This summer at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, you'll have your choice among a rich, even bewildering, variety of exhibitions. There are contemporary Colorado and American ceramicists, there are wood sculptors, and there are weavers -- all linked together as fine artists using traditional craft media.
Thanks to the indefatigable Jina Pierce, the Sangre's fine arts curator, we've come to expect that any contemporary art show at the Sangre will be not just good, but superb. Over the last couple of years, Pueblo's feisty little arts center has hosted exhibitions that have been better than anything in the Rocky Mountain region -- better than Santa Fe, better than Colorado Springs, better than Denver.
The current exhibitions are more than adequate; indeed, if we were measuring them by any other standards than by those established by past shows, we'd say they were extraordinarily good. And that they are, but they're not amazing/spectacular/epochal/if-you-miss-this-you'll-regret-it-all-of-your-life shows.
That said, there's some remarkably good stuff on display. Ambling from gallery to gallery on a bright, sunshiny morning early this week, I found a lot to like.
Re:Invented, which features contemporary American ceramics, consists of works by three-dozen ceramic artists, a third of whom live in Colorado. Like contemporary weavers, many ceramicists, having mastered their craft, fall into a kind of boastful virtuosity, creating pieces that may be technical tours de force, but they have a certain emptiness as works of art. Susan Beiner's "Teapot," a clay construction that appears to be made of stainless steel nuts and bolts welded together, falls into that category, even though it's witty, fun and eminently likeable.
By contrast, Martha Daniels' large-scale ceramic vases, "Palmatorias," succeed both technically and artistically. According to the artist, these vases were inspired by 19th-century Latin American altar ornaments, called ramilletes. They were "a sort of large-scale religious jewelry, sometimes made of gold, silver, and gems. ... They were lasting ornaments for the altar rather than fleeting ones of fresh flowers." In Daniels' sure hands, these altar ornaments metamorphose into exuberantly tacky, vividly colored, fancifully formed, thoroughly magical urns.
Across the room, Martha Russo has created an almost indescribable moveable feast of a ceramic sculpture. Imagine first a thousand or so glazed ceramic tubes -- not exactly tubes, but serpentine forms, turning, twisting, narrowing, widening.
What have you got? The head of Medusa? The intestines of a whale? A strange new life form, just discovered in a sea-bottom canyon off the Mindanao Deep? It's unlike anything you've ever seen or imagined, a benign and fascinating dream creature. Titled "Nomos Cube II," it's one of the three best pieces on exhibit -- so let's look at the other two.
Re:Joined, an exhibition of works by three contemporary weavers, brings together works by Klaus Anselm, Marianne Cardinal, and James Koehler. Anselm and Cardinal are accomplished, even masterful, weavers, but Koehler! Let's just say that no sensible artist, in any medium, should let his or her work be shown near Koehler's; he's too good.
Sit down on a conveniently sited bench, and look at Koehler's two medium-sized weavings, "Harmonic Oscillations." They're as simple in form and color as, say, a fine Saltillo blanket. They have a deeply meditative quality, a spiritual dimension that few works of art possess. That's not surprising. Koehler, a Benedictine monk, has been weaving since 1977. Here's what he says about his art.
"I continue to be influenced by the extraordinary landscapes and the unique cultures of New Mexico and by certain aspects of the monastic aesthetic -- simplicity, purity, seeking and portraying only what is essential. ... At first glance, my tapestries are a regular, ordered composition of geometric forms, but on a deeper level the discerning viewer discovers the vital movement of color which brings the forms to life."
Re:Built features five regional wood sculptors, all of whom have created fine work for the show. What's not to like, for example, about Sean O'Meallie's cheerful constructions? But the star of the show is clearly Chris Romer's installation, "The Charmers," which consists of dozens of variously sized and shaped wooden forms randomly attached to a gallery wall. Derived, according to Romer, from wooden fish decoys, "The Charmers" has a certain lazy sensuality, an erotic sense of memory awakened. Is it a flock of summer insects, a collection of antique sex aids, or ... you decide.
In sum: uneven, fascinating, a few great pieces, and lots of good ones. More than worth the trip down I-25!
-- John Hazlehurst
Sangre de Cristo Art Center
210 N. Santa Fe Ave., Pueblo, 719/295-7200. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., $3-$4, free to members.
re:Nowned: featuring Mel and Bernice Strawn, May 8 through Aug. 14.
re:Invented: featuring contemporary American ceramics, May 29-Aug. 28.
re:Built: featuring Norman Epp, Joe Kronwitter, Sean O'Meallie, Christopher Romer and Ron Sterkel, through Aug. 14.
re:Joined: featuring Klaus Anselm, Marianne Cardinal and James Koehler, through Aug. 21.