Colorado

Colorado

The 17th Annual Metropolitan Exhibition at the Denver Art Museum is the strongest local show held hereabouts (excepting the Western Invitational, which is a springtime affair). This year the show is distinctly better than before, almost entirely as an act of fate and the Telephone Company. The metropolitan limits have apparently always been drawn to coincide with the toll-free area defined by the telephone people. In June of 1965 these boundaries were greatly expanded to include a number of suburban cities, including Boulder (30 miles north), where the University supports a number of vigorous painters.

There were 654 items submitted to the Judge, by 359 artists in this enlarged metropolitan area. Excepting the Colorado Springs people, this probably numbers 95% of all the professionals, Sunday painters and potters in the state. Mr. Ralph T. Coe, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, was the Judge. An amusing side effect of the expanded population found legally acceptable for entering is that many of the former standard artists for the shows here were pushed aside by the new people, which is all to the good, considering that the older ones were only derivative, safe copyists of New York work as reflected in the periodicals.

Pop and Op painting have almost no representation. The work is in three evenly-divided groups. The strongest is figurative painting, the next is gestural, after Abstract Expressionism, and the balance genre painting of one sort or another (landscapes of the area, still lifes of flowers suitable for an Academy show, a few pale collages and the like). The one item in the show closest to the new involvement in hard-edged construction and the effects of light was a slightly tacky warped masonite assembly with flashing lights called “Carnival Duration” by Lyle Light.

The hinterlands have not taken especially kindly to the extreme hard-edged optical images. When the recent traveling exhibition of new Japanese painting was shown here the target painting by Tadaski drew much negative comment, though it was perhaps the strongest and most meticulously crafted item in the show. It is possible that this reflects a national reluctance to absorb the swift transformation of critical stance which may be characteristic of the country outside the coastal areas as a whole, or it may be that the museum and gallery staffs are themselves unable to come to terms with it and present it in a way that would make it meaningful for the observer. It is difficult, in any event, to know how much of the failure to have optical and assemblage works in this show is due to the artists, the judge, or the museum itself.

The absence of balanced sculptural representation is also to be noted. The welded piece called “Lacustine,” by Lyle Light, and the fiberglass and resin piece called “Sphere I” by Richard Stephenson are the only two items of note, and both fail to make strong individual statements, each reflecting the work of others older and better known.

Aside from certain figurative pieces the best things in the show are three paintings, two gestural and one somewhere between gesture and figure. “Untitled” by Scott Nellis and “Cakes and Ale” by John Roach are smallish oils which have a definite tactile life and sense of some involvement on the part of the artist other than the need to be charming. Walt Tomsic draws with facility and grace, and has a sense of humor, and paints with great ease, thinly and gentlemanly, suggesting gessoed panels of thin wood instead of plebian canvas. He also has a willingness to mix hard-edged and romantic techniques to produce an image which will probably become much better known, at least in the area, within a short time. “Family Portrait,” two canvases assembled side by side, is red, white, blue, and peopled with a new fuzzy American Gothic set of faces and revisited in a comic strip nightmare.

A quick circuit through the show of 120 pieces by 106 artists reveals a definite sense of proper, bland, contemporary use of color in a decorative way. It is almost a pleasure to encounter at least one efflorescent Sunday picnic ghost town, luminous with the paint made famous by the WPA-painters, entitled “Blackhawk,” by Wayne Hoffman.

The women take the strongest places in the show, and do this with figurative painting. Two young women, Constance Smith and Helen Barchilon, have developed very feminine and distinct personal ways of using contemporary painterly ways of working to make subtle and moving statements. Smith uses isolated figures in Impressionist landscapes, working in oil in a careful and painterly manner to build a statement about women alone which has definite feminine sentiment without being sentimental. Barchilon also uses the single figure often, but her work is hard-edged, dependent on large collage areas, and mixes acrylic and oils. These women are not afraid to be feminine, which is rare enough today, and use those perceptions naturally.

In Boulder, at the University of Colorado, two traveling shows deserve some comment. An elegant display of prints by Leonard Baskin demonstrates his immaculate showmanship. It is a pity that taken one at a time Baskin seems so strong, but when seen suddenly in a large display he is revealed in his poverty. All the world’s techniques will not hide the neurasthenic, elegant, dry and loveless visions which dry even the most moist and tenderly hopeful eye.

Also in Boulder is the American Federation of Arts traveling show called “A Decade of New Talent.” All the names and works seem curiously old already (so inured in the boondocks are the constant readers of the glossy art magazines). Nevertheless, having seen a lot of decorative and rather empty work lately with paint replaced by sheets of thin metal, it was moving to experience directly the power of primal statement in Conrad Marca Relli’s “Runway #3.”

Also of interest, but more to other artists than to gallery-goers in general, is the emasculation of a work which can result from thoughtless installation. Two specific examples from this show: the canvas and wood constructions by George Ortman (playing-card shapes, inserted in cross-shaped canvases) are nullified by the battleship-gray shadow boxes the Federation put around them to protect them in shipping and showing. The other example is a failure by the local gallery staff, which apparently didn’t understand the definite esthetic challenge of H. C. Westermann’s plaster construction in the shape of a cross, with a jello-mold crown and a red light at the center (evocations of bent knees before the bleeding heart remembered from our days of innocence and boredom), and who hid this away in a niche rather than putting it out where one would have to come to terms with it. Sometimes one has the feeling around here that art should be pretty but not seen.

Arnold Gassan