Visiting the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo is, for any Springs resident, both delightful and disturbing. Delightful because the Sangre, a combination arts center/conference center/ children's museum is wonderful in every way. It's welcoming, inventive, original, architecturally marvelous and tightly linked to a proud and supportive community. Disturbing because it's in Pueblo, not Colorado Springs.
Consider this summer's lineup of shows at the Sangre, created and assembled by Visual Arts Curator Jina Pierce, whom the Sangre snatched away from the Tri-Lakes area a couple of years ago.
First up, I-25, a survey of artists working along the I-25 corridor from Cheyenne to Albuquerque. It's a diverse, absorbing show whose participants were chosen by 10 guest curators, themselves directors/curators of regional contemporary art museums. There's a lot to look at and a lot to like. Do not miss:
The Springs' own Marianne Flenniken's mixed-media fabric construction. I guess you could call it a quilt, but few quilts are shot through with gleaming metal wire. It's friendly and glistening, strange and beautiful.
Karen Kitchel's "Seasonal Parking Lot Weeds," a dozen 12-by-12-inch meticulously rendered oil paintings of common weeds. So presented, they seem as rare and precious as rain forest orchids. It's lovely work that pays subtle homage to the obsessive world of botanical illustration.
Rich Ives' "Tattoo Art" -- inventively posed large-scale photographs of three extraordinary tattoos executed by Pueblo's Ives, one of America's premier tattoo artists. You may think that you have, or your girlfriend or your buddy has some pretty cool tats; if so, you'd better not go to this show. You've never seen anything like this work, or even imagined it possible.
Patrick Nagatani's four meticulously assembled, toned gelatin silver prints showing archeological excavations in an imagined future. At first glance, they're perfectly straightforward photographs, maybe from the '20s or '30s, of Southwestern sites. Then you look at what the unseen scientists have just unearthed. Here's one title: "BMW, Chetro Ketl Kiva, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, U.S.A. 1997-2001."
Carrie Olson's "Menschenbau pour Homme'." Arrayed on a glass-topped table for all the world, like a display counter at a super-snooty boutique, are eccentrically shaped, compellingly attractive porcelain and glass objects. They are, according to the artist, chin and esophageal implants for men. Is it craft? Art? A witty commentary on the intersection of fashion, wealth and consumer culture?
Don Stinson's "Ideal Road." Stinson combines technical mastery with the ability to re-imagine the hackneyed Western landscape (Transparent atmosphere! Rolling plains! Distant mountains!). Take a good long look, and let Stinson's brilliance erase the visual memory of every schlocky landscape you've ever looked at.
And make sure you look at: Dawn Wilde's "Fall Out," Do Palma's "A Death on the Prairie: Remembering Matthew Shepard," and Florence Miller Pierce's "Untitled #548, Royal Blue."
Thirty years ago, the then-nascent Sangre de Cristo hosted an exhibition of works by the self-titled I-25 Alliance, a group of artists who lived and worked along the Front Range. To accompany the I-25 show, Jina Pierce sought out every artist who had contributed to the 1973 show and asked him or her to contribute a recent piece. The result: I-25 Artist Alliance Revisited.
Pierce could only locate a third of the original participants. Some had died, many had left the area and others had stopped making art. And some, happily for us, stayed in the region, worked steadily, and have graced our lives with their art for a generation.
The names are familiar: Bill Burgess, Michael Cellan, Lin Fife, Don Green, Richard Jagoda, Robert Mangold, John Mendoza, Floyd Tunson, Ken Williams, and Al and Lou Wynne. They were so much younger then; they're older than that now. But they're not exactly senior citizens; looking at their work, let's call 'em Old and Bold.
Start with Ken Williams' "Vase," a still and powerful earthenware piece, masterfully carved, perfectly formed. Then take a look at Lin Fife's "Song Cycles I-IV," four mixed-media triptychs that rank among her best work. Don Green, Bill Burgess and Robert Mangold are all represented by typically excellent sculptures, as is Linda Fleming. In sum: It's a lovely show, a 30-year reunion that's well worth attending.
Three years ago, Andrea Modica, a nationally known photographer who now resides in Manitou Springs, spent a year photographing skulls that had been disinterred from unmarked graves discovered on the grounds of the Colorado State Mental Hospital in Pueblo. Human Being, 26 extraordinary photographs now on display on the third floor of the Sangre de Cristo, is the result of her labor.
Each of the 16-by-18-inch platinum/palladium prints was created in available light with an 8-by-10 view camera. Each depicts a different skull.
This is not, as you might imagine, an easy show to look at. Yet this is art of the highest level, ambitious and difficult, serious and compassionate. Modica's work -- respectful, austere and restrained -- has a cumulative power that one rarely encounters in any medium. This is not merely good art; this is great art. And in 20 years of reviewing/looking at contemporary regional art, I can't recall using the word "great."
And finally, a question: How did the Sangre de Cristo become such a wonderful art museum? Right now, it's hosting three important exhibitions of regional contemporary art (not to mention three other shows that we don't have the space to review in this issue!). That'd be an impressive performance for the Denver Art Museum, let alone for a small institution with a limited budget.
The answer's simple. You start with a supportive board, deeply rooted in and committed to their community. You add substantial support from local governments and Pueblo citizens. And you hire a director, Maggie Divelbiss, whose commitment to Pueblo and to the Sangre spans a lifetime, not a few years on a career track. With such a solid base, you can take some risks, and empower your young curator to create edgy, interesting shows.
So Maggie, thanks! Thanks for creating such a place, thanks for hiring Jina and thanks for putting on such great shows. And one small request ... could we borrow both of you and make another one just like it in Colorado Springs?