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Hunches in Bunches

Sangre de Cristo Arts Center celebrates kitsch collections

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In the art world, collectors have the same dubious status as do groupies in the rock world. They're nice to have around, they validate the artist, but let's face it: They're lesser beings.

Once a groupie, always a groupie (even if, like Courtney Love or Yoko Ono, you become a megastar in your own right). And collectors are emphatically not artists; indeed, when artists collect, it's only to seek inspiration for their own higher and better works.

So even if Andy Warhol was a compulsive collector of kitsch, the collections, dispersed at his death, were not art -- they were just source material.

But maybe that's changing.

Down at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo -- where Jina Pierce, formerly director of the Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts, has recently become fine arts curator -- there's a wholly absorbing show that is manna in the desert for every compulsive collector in Colorado.

Titled Collecting the Absurd, this is a cheerfully straight-faced presentation of absurd collections, notably those of Denver artist and junkmeister supreme Mario Rivoli.

Mario, a nationally known crafts artist whose witty assemblages bring the big bucks at Julie Dale's Manhattan gallery, is a passionately dedicated collector of ... stuff. The exhibition includes, among other equally weird things:

a heap of bakelite billiard balls;

a pile of unopened laundry soap boxes, most from the '20s and '30s;

a display case of taxidermy eyeballs, gazing at visitors in all their gold and amber splendor (apparently, taxidermy eyeballs only come in one color).

And what's the point of all this? According to Rivoli, it shows that "if one object can be beautiful, a whole bunch can be great -- and to make the point that, sometimes, the collection is the art."

And just to make the purpose of the exhibit perfectly clear, the curators have included seven similar collections by ordinary Puebloans who just collect stuff because they like it, not because they think it's art.

The Welte family brought 100 bricks, most stamped with the manufacturer's name or its city of origin. Joan Mertz contributed 100 suitably gaudy neckties. And Ray Kushnir filled a display case with 100 remarkably distinct and diverse transistor radios.

Now is all this stuff art? I don't know, but it's delightful. To see it displayed as fine art, giving you permission to linger over it and savor its nuttiness, is like finding a copy of the National Enquirer on your college professor's coffee table. If it's good enough for Jina and her colleagues, you don't have to pretend to be some high-minded connoisseur -- go ahead, get down, start collecting something weird!

On exhibit alongside Collecting the Absurd are three equally arresting exhibits commemorating the "millennium" theme: Time and Place, a century of Colorado women artists with one woman representing each decade; 10 x 10: Repetition in Art, a Front Range invitational show featuring several Colorado Springs artists; and Centum, a collection of 100 pieces from Front Range artists.

Like the city of Pueblo itself, the metamorphosis of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center, as it's now called, has been extraordinary. Starting at zero a couple of decades ago, the Sangre de Cristo now encompasses a handsome, user-friendly group of buildings that includes a children's museum with a snappy little caf on the first floor, art galleries and a conference center/auditorium.

For a visitor from the Springs, it's almost as dismaying as visiting the Denver Art Museum. Why can't our arts establishment get it together? Why don't we have an arts center open and responsive to a metropolitan area of half a million folks? As a friend remarked, maybe we should stuff the trustees of the Fine Arts Center into a bus, take 'em to Pueblo and make 'em spend a day at the Sangre de Cristo.

Growing up in the Springs of the '50s, we were taught to look down on Pueblo -- or "P.U. town," as it was derisively called. Why, Pueblo was everything that we weren't -- smoky, polluted, full of Democrats and union members who worked at ugly, dangerous jobs and had strange foreign names.

Well, Pueblo is still everything we aren't: entertainingly diverse, supportive of the arts and politically moderate. Because the steel mills no longer belch smoke, the skies are relatively clear, and downtown, with block after block of intact Victorian commercial buildings, is in the midst of an exciting revival. Add some of the best turn-of-the-century neighborhoods in Colorado, not to mention establishments like Gus's Tavern (continuously in business since 1904), and you've got a city that's both gritty and romantic -- an unlikely mix of Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Maybe, after all, a city gets what it deserves. In Manitou Springs, Denver and Pueblo the citizens come together, decide to support the arts and get facilities worthy of their respective cities. In Colorado Springs, a generous millionaire builds the Fine Arts Center in the '30s, and what do we do?

We just wait for the next generous millionaire to come down the pike.

Sixty-nine years and counting.

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