UCCS art gallery director takes a bow

click to enlarge UCCS gallery director/curator Gerry Riggs hangs it up - after 15 years. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • UCCS gallery director/curator Gerry Riggs hangs it up after 15 years.

Gerry Riggs has been director/curator at UCCS since 1991, a long time in an era when museum directors seldom remain anywhere for more than a few years. At the relatively tender age of 55, he's retiring.

Yet Riggs leaves quite a legacy. As the director of a university arts facility charged with being an artist-oriented forum for contemporary art, his job has been challenging and difficult. He's raised money in an era of declining funding and somehow brought cutting-edge work to Colorado Springs.

Riggs' finest moment may have come in 1995, when he brought Old Glory: The American Flag in Contemporary Art to the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art. Included in the show was Dread Scott's "What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?" which put a flag on the floor for visitors to walk upon if they so chose.

The show was important, controversial and difficult. And it earned Riggs a formal reprimand from then-Chancellor Linda Bunnell Shade.

"After that, the university more or less left me alone, but it wasn't any easier to raise money," Riggs remembers with resigned amusement.

For his final exhibition at the GCA, Riggs has brought in an absolutely first-rate show. Drawn Across the Century: Highlights from the Dillard Collection of Art on Paper, along with Larry Heller: Selected Drawings, ends Riggs' 15 years in fitting style.

The Dillard Collection, part of the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, was formed through the generosity of the Dillard Paper Company (now xpedx). Since 1965, the company has funded annual purchases of modern and contemporary works on paper which, over the course of 40 years, has allowed the university to create one of the finest such collections in America.

For this show, 75 pieces were chosen from a permanent collection of 500. Judging from the quality of the finalists, it couldn't have been an easy job.

The earliest drawing dates from 1895, and the most recent from 2000. Artists from the '50s and '60s are particularly well-represented, but the show's focus, as expected from Riggs, is upon art of the recent past.

William Beckman's "Seated Model No. 1," from 1989, is paired with Kenyon Cox's "Nude Study for Figure of Astronomy," from 1895. The latter -- serene, classical, gently expressive -- could be hung in Grandma's dining room. But not so, the former.

Cox's model, eyes averted, head bowed, is an asexual, allegorical figure, while Beckman's subject is a contemporary woman, comfortable in her skin, whose level gaze is at once challenging and disquieting. Both works are remarkable for their intensity, their economy of means and their technical mastery.

The modern masters Alfred Leslie and Philip Pearlstein are represented with superb portraits from the '60s: Pearlstein's "Models in the Studio" and Leslie's "Constance West."

Pearlstein's piece of sepia and wash, bold and gestural, fits into a long tradition of such portraits. (Think Vermeer's famous "Girl with a Pearl Earring.") It's remarkable for its easy, fluid draftsmanship, as spare and masterful as a late Picasso.

Leslie's graphite drawing is, by contrast, intense and powerful. A simple full-face portrait of a woman in early middle age, it's as good as any drawing can be. Compare with drawings by Rubens or Rembrandt -- it doesn't suffer for it.

Accompanying the Dillard Collection is a selection of drawings by Larry Heller, a longtime resident of Colorado Springs, whose house and property (now UCCS' Heller Center) were willed to UCCS by his widow. Heller was a fine artist with a keen, amused eye. I was particularly drawn to "Cloud Study on the High Plains," a quiet piece that perfectly captures the lonely beauty of Colorado's eastern plains.

As Riggs' time at UCCS draws to a close, he's worried about the future of the Gallery of Contemporary Art which, once he leaves, risks becoming a sleepy, part-time adjunct to the university's art department. Built entirely with community contributions two decades ago, it could fall victim to the state's financial crisis.

Too bad Riggs won't be around to fight the good fight. For a decade and a half, he's managed to bring remarkable shows to the gallery on a shoestring budget. The Dillard Collection itself toured major museums just a couple of years ago.

"Well, I called the curator, and begged and pleaded, and she finally made me a deal that I could afford."

What gave Riggs the edge?

"Well," he says, with a slight smile, "actually, she's a former girlfriend. You know, it's all about networking, and connections ... and maintaining good relations with your ex-girlfriends!"

-- John Hazlehurst


Drawn Across the Century: Highlights from the Dillard Collection of Art on Paper and Larry Heller: Selected Drawings

UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1420 Austin Bluffs Pkwy.

Through Dec. 23

For hours and info, call 262-3567.


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