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Wondrous Watercolors 

International juried show raises the bar

Quick, now, if you hear the words Pikes Peak Watercolor Society, what comes to mind? A decorous bunch of Ladies who Lunch, a few retirees, and a student or two, happily creating uninspired little renderings of puppies and geraniums, maybe? You likely wouldn't expect them to sponsor a substantial international water media show, with tough professional jurors who would only accept one out of every ten entries.

And you wouldn't think that they'd join forces with the sometimes edgy, and always interesting Gallery of Contemporary Art at UCCS to present the show, would you? Well, they would, they could and they did, and the result is an altogether pleasant and intermittently exciting show.

Jurors Louise Cadillac and John Hull were confronted with 654 entries, from which they chose 75 works from 60 artists, representing four countries.

Commendably, three local artists made the cut; not bad, when you're competing against the rest of the world.

By and large, it's a conservative show. That's not surprising, when you consider the nature of transparent media, which are, as gallery director Gerry Riggs points out, technically demanding and unforgiving. Artists who are comfortable with the arduous process of gaining mastery over such media tend to be conscious of the past, respectful of tradition and comfortable with representation.

Most of the artists represented, then, are clearly working within established traditions of still lifes, landscapes, portraits, urban scenes, and in a few cases, abstraction.

Difficult as it can be, water media has an immediacy, a spontaneity, and a freshness about it which allows artists to create dazzlingly beautiful work. But that's rare -- even in a show as carefully selected as this one, there are only a few pieces which rise beyond technical mastery to lyrical beauty.

Janice Hansen's "Rangelands Wrapped in Winter" is slight, modest and perfect. The artist doesn't exhibit the kind of bravura skills other exhibitors show, but she has precisely captured the flat, clear light of a cold winter day in the high country.

You'd have to be a world-class grouch not to like Steve Garner's "Trout in the Trees." It's just what the title implies -- a dead-on depiction of speckled trout swimming peacefully through a grove of trees, silhouetted against a starry sky. Airy, ethereal, serene, witty and strangely comforting, it's the kind of image that could be appropriated by a dotcom and used to sell electronic snake oil. In the meantime, it's there for us to enjoy.

Well over a century ago, England's Academy used to hold an annual watercolor competition for its members. These competitions led artists to create what came to be known as exhibition watercolors, very large, technically brilliant pieces that have seldom been equalled, let alone surpassed, in subsequent years.

Two such works can be seen in the show -- Rollin Alm's "Brothers" and James E. Schultz's "Wired." Alm's piece, a shimmering, romantic depiction of a couple of junked cars from the 1930s, is overlaid by a grid of tiny squares, whose colors approach, but don't quite match, the underlying pigment. This gives the painting a strangely modern look, as if it had been digitally altered.

Schultz's painting, like those of Colorado's great Chuck Forsman, shows a cruelly altered western landscape. What was once a pristine valley is cluttered with the detritus of the last hundred years. Transmission towers march past a ramshackle collection of aging trailers, and most of the view downvalley is blocked by a billboard, whose face carries no message, only the peeling remnants of past advertisements. It's a real tour de force, technically flawless and emotionally powerful.

Japanese artist Nao Inoue is represented by a fine and mysterious work "In the Forest: Waiting for a Harbinger." It's a still, spare piece -- silent tree trunks in the snow, reflected in a pond. Yet it's not quite what it seems to be; you have an uneasy sense that you're looking at something that is, beneath its simple surface, of and in a different world. Inoue is traveling all the way from Japan to attend the opening reception on Friday, which should tell you something about the stature that this locally produced show has attained.

Congratulations to the Pikes Peak Watercolor Society and to the UCCS Gallery for this fine exhibition.

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