The many un aspects of Colorado 2004

click to enlarge Nike and Medusa by Louis Recchia
  • Nike and Medusa by Louis Recchia

The art world's been floundering around for the past couple of years. The events of 9/11 made many of its self-satisfied paradigms seem trite and irrelevant. But while the collapse of the Twin Towers signaled the unceremonious and definitive end to the 20th century the disturbing geopolitical quagmire that followed is something that everyone -- from politicians to artists -- is still trying to sort out.

With these thoughts in mind, I made my way through the sparse Colorado 2004: A Juried Exhibition of Contemporary Art biennial at the Fine Arts Center (which opened last Friday) in hopes of seeing something that looks beyond regionalism and the pre-9/11 relics of the 20th century.

Conceptual art and the foment of irony and disillusion it left trailing gaily in its wake during the late '90s once seemed the only intelligent artistic reaction to the feeling of ineffectuality created by an empire of global capitalism. Now, heady art games and exercises in cynicism seem prematurely dated. Lord knows we wouldn't want everyone to throw up their hands and start painting glorious portraits of George W. or indulge in the condescending and didactic practice of politically fraught symbol manipulation and propaganda either.

If any trend has made itself apparent in the art world in the past couple of years (as perusal of any variety of Art Forum or Art News magazines of the past year will make clear), it's that photography appears to be the medium shouldering the need for an aesthetics of reality as the world continues to shake its head in disbelief.

Not surprisingly, photography is represented in the Colorado 2004 show in spades. Of the 57 works guest curator Arthur Roger (of the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans) selected for the show, 25 were photographs.

Colorado Springs photographer Carol Dass' life-size, free-standing image of an overweight nude woman in a crying baby mask and garter belt (adorned at its ends with a fork and knife) as she pines for a Hostess Snowball, feels dated in a 1970s feminist way. But given the prevalence of obesity and diabetes in America, the piece is no less shockingly relevant or illustrative in its naked address.

click to enlarge Twelve Quiet Things by Sean OMeallie
  • Twelve Quiet Things by Sean OMeallie

Likewise, Denver photographer Barry Brown's portraits of people with AIDS don't feel new. But the compassion in his portraits feels refreshingly genuine, unforced, lovely and sad.

Rian Kerrane's installation of pinhole photographs of domestic objects trimmed with lace and made into flowers that protrude from a movable gallery wall and tremble as two fans blow across them has a tenderness of intent and composition -- a manic and deliberate caring quality. Not stunning, but nice.

Another nice photograph is "Masks" by S. Brian Berkun. With little more than a rack full of monster masks on a street somewhere in Latin America, the possibilities go well beyond the graphic simplicity of the composition.

Many of the other photographs on exhibit are either amateurish, derivative or just don't belong. Tony Umile's "Accessorize!" and "Fresh Produce" look seventh grade. Robert Stanton's "Stairway into Night" could pass for 10th, as could Tracy Goodale's too-kitsch-to-be-true "Denver Skyline."

The other standout works in this show are almost all understated. Sean O'Meallie's "Twelve Quiet Things" is just that -- 12 wondrously mysterious, handcrafted wooden objects done up in a polychrome patina that makes them look almost ceramic. Then there is Jean Gumpper's "Beneath" and the characteristically jaw-dropping subtlety of her nature prints. Rob Watt's tiny embroideries of things like the cover of Hollywood Confidential are magnificent.

Mary Connelly's miniature "Cairo Interior" takes the prize for understatement among the paintings in the show. How such broad brush strokes on such a small canvas can manage to capture the warm euphoria of a sunny room is baffling.

Not surprisingly, another mostly inconspicuous work, C. A. Freeman's "Sept. 11," was my overwhelming favorite: a little hand-woven Indian basket in red, white and blue with two raised, semicircular openings at the top to represent the World Trade Center towers. On one of the towers is a stick figure, and on the other, a stick plane. Inside the basket there are two woven bracelets with initials on them. It's hard to say if this piece is a personal memorial, but it's probably the first piece of 9/11 art that has moved me. Unsentimental, yet completely touching, this little basket manages to get at a little bit of the emotional complexity of the event.

click to enlarge Accessorize! by Tony Umile
  • Accessorize! by Tony Umile

It's understandable that the Fine Arts Center wanted to invite an outsider like Roger to bring a fresh perspective, but a biennial such as this would feel more convincing if it were the work of a group of well-informed Colorado curators who'd shaped a show far more comprehensive and representative of the breadth of statewide talent. Where is Floyd Tunson? Bill Cummins? Andrea Modica? Not that a biennial has to be any one given thing, but the show is skimpy.

It was nice to find that understated quietness may be the most emotionally important vein running through work being made right now -- that "the new" may have finally fallen from its modernist pedestal. But understated doesn't necessarily have to mean underwhelming.


Colorado 2004: A Juried Exhibition of Contemporary Art

Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.

Through April 11, 2004

Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Call 634-5583 www.csfineartscenter.org


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