Consider the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center -- right in the middle of downtown Pueblo, half a block from the Interstate, with plenty of parking, and a comfortable, user-friendly layout. It is, in short, the very model of what a small-city arts center ought to be, at least structurally and architecturally. But just as a lousy painter can spend a fortune on paints and canvases, and still make lousy art, an art museum is only as good as its exhibitions.
Thanks to the formidable Maggie Divelbiss, the center's longtime director, and curator Jina Pierce, the Sangre consistently mounts absolutely first-rate shows. Moreover, they do it with fewer resources than most comparable institutions -- no budget for big-time traveling shows, no thriving local arts community, no deep-pocketed donors ready to write six-figure checks.
The Sangre's Spring 2005 exhibitions, collectively titled Southern Colorado's Beautiful Mind, opening tomorrow, are as interesting and inventive as we've come to expect. The works on display span 350 years, from Rembrandt van Rijn (you've heard of him) to Tony "The Bricklayer" Perniciaro (you haven't heard of him).
First up, Dr. Ron Moreschini's comprehensive collection of Rembrandt's etchings, on display in the King Gallery. Included are some of the iconic images, such as "Christ Preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print)," "Ephraim Bonus, Jewish Physician," and "Portrait of Jan Six." Of the 50-odd prints on display, none were actually pulled by Rembrandt. They're re-strikes, so called because, after Rembrandt's death, his plates survived and were subsequently used to create additional images. Over time, the copper plates degrade, and the image quality deteriorates; moreover, printing from such plates requires great skill and sensitivity.
That said, many of the Moreschini images are indistinguishable from those that Rembrandt made. Spend time with these prints; Rembrandt has rarely been equaled, and never surpassed. Look at the "Portrait of Jan Six" and note the subtle gradations of tone, the way that light seems to burst through a window and barely illuminate Six's darkened study. Or just look at the faces of his subjects; dead for three and a half centuries, yet as alive and familiar as your brother, your sister, your parent.
In the 1960s, Colorado was a haven for at least half-a-dozen artist communes, as visionaries of all kinds sought to create new ways of living, new ways of seeing and new ways of making art. Of those communities, one remains: Libre, founded in the Wet Mountains in 1968. Dean Fleming, whose splashy, radiant paintings are featured in the Hoag Gallery, was one of the founding members of Libre. As he says: "I have lived and painted on the side of Greenhorn Mountain since 1968 when I helped create a community of artists willing to forego the splendors of glory and riches to live in paradise. Thirty-six years later we are still here and we still see it as paradise."
Fleming's paintings have but a single subject: the wild forested land where he has lived for a third of a century. They're big, joyous and exploding with color and light. A single painting is delightful; taken together, they're a lifelong mediation on the spirit of the wild, as deep and satisfying as a great piece of classical music; Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, perhaps?
The late Orlin Helgoe's work is featured in the Regional Gallery. Helgoe, who lived and worked in Pueblo, thought of himself as a shaman, one who had absorbed the spirit of earth and sky, and took strength from the prairie. His paintings are dark and powerful, the work of one who sought all of his life to pierce the veil between the seen and the unseen. His "Death of a Two-Point Buck," one of a series of paintings he made after shooting a deer for the first and last time, is Helgoe at his best. On a white ground, the silhouette of the buck's head hovers at the edge of vision, while a swirling, cloudy explosion of color erupts from the center of the painting -- reds, blacks and blues. Helgoe committed suicide in 1982, at 51, the sad ending to a troubled and difficult life. His work can be incomplete and incoherent, simply because he aimed so high. But when he succeeds ... well, you be the judge.
Tony "The Bricklayer" Perniciaro is sui generis, one of those artists who, since their work is unclassifiable, are called "outsider" artists. Beginning in the '70s, Perniciaro, a self-taught Sicilian-American then in his late 60s, began to create art. Using large sheets of paper, he made cartoonlike drawings, crude and direct, often explosively political. And to say he was prolific is an understatement. His son, Yago, who's trying to sort out his father's legacy, estimates that there are 20,000 such drawings, piled in chest-high heaps throughout Tony's modest Pueblo home.
Each drawing is captioned, usually with a hard-edged, old-fashioned liberal polemic -- think Michael Moore on steroids. One drawing shows, puzzlingly, soldiers handing pieces of paper to dead and dying Native Americans; but the caption explains everything: "After the Ludlow Massacre, the owners of the mine (Rockefellers) later CF & I, printed pamphlets on home improvements."
In the White Gallery, Pueblo photographer John Suhay finally gets the show that he deserves. A few months ago, we featured Suhay's work in an Indy cover story, so it's gratifying to see his work exhibited so beautifully. For over 40 years, Suhay has roamed the streets of Pueblo, armed with his camera and his incomparable eye. He's taken tens of thousands of photographs, an archive that will forever define Pueblo and southern Colorado. And what an archive it is! Now 81, largely self-taught, Suhay is just as active as ever, still making pictures. It was Henri Cartier-Bresson who coined the phrase "The Decisive Moment" -- the photograph that defines and illuminates its subject and life itself. That's Suhay's gift.
In our previous article, we talked at length about specific Suhay works -- the State Fair series, "Girl Fight," "Fireman Gets a Drink," and many others (visit www.csindy.com/csindy/ 2004-09-23/cover.html). They're all here, along with dozens of others, masterfully printed and skillfully exhibited.
Also on display, through May 8, are Cañon City "outsider" artist Jesus (Jessie) Montes' Ridges and Grooves, and mixed media artist Ivy Carter's A Beautiful Mind series of collages.
-- John Hazlehurst
Southern Colorado's Beautiful Mind
Opening reception, Friday, Feb. 11, 5-8 p.m. in the Helen T. White Galleries
Featuring Candid Miscellaneous: The Photographic Treasures of John Suhay, through May 14
Rembrandt: The Moreschini Collection, through April 23
Tony "The Bricklayer" Perniciaro, through May 8
Orlin Helgoe: Prairie Wander, through May 8
Dean Fleming: Recent Paintings, through April 30
Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, 210 N. Santa Fe, Pueblo
Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Adults $4, children $3
Call 719/295-7200 for more information.