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Gallery Glide 

Three exhibits at the Fine Arts Center

Art museums are like icebergs; about 90 percent invisible.

Typically, museums accumulate artworks a lot faster than they enlarge their gallery spaces, which means that most of their holdings rest unseen in secured storage spaces, accessible only to staff and a handful of scholars.

The Fine Arts Center is no exception to this rule, and that's why it's always worth checking the place out whenever there's a show drawn from the FAC's own collections.

On a recent rainy afternoon, I spent a pleasant hour virtually alone in the Museum's spacious galleries (memo to Colorado Springs: we may not be a world-class city, but we do have a world-class art museum, albeit a small one) looking at wonderful things that the curatorial staff had dragged up from the basement.

A few weeks ago, the national media were all a-twitter about a painting offered for sale on eBay. According to the seller, he'd picked up this huge, splashy abstract oil at a yard sale in Berkeley years ago for a few dollars. His wife hated it, he'd left it in the garage for years, so he decided to post it on eBay -- no reserve, first bid 25 cents. No signature, just initialed and dated: R.D. '53.

Could it be by Bay Area titan Richard Diebenkorn? A lot of bargain hunters apparently thought so, and bid up the painting, sight unseen, to $135,000.

Predictably enough, it was a scam, and after the New York Times publicized it, eBay annulled the auction and saved the high bidder, some poor dope in Holland, from throwing away 100 Gs-plus. On the other hand, you can't blame him too much for taking such a risk, since a real Diebenkorn of that era would bring a million bucks or more.

And if you'd like to have a look at the real thing, there's one on display at the FAC right now: the big, splashy, and utterly magnificent "Urbana #4," not signed, but initialed, as you might expect: R.D. '53. Given to the Fine Arts Center in 1977 by Julianne Kemper, it's one of a handful of real masterpieces in the FAC's collection -- go see it before it returns to the basement!

Laura Gilpin, who was born in Colorado Springs and lived here for many years, was arguably the greatest photographer of the American Southwest. Her images of Mesa Verde, of Chichen Itza, and of Taos are iconic, as are her depictions of the western landscape. Four of her finest photographs are currently on display, including what may be her single best work, "The Rio Grande Yields its Surplus to the Sea." I had only seen it in reproduction (in Gilpin's 1949 book The Rio Grande: River of Destiny), and was astonished by the subtle tonalities of Gilpin's print. Its companions include an image from Mesa Verde, a shot of the Garden of the Gods, and a mistitled view looking down Kiowa from the Deaf and Blind School.

Laura Gilpin was an environmentalist before there was even such a word; indeed, her book concludes with an impassioned plea to heal and preserve the great river, already sadly diminished by dams and irrigation diversions. Fifty years later, the Rio Grande, far from being healed, scarcely exists as a free-flowing river.

Patrocinio Barela (1900-1964), whose sculptures are currently on display at the FAC, lived in Taos most of his life. A deeply religious man without formal education, he carved blocks of native pine and cedar into modern santos and bultos. While profoundly influenced by his 19th century predecessors, Barela's work, with its simplicity, clarity and power, is absolutely unique.

Consider his diptych of "The Crucifixion" and "The Last Supper." Each carved in deep relief from a single block of pine, they're simple, austerely beautiful and deeply felt. Perfectly composed, the serene figure of Christ is at the still center of each carving. The carving is precise, yet monumental; you're reminded of the statues on Easter Island, or the Mayan friezes at Tulum.

Even Barela's secular images have the same immanent quality, a willingness to look clearly at the deepest mysteries of life. "Una Madre con Su Nino Muerto," a mother holding her dead infant in the crook of her arm, is a radiant and terrible image. By scarcely carving the infant's features, while carefully finishing those of the mother, Barela shows life both ending and continuing.

In an adjoining gallery, Four Artists, Four Objects, Ten Years opens Friday, June 23. Only separated by a few yards, this exhibition and Barela's could not be more unlike.

Janet Fish, Sondra Freckleton, Nancy Hagin, and Harriet Shorr are members, as it were, of the national artists' Mafia. Three of them got their MFAs from Yale in the '60s, and the fourth attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Armed with those credentials (roughly equivalent, artwise, to Harvard MBAs), not to mention their own prodigious talents, they became Famous Artists.

It's not easy to become a famous artist, and it's even harder to remain one. (Heard anything about Julian Schnabel lately?) That's why you always need a new angle, a new excuse to get your stuff out to the galleries and museums.

In 1986, Fish & Co. conceived the idea of painting related still lifes. Each of them contributed an object, and each of them created a work incorporating all four objects. I guess that particular little scam was well-received, because they repeated it ten years later with four different objects, and now they've gathered all of the paintings together, and voila: instant exhibition! There's even a lavishly illustrated catalogue, complete with a page or two of incomprehensible artspeak.

So what do we have here? A bunch of very handsome, extraordinarily pleasing, technically splendid paintings that are curiously empty and emotionless. You can imagine them on the walls of McMansions in Cedar Heights, or in the sleek anterooms of corporate America. They're perfectly likeable, completely inoffensive, and would be pleasant companions in any home. They're as warmly distant as your favorite anchorperson; Katie Couric as a still life in acrylics.

Eerily, the four artists' styles are so similar that it's hard to tell their works apart. They're so delighted by their own technical mastery that each piece takes on bravura proportions: watch me paint the light flowing through this glass vase! Look at the calla lilies reflected in the antique mirror! Watch me play with perspective and make Cezanne look like nothing!

It's a lot of fun to watch, beautifully orchestrated, and superbly staged.

And it bears the same relationship to serious art as VH 1's Divas concert bears to serious music. p

Art museums are like icebergs; about 90 percent invisible.

Typically, museums accumulate artworks a lot faster than they enlarge their gallery spaces, which means that most of their holdings rest unseen in secured storage spaces, accessible only to staff and a handful of scholars.

The Fine Arts Center is no exception to this rule, and that's why it's always worth checking the place out whenever there's a show drawn from the FAC's own collections.

On a recent rainy afternoon, I spent a pleasant hour virtually alone in the Museum's spacious galleries (memo to Colorado Springs: we may not be a world-class city, but we do have a world-class art museum, albeit a small one) looking at wonderful things that the curatorial staff had dragged up from the basement.

A few weeks ago, the national media were all a-twitter about a painting offered for sale on eBay. According to the seller, he'd picked up this huge, splashy abstract oil at a yard sale in Berkeley years ago for a few dollars. His wife hated it, he'd left it in the garage for years, so he decided to post it on eBay -- no reserve, first bid 25 cents. No signature, just initialed and dated: R.D. '53.

Could it be by Bay Area titan Richard Diebenkorn? A lot of bargain hunters apparently thought so, and bid up the painting, sight unseen, to $135,000.

Predictably enough, it was a scam, and after the New York Times publicized it, eBay annulled the auction and saved the high bidder, some poor dope in Holland, from throwing away 100 Gs-plus. On the other hand, you can't blame him too much for taking such a risk, since a real Diebenkorn of that era would bring a million bucks or more.

And if you'd like to have a look at the real thing, there's one on display at the FAC right now: the big, splashy, and utterly magnificent "Urbana #4," not signed, but initialed, as you might expect: R.D. '53. Given to the Fine Arts Center in 1977 by Julianne Kemper, it's one of a handful of real masterpieces in the FAC's collection -- go see it before it returns to the basement!

Laura Gilpin, who was born in Colorado Springs and lived here for many years, was arguably the greatest photographer of the American Southwest. Her images of Mesa Verde, of Chichen Itza, and of Taos are iconic, as are her depictions of the western landscape. Four of her finest photographs are currently on display, including what may be her single best work, "The Rio Grande Yields its Surplus to the Sea." I had only seen it in reproduction (in Gilpin's 1949 book The Rio Grande: River of Destiny), and was astonished by the subtle tonalities of Gilpin's print. Its companions include an image from Mesa Verde, a shot of the Garden of the Gods, and a mistitled view looking down Kiowa from the Deaf and Blind School.

Laura Gilpin was an environmentalist before there was even such a word; indeed, her book concludes with an impassioned plea to heal and preserve the great river, already sadly diminished by dams and irrigation diversions. Fifty years later, the Rio Grande, far from being healed, scarcely exists as a free-flowing river.

Patrocinio Barela (1900-1964), whose sculptures are currently on display at the FAC, lived in Taos most of his life. A deeply religious man without formal education, he carved blocks of native pine and cedar into modern santos and bultos. While profoundly influenced by his 19th century predecessors, Barela's work, with its simplicity, clarity and power, is absolutely unique.

Consider his diptych of "The Crucifixion" and "The Last Supper." Each carved in deep relief from a single block of pine, they're simple, austerely beautiful and deeply felt. Perfectly composed, the serene figure of Christ is at the still center of each carving. The carving is precise, yet monumental; you're reminded of the statues on Easter Island, or the Mayan friezes at Tulum.

Even Barela's secular images have the same immanent quality, a willingness to look clearly at the deepest mysteries of life. "Una Madre con Su Nino Muerto," a mother holding her dead infant in the crook of her arm, is a radiant and terrible image. By scarcely carving the infant's features, while carefully finishing those of the mother, Barela shows life both ending and continuing.

In an adjoining gallery, Four Artists, Four Objects, Ten Years opens Friday, June 23. Only separated by a few yards, this exhibition and Barela's could not be more unlike.

Janet Fish, Sondra Freckleton, Nancy Hagin, and Harriet Shorr are members, as it were, of the national artists' Mafia. Three of them got their MFAs from Yale in the '60s, and the fourth attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Armed with those credentials (roughly equivalent, artwise, to Harvard MBAs), not to mention their own prodigious talents, they became Famous Artists.

It's not easy to become a famous artist, and it's even harder to remain one. (Heard anything about Julian Schnabel lately?) That's why you always need a new angle, a new excuse to get your stuff out to the galleries and museums.

In 1986, Fish & Co. conceived the idea of painting related still lifes. Each of them contributed an object, and each of them created a work incorporating all four objects. I guess that particular little scam was well-received, because they repeated it ten years later with four different objects, and now they've gathered all of the paintings together, and voila: instant exhibition! There's even a lavishly illustrated catalogue, complete with a page or two of incomprehensible artspeak.

So what do we have here? A bunch of very handsome, extraordinarily pleasing, technically splendid paintings that are curiously empty and emotionless. You can imagine them on the walls of McMansions in Cedar Heights, or in the sleek anterooms of corporate America. They're perfectly likeable, completely inoffensive, and would be pleasant companions in any home. They're as warmly distant as your favorite anchorperson; Katie Couric as a still life in acrylics.

Eerily, the four artists' styles are so similar that it's hard to tell their works apart. They're so delighted by their own technical mastery that each piece takes on bravura proportions: watch me paint the light flowing through this glass vase! Look at the calla lilies reflected in the antique mirror! Watch me play with perspective and make Cezanne look like nothing!

It's a lot of fun to watch, beautifully orchestrated, and superbly staged.

And it bears the same relationship to serious art as VH 1's Divas concert bears to serious music.

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