Back to the Future 

Contemporary art shows make a dazzling comeback in the summer of 2000

Ten years ago, if our benighted little burg saw two good contemporary art shows in a year, it was worth celebrating. Now, we've got two opening within a week, and more to come over the summer, and it all seems perfectly normal.

Normal it's not -- this is, after all, Colorado Springs -- but it's still pretty great, so we might as well let our eyes enjoy the feast set before them.

Let's start at the Business of Art Center, where Pressure, a juried exhibition of contemporary prints from regional artists, will be up until July 9. Out of 187 entries from 66 artists, juror Clinton Cline (printmaking professor at CU Boulder) chose 32 pieces from 25 artists, which are nicely arrayed in the BAC's light-filled gallery.

Fifty years ago, Colorado Springs was a major printmaking center. Many of the country's finest contemporary artists came to the Pikes Peak region, and studied lithography with master printmaker Laurence Barrett. Adolf Dehn worked here, as did Jean Charlot, George Biddle, Fred Shane, Peppino Mangravite, and a score of others. They were, for the most part, professors and teachers as well as artists.

Many of the artists participating in Pressure have followed the same career paths. Jean Gumpper teaches, as does her former Michigan classmate, Mark Sisson. Juror Cline taught at least one artist in the show who became a teacher and taught yet another participant. At least four of the exhibitors learned the technique of solar etching from Gumpper, and there are, according to BAC director Rodney Wood, several other teacher/student relationships among exhibitors.

So although we may no longer be a regional printmaking center as such, it's clear that there's a lot of interaction and cross-fertilization among regional printmakers. And it's also clear, especially to one who has collected regional prints from the '50s for many years, that contemporary printmakers differ in at least one respect from their predecessors -- they're a lot better.

Looking at Mark Sisson's work, I was struck by its inventiveness and freshness, and by the artist's technical mastery. Of Sisson's two pieces, I was drawn to "Goldilocks," a reduction woodcut of a woman, apparently asleep with three bedraggled stuffed bears, also titled "Wealth is Conspicuous, but Poverty Hides." Sisson's use of color is as inventive as his composition, and, as any amateur who has worked in the medium knows, it's difficult to achieve either tonal range or subtle coloration in a woodcut, let alone both.

Tulsa resident Michelle Martin's striking linocut "Soiree," may be one of the best pieces in the show. It seems to be a couple drinking at a bar, seen from the vantage point of one who has just fallen off a barstool. But the couple is scarcely human, and the image, strangely cropped, is disorienting and confusing. Yet the wine glasses on the bar are as carefully and classically composed as a Morandi still life, while the radiant yellow light from the bar's ceiling fixture gives an oddly comforting film noir atmosphere to the work. Like Sisson, Martin is a powerful technician, whose mastery of her medium gives her great creative freedom.

Many of us are familiar with longtime Springs resident Rebecca Yaffe's printed textiles, but we may not know that she's a brilliant printmaker as well, perfectly comfortable in a variety of media. "Bound" is a shimmering delight, a very large multilayered, richly colored, swirling abstract composition, melding the techniques of woodcut and silkscreen, and using dyes, acrylic, and shellac. It's a juicy, tactile piece; too bad it's under glass, too fragile to touch.

Jean Gumpper's "Cross Currents," a large-scale color woodcut, perfectly captures the quiet waters of autumn in Mueller State Park. There are printmakers as good as Gumpper, but none better. (If in Denver, stop by the William Havu Gallery, where a number of her works are on display in a group show that opens Friday.)

In contrast to Gumpper's scaled-up prints, lithographer Wayne Kimball makes small, meticulously executed pieces. At first glance, they look like digitally manipulated photographs, or photocollages, but they're not. Kimball is simply so proficient at his craft that he can achieve effects that his peers from the 1950s couldn't even imagine. I liked his "Reclining Portrait of a Man with Flat Hat," but I won't try to describe it. Take a look, and you'll see why.

And who could fail to like Tenille Woods' lovely creation, "The One that Got Away"? A black and white lithograph, it depicts a great fish rising from a boiling, primordial sea, a primitive sea-dragon right out of a medieval bestiary, about to make a meal of a bearded man (Captain Ahab? Jonah?).

Across town at UCCS, Gerry Riggs has mounted a fine show by the simple expedient of borrowing an exhibition from Bill Havu's Denver gallery and adding a few more artists to the mix. Titled Women and Allegory, the show features seven women artists, all of whom work figuratively, and all of whom have stories to tell.

Take Celeste Rehm, a professor a CU Boulder, whose extraordinary paintings have a single theme -- the intrusion of the modern world into the animal world. It's not a new subject, but Rehm's paintings, striking and powerful, are utterly new. Consider "Big Horn." Three realistically rendered bighorn sheep are silhouetted against a fancifully dense development of pastel houses, balanced by a fragment of pristine landscape. It takes a few seconds for the viewer to realize that the curling horns of the three rams have been artfully transmogrified into yet more tract houses. It's a beautiful, unsettling painting, full of love and anger.

Or look at "Harmony," a strange and calming image of a mule deer buck, posed before a mountain landscape, between whose antlers is a vast spiderweb, with an enormous green spider at its center. Or "Frog Escape," an unsettling image that turns the concept of Noah's Ark upside down. Instead of an ark of refuge, we have a prison of doomed animals, from which a solitary frog has escaped.

According to gallery assistant Abby Durkin, Rehm's work has already triggered a feeding frenzy among local collectors. A week before the show was scheduled to open, six pieces had been sold. But since Rehm's remarkably prolific (she has 21 paintings in the show!), she's presumably capable of meeting the demand.

Boston's Erica Daborn works in a distinctive style that one might decribe as Picasso filtered through Walt Disney filtered through Zap! Comix filtered through South Park. I liked "The Mothers," a big, ambitious take on motherhood, full of domestic images (eggs, bananas, fish, a purple rabbit, birds, a cat), and half a dozen depictions of mothers with children.

Catherine Porter-Brown, whose vividly alive portraiture has graced our community for many years, has two pieces in the show. One of them, "Azazel's Revenge," shows a woman in a dressing gown seated at a table in the interior of an adobe house, apparently not at all surprised by the presence of five diaphanously clothed female spirits floating through the house. The seated woman is rendered simply and realistically; she might be a friend, or someone you've seen at the movies. The spirits are lifelike, but differently so; they're like figures from a dream, or half-remembered images from childhood. They're compelling images; radiantly beautiful, yet austere and distant. It's tempting to try to unravel the puzzle, and find meaning.

Are we looking at life's stages, at death and resurrection, at the promises and perils of life? In the earliest rituals of Yom Kippur, the sins of the community were symbolically transferred to a scapegoat, which was driven into the wilderness and sacrificed to Azazel, a fallen angel, Satan's ally in Paradise Lost. Unlike Daborn or Rehm, Porter-Brown is comfortable with obcure and allusive imagery. In "Twilight Guardians 2000," a featureless plain is speckled with what appear to be ostrich eggs, guarded by watchful greyhounds. Once again, Porter-Brown has created a beautiful painting and lets the viewer decide what to make of it.

Boulder artist Jean Roller's "Boxes" are exercises in compression and reduction. Sometimes building small, elaborate, even architectural structures, and sometimes assembling grittily constructed boxes of found materials, Roller creates complex worlds in a few cubic inches. I liked her classically inspired structure, perhaps a tomb, perhaps a temple, "The Triumph of Hope over Experience." Framed between the Ionian columns of the tiny structure's entrance is a revolving, two-sided portrait, one side a fine miniature copy of Picasso's "Portrait of Gertrude Stein," the other an equally well-painted copy of the head of Botticelli's "Venus." Now, which is Hope, and which Experience?

Another of Roller's boxes, pieced together from weathered fragments of wood, and peopled with a marvelous array of mismatched artifacts (start with a couple of glass eyes and continue), has a title almost as delightful as the work itself: "Neither Financier Seized Either Species of Weird Leisure." No, it's not a palindrome, but Roller plays with words just as inventively and unexpectedly as she plays with materials.

Kristy Soltesz, like Roller, makes small structures, but hers are dark and demon-haunted, like dreams from which you awaken, terrified, at 3 a.m. "Twist on Alice (with Prague influenced Architecture)" is a kind of surreal Victorian dollhouse, dimly illuminated, peopled by half-seen creatures from childhood's scariest book. Soltesz has another piece, a covered stage, or perhaps a ritual gallows, with two unclothed marionettes hanging by their necks. Neither piece is easy to look at, and neither is easy to forget.

Christy Callaham, well-known among area artists, is represented by pieces typical of her loose, sinuous and sensual style. Christy rarely disappoints, but I would have been glad to see one of her large, ambitious pieces such as those on display at the Warehouse a few months ago. Oh well, maybe our avaricious collectors snapped 'em all up after her last show.

So what do we make of all this? Clearly, today's regional artists are not simply better than those of half a century ago -- they are orders of magnitude better. If you compare Jean Gumpper, Celeste Rehm, Mark Sisson or Wayne Kimball to Gustave Baumann, Jean Charlot or Mary Chenoweth, it's not even a fair fight. In every category except current market value, our contemporaries beat out their predecessors. In professional sports, today's athletes are bigger, stronger, and faster; and today's artists are better technicians, are better at composition, and are better at translating what they imagine and see into art.

Why? Ask Agents Scully and Mulder -- probably has something to do with atomic testing, Roswell, and Area 51; or, more likely, with torrents of smart, creative people coming of age in these chaotic and wonderful decades. Maybe the fabulous furry freak brothers just cut their hair, shaved their beards, and got their MFAs.


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