-relief pieces by Castator exemplify classic modernism with a minimalist tilt. They look great with the Corrigans — come to think of it, they'd look great anywhere — but it's clear the two artists have nothing in common, despite that fantasy of their thus-far-unrealized collaboration.

Castator, who lives in Boulder, works in metal, and these recent creations are both distinctly different from what he has been doing over the past several years and obviously something of a continuation of the same ideas, particularly those involving soaring vertical shafts that recall spires or stiles. For these works, Castator begins with sheets of metal, either stainless steel or copper, and crinkles them so that they have surfaces reminiscent of rocks — though he's done it so they somehow keep their shiny finishes. In their simplest iterations, Castator displays these smashed sheets just as they are, hanging them on the wall as bas-relief works. In others — the vertical, free-standing pieces — he bends the sheets and then welds them together to form the columnar shapes he's known for. They're really elegant, managing to simultaneously be expressive and aloof.

Cool shows alone aren't enough to beat the heat, of course. But shows as cool as these in air-conditioned galleries like Ice Cube and Walker? Unbeatable.

See more images: Photos: Stay cool at summer shows at Ice Cube, Walker Fine Art