If you want to see some truly incredible contemporary political artwork that pulls no punches and still manages to dazzle on all aesthetic and technical levels, well, you'll have to travel Pueblo ... again. The Sangre de Cristo Arts Center just can't seem to stop putting on world-class exhibitions in the town once considered the armpit of Colorado.
Somewhat generically titled What We Keep, What We Throw Away, the show includes a surprising array of consistently heavy-hitting works by over 10 artists including Bill Amundson, Jon Rietfors, Luis Jimnez, Shelley Niro, Carrie Olson, Daniel Salazar, Randall Sinner and Sarah McKenzie.
Because most museums book traveling shows and curate their own exhibitions years in advance, it's rare to get a truly contemporary, politically relevant show, and rarer still that almost all of the work therein would be so cohesive and first-rate.
Take Amundson's drawings in the Hoag Gallery. Titled Confessions of a Suburban Regionalist, this show alone would make the drive to Pueblo worth it. Working in pencil and colored pencil, Amundson draws what he considers to be the "true" landscapes of the American West -- a desolate and spiritually empty landscape littered with billboards, fast-food restaurants, suburban tract housing, motor homes and big-box shopping centers. Unlike many artists who approach social commentary and satire with apocalyptic foreboding, Amundson's whimsical, children's-book-like illustrations are often deceptively cheerful on first glance. Closer inspection reveals the gleefully sinister world that Amundson sees: Wal-Marts flying out over the landscape like the UFOs in the Independence Day movie poster; billboards above suburban homes bearing the haggard faces of their occupants and announcing their woes: "The Bitch Left Me and Took the Kids."
In the Regional Gallery in the main foyer, Rietfors' politicized conceptual photography goes far beyond the medium to repackage the way we think about war and environmental destruction. In the most prominent piece, "Legacy," for example, Rietfors filled a frame with cut-up pieces of a B-52 bomber c-print that he pasted onto matchbooks that bear the visages of all 43 presidents. In almost all of Rietfors' work, the dubious relationship between global consumer culture and the machinery of war is scathingly illustrated without the old bonk-you-over-the-head pedantry that makes most political artwork so frustratingly obvious.
Up in the second-floor foyer, former Littleton, Colo., resident Mckenzie's "Aerial Views" takes a lush, formal look at the problematic landscapes of development. Close in palette and style to Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn, McKenzie's broad-stroked aerial takes on the patterns and shapes that development creates in the land reveal both the inadvertent formal beauty and malignant horror of America's relationship with its topography. "I describe myself as a landscape painter with a particular interest in issues of land use and development," says McKenzie -- who now lives in Cleveland, Ohio -- in her artist statement. "Although painted from aerial photographs of real subdivisions, these new aerials are ultimately about non-places." Like Amundson's work, McKenzie's work is so compelling because it reveals the contemporary landscape in its far-from-ideal aesthetic and political complexity.
Also on the second floor in the King Gallery you'll find yet another grouping of intelligent, engaging conceptual work.
Artist and death penalty opponent Sinner's nooses, appliqud from the flags of the 38 states that still mandate capital punishment, hang in the back corner. Sinner does his "performance embroidery" on the steps of each state's capitol where he tears the flags into strips and sews them onto ropes that he then ties into symbolic nooses.
Niro's large pastels parody conventional representations of Native American women. Olson's futuristic, porcelain scalp implants for bald men address the relationship between our fetishization of cosmetic surgery and the not-improbable ways we may continue to think of our bodies as decorative objects. Finally, Salazar's photographic redress of Latin American machismo takes pop images of manly men and feminizes them by, for example, inserting a box of Tide detergent into the hands of Emiliano Zapata in "El Mandilon."
And we haven't even made it to the third floor yet where the Borderlands exhibit surveys some 50 other Mexican and Southwestern artists (including the ubiquitous Jimnez) as they take aim at issues as wide ranging as immigration, gender and race in Latin American culture.
Not since the heyday of the Fine Arts in the 1930s and 1940s has one southern Colorado institution made itself so continually relevant to contemporary visual arts. While not all of the artists included in this show are from Colorado, the vast majority calls the Rocky Mountains and the general vicinity home. Curators, artists and aficionados throughout the region should be proud that such an intellectually and aesthetically gifted gathering of our region's artists has been assembled in Pueblo. With a dozen world-class artists under one roof, who needs New York?
What We Keep, What We Throw Away:
Sangre de Criso Arts Center 210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo
Show runs through mid-April, with some exhibits running longer.
Tuesday Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
$4; 719/ 295-7200 www.sdc-arts.org