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Artists boldly search for Homer at UCCS show

click to enlarge Mary Helsaples watercolor piece Spring Has Sprung is - one of over a hundred artist works at the UCCS show.
  • Mary Helsaples watercolor piece Spring Has Sprung is one of over a hundred artist works at the UCCS show.

If the show that opens tomorrow at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art is any guide, an "international watermedia" show consists of 113 works by 111 artists, 110 of whom hail from the U.S., with one from Canada.

Watermedia is simply watercolor -- but these aren't exactly your Aunt Sally's watercolors, painfully earnest and blotchy, faintly resembling the subject at hand. ("See, the red is the Garden of the Gods, and the big white thing behind it, that's Pikes Peak!")

It takes a certain boldness to become a serious artist in watermedia. Look at the 19th-century masters -- Homer, Sargent and Moran, for example. Can anyone even approach their fluidity, their mastery of the medium, their clarity of line?

For a lot of the artists whose work is on display at UCCS's International Watermedia XIV, the answer, surprisingly, is yes. Technically, many of them match or surpass the big names.

Joel Johnson's "San Xavier," an enormous (3-foot by 5-foot) rendition of a Spanish mission church, deals with horrendously difficult problems of perspective, of light and shade, and of abrupt color transitions with almost contemptuous ease. And it's not just a technical tour de force; it's a balanced, rhythmic piece, one that would be a joy to look at for years to come. It's one of the best pieces in the show; alas, at $10,000, it's also the priciest.

Local participants contributed no fewer than 30 pieces to the show. Betty Ross has a fine, splashy abstract titled "Put That in Your Pipe #2." I hadn't seen any of her large-scale watermedia pieces before, and this 26- by 40-inch is particularly fine -- bright, light-filled, radiant. Ross, who's been one of our best regional artists for several decades, seems to get better every year as her work deepens.

Don Van Horn's cityscapes always are a pleasure to see. For this show, he's shifted his attention from Chicago to New York's Madison Avenue. It's an almost photorealistic view of that famous street, looking south from uptown, somewhere around 82nd Street (at a guess). Don has succeeded in capturing New York's swirling, kinetic energy, tying everything together -- cars, people, buildings, reflections, shimmering asphalt, the smoky and misty downtown air -- in a big, honkin' piece.

Kudos for Mary Helsaple, who broke the show's bounds. There are 112 pieces of flat art in the show, chastely framed, matted and glassed. And then there's Helsaple's piece, a delicate, strange little sculpture, completed and heightened with watercolor. It's an unexpected delight, and yet another reminder that she is a very good artist indeed.

This show is the Gallery of Contemporary Art's third collaboration with the Pikes Peak Watercolor Society. It's good to see such a traditional show in a venue that usually focuses on less accessible work. After all, "contemporary" simply means "of our own time." The show's a crowd-pleaser. If you can't find something to like here, you'd best go feed kittens to your rottweiler.

Just one note: Although many of these artists are technically superb, they're also trapped by their own virtuosity. There's something careful and airless about much of the work, something overly planned and controlled. They need to let themselves go, take risks and, well, look carefully at Sargent, Homer and Moran.

-- John Hazlehurst

capsule

International Watermedia XIV

UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art

Opening reception: Friday, Aug. 19, 5-8 p.m.; show runs through Oct. 14.

Open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 1-4 p.m.

Call 262-3567 for more information.

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