Curator Gerry Riggs is well known for his ability to bring world-class art shows -- print shows in particular -- to the Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS on a beans-and-rice budget.
But the paucity of available grants and university funding cuts at the state level over the past several years have threatened to tighten the GCA's belt into a noose. True to form, Riggs weathered the funding drought with remarkable fiscal and curatorial creativity: He brought in fewer national shows, bulked up on the exhibits of local artists, started charging for drinks at openings and cut away the red tape involved in selling the art.
Having adjusted to leaner financial times, Riggs' acquisition of the show Open Press: A 15-Year Retrospective marks a definitive return to what the GCA does best: bring international-caliber artworks by a wide variety of artists to light in the largest gallery space in Colorado Springs devoted to contemporary art in all media. Not since the spectacular Shark's Ink show almost three years ago has such a blockbuster print show filled the walls of the GCA. With well over 200 works crammed into the cavernous space, the show is an excellent survey of the work that's been done at Open Press Limited -- a working print studio in Denver founded by Mark Lunning in 1989.
"Denver didn't have a facility and I figured, why not?" said the unassuming Lunning, who studied drawing and art history and the University of Northern Colorado before opening his first studio in what is now known as Denver's LoDo district.
Specializing in intaglio and monotype printing, the studio started off as something of a co-op at first. But as demand grew for an independent print studio where artists could use the equipment and/or the services of a master printer, Lunning's vision began to take shape. Now, after several moves, Lunning has settled into a 3,000-square-foot studio and gallery space on South Broadway, where he's been for the past nine years.
"I make art and I help artists make art," said Lunning, who somewhat jokingly calls his own work "20th-century synthesism" because he draws on so many of the different "isms" of the past 100 years to shape his own work. "I learn stuff from artists passing through and they learn stuff from me."
Of the hundreds of artists Lunning has worked with over the past 15 years, he selected 30 with whom he has worked most closely to be in the retrospective.
"I could've put in 100 or more artists in this show," said Lunning. But, he added, "Everyone in this show -- they're active working artists, most of them professionals."
Lunning said he thinks the 30 featured artists represent something of an undefined Denver aesthetic. "I don't think we look West Coast and I don't think we look East Coast."
Perhaps one of the best representatives of this Denver aesthetic is the masterful Dale Chisman. Chisman has a number of fine prints in the show, but the most spectacular is his abstract monotype "After Image 8," a signature piece with a graphic field of gray on which tensions between violent reds and serene blues evoke the pre-cartoon abstracts of Philip Guston. What makes Chisman's abstracts, and this piece in particular, so compelling is that they defy the long-standing clichs of the genre and reclaim its emotive powers with expert composition that ricochets between order and outbursts of spontaneous color without giving into rigidity or sloppiness.
Also immediately striking is the work of Audra Knutson's large linocut prints. Using the iconography and stylistic traditions of cultures from Mexico to Japan, Knutson creates a strikingly graphic surrealism that addresses global environmental horrors without clobbering you over the head. In "Attacks Were Ritualized," crows pick at a skeleton in a bloody, fallow field in front of a church. In "Catatalque," an oblivious family in a boat floats on the back of a rhinoceros whose legs have been worn to bone as it walks over a human skull and bears the load of an octopus and owl as well. The power of the images lies in their ability to draw you in with expectations of their traditional styles and then spook you with the truth told in their allegories.
Homare Ikeda's almost cellular monotypes are also surprisingly revelatory when you examine them up close. Beatriz Maria Pestana's frantically detailed etchings bring both Paul Klee and Edward Gorey to mind.
There are, no doubt, a number of forgettable duds in the show that don't even merit a mention, but it's to be expected in a show this large and doesn't detract from the overall power of the exhibition and speaks to the generous spirit of Open Press.
Viviane Le Courtois -- who has on display in the show both a wonderful book of etchings that commemorate her many whimsical installations and a series of prints made from letting mushrooms rot onto zinc plates -- said simply that Open Press is "a great place to work for people who don't have a press." And this show, on display at the Gallery of Contemporary Art through Oct. 1, is a great place for people who aren't familiar either with the gallery or with this treasure of a print enclave in Denver.
Open Press: A 15-Year Retrospective
Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway
Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday, 1 - 4 p.m. through Oct. 1
Free; Call 262-3567.
For information about Open Press contact: Mark Lunning 40 W. Bayaud Ave. Denver, CO 80223 303/778-1116