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Sangre de Cristo Arts Center highlights strengths, weaknesses

click to enlarge Bruce Hilvitzs Storm Troopers
  • Bruce Hilvitzs Storm Troopers

If you haven't bothered to make the 30-minute drive down to Pueblo in the past two years, then you've been missing the emergence of the most exciting modern and contemporary art gallery and museum in southern Colorado.

With a budget that would turn most museums into hot dog stands, the SDC keeps churning out world-class shows. Shows like Steel City, Experiments in Fashion, Text and Story, and the recent I-25 Revisited and Magic Realism have shown that creativity and willingness to take risks trumps money, even at the institutional level.

The latest show in the string of pearls is, perhaps, the best yet. Though it has no overarching title, printmaking is the focus in each of the galleries. Alongside the gargantuan collection of Taos printmaker Gene Kloss that was recently donated by John Armstrong are the works of Montana printmaker John Buck, Colorado Springs' own Jean Gumpper and native Puebloan Bruce Hilvitz.

One thing that makes this exhibition so compelling is that it inadvertently reveals both the incredible strengths and the touching weaknesses of each of the artists.

Take Kloss, for example. The three shows of her work -- A Centennial Tribute in the White Gallery on the third floor, The Early Years in the King Gallery on the second floor and Gene Kloss Drawings in the second floor foyer -- are truly eye-bulging. Not only is she a master of light and shadow, but also her lines are so creamy and stylized you'll ... swoon.

From Kloss' wispy renderings of cypress trees during her early years in California to the pillowy pueblos and blinding cloud linings of Taos, she is able to make the graphic look natural -- to bring out shapes and figures that almost breathe from a distance and then nearly fall apart into hatch marks as you study them more closely.

Then there are the drawings and paintings. Kloss can draw, no doubt. Her prints are evidence, and her drawings (on the second floor, mostly of figures) are those of an expert. But the paintings (mostly of landscapes) are almost comically awful. Inept as a colorist, and lazy with the brush, Kloss' genius is entirely lost in translation from print to paint. Far from detracting from the show, however, it illuminates her as an artist and demonstrates how inextricable talent and medium often can be.

Same goes for Buck. The Montana artist is one of the greatest living printmakers. His monumental, wood-carved prints are dazzling for their graphic colors and subdued narrative details that haunt the backgrounds with elaborate political, spiritual and environmental commentary. You can't help but want to fall into the radiant geo-political microcosms of his prints as you pass by the Hoag Gallery on the main floor.

And then there are his sculptures. Originally carved in wood and then cast in bronze, Buck's sculptures are competent and dull. Mostly headless human figures topped with geometric shapes, the monochromatic sculptures serve mostly to make Buck's prints look even better.

Gumpper's prints grace the fractious layout of the Regional Gallery (main lobby). Quite unlike Kloss, Gumpper is a master colorist. The red-and-peach-colored autumn maple leaves against a blue-gray background in her "Descant" feel holy, impossible and elegiac, as do many of Gumpper's woodcuts in the show -- the work of someone who cares so much about the world that she wants to dress it up.

click to enlarge John Bucks The Coal Mine
  • John Bucks The Coal Mine

But then there are Gumpper's monoprints. Inking up natural ephemera (leaves, plants, etc.), running them through the press and adding butterflies and what have you, these dalliances look abysmally trite next to the hard-won glory of her woodcuts. But the lesser pieces really do give you that crystal-clear sense that, as William Blake said, "If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise," which isn't to say one shouldn't dabble.

Finally, one of the real treats of this exhibition is the serigraphy of native Puebloan Bruce Hilvitz. After living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than two decades with legendary adult comix artists like R. Crumb, Charles Burns and Gary Panter, Hilvitz recently returned home and has made his prints available to the SDC.

Hilvitz's prints -- both of his own work and others' -- are first rate; pure pop satisfaction. Like the artist Joe Brainard, Hilvitz uses the cartoon character Nancy as an avatar for deceptively facile cultural and personal commentaries. In "Storm Troopers," Nancy looks on as a line of clones marches angrily across the print and blurts an all-too-apropos "HOLY CRAP!!"

If Hilvitz's work is flawed, it's that he doesn't seem to take his own prints as seriously as he does the work of others, and some of his newer pieces have a "poster" look that feels too cheap. But some printers are just like that, and don't spend much time on their own material.

-- Noel Black

capsule

Fall Exhibitions 2003

Sangre de Cristo Arts Center 210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo (Just off of Interstate 25, Exit 98B)

Opening reception: Thurs., Sept. 18 from 5 to 8 p.m. Tues. Sat. from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Call 719/295-7200

www.sdc-arts.org

  • Sangre de Cristo Arts Center highlights strengths, weaknesses

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