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Vision and Revision

Art History 101 blends a heaping of cutting-edge contemporary art with a dash of art history

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In retrospect, it risked being a proposition doomed to failure. How do you find the perfect name for a show intended to meld a historical theme with the work of 13 of the most avant-garde artists in the Colorado Springs area?

"It was a fine line to walk," concedes artist Liz Szabo, who, together with Director Gerry Riggs, put together the Art History 101 exhibition opening this Friday at the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "The whole idea was to have a show that was cutting-edge," Szabo said, "with art history and the contemporary coming together."

The historical references are oblique in a number of the entries to this show, ranging from the personal art history of Patricia Heath and David Ball to the photographic delineation of man's historical relationship with cattle by Lenore McKerlie. "With this caliber of artists you don't want to tell them what to do," Szabo explained.

If you are hoping that this exhibition will provide a lesson in elementary art history, you are going to be a bit disappointed. Fortunately, the quality of work by the artists involved means that very few others will be.

Indeed, this is an exhibition in which several of the entries are significant enough to make the show worthwhile in and of themselves. One of these is the intriguing sculptural contribution from Laurel Swab. "Leonardo's Wings" is an exquisite work that, incidentally, even does a good job of adhering to the art history theme of the show.

Languid wings of laminated wood and copper emanate from the meticulously crafted feminine body of this piece. Comparisons to the anatomical drawings and flying machines of da Vinci are easy to make, but the strength of Swab's work is in her own rigorous sense of balance and the graceful juxtaposition of diverse elements.

"Eve and Her Lover" features a carved wooden base that transmutes almost imperceptibly into legs and then the riveted copper torso of the piece. Eve's neck reverts back to the polished wood surface of the legs and then into branches that support leaves and an imposing red apple. Eve's "lover" coils pensively around her body, flicking a forked tongue at the viewer. The result is a lyrical abstraction carried forward by Swab's technical virtuosity.

Another remarkable contribution is Gale Bez's "The Extraction of Relevance," an installation piece. Created almost exclusively from found objects, this cathartic work combines elements of glass, metal, plastic, oil paint and what appear to be bodily fluids, into an immediate and appropriating statement of historical perspective. The patient/viewer is metaphorically invited to sit in a rusted straight-backed metal chair complete with skullcap and antiquated dental instruments. Once there, the viewer must consider his or her place in history through the lens of technical terms and theorists' names emblazoned on glass jars and plates. The piece, clearly designed to raise more questions than it answers, leaves the viewer with a slightly uneasy feeling, something akin to what you might get from a tour of a derelict madhouse.

On perhaps the other end of the disquietude spectrum is Kevin Thayer's saturated depiction of a model languorously stretched back over the arm of her chair. The subtle pink and purple tints of the photograph etched onto the 49 metal plates of the oversized piece make it intriguing both in terms of subject and technique. According to Szabo, the work assesses the objectified view in which artists have historically portrayed women.

The artist who adhered most closely to the theme is, not surprisingly, an art history professor himself. Louis Cicotello contributes pieces that hearken back to several of the icons in art history. Roy Lichtenstein and Sol LeWitt are represented by "Homage to" pieces, including a pop art painting of an artist coming to the financial realization that the time has come to part with his work and a set of minimalist cubes referential to the modular installations of LeWitt. The contributions of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol are acknowledged with soup-can wall pieces and sculpture of "ready-mades." As always, Cicotello's work is thought-provoking and well-executed.

Szabo herself has entered historically referential works including an overtly phallic sculpture named "After Brancusi" and a large-scale work of bondo and foam core, titled "Really Big Egyptian Bestiary." The former incorporates a rusty hunk of jointed pipe that Szabo had in her yard for years and a rough cement block with a finely crafted inverted pyramid base. "They always say Brancusi put more work into his bases than into his sculptures," she explained.

The Egyptian piece is composed of what appear to be giant dog heads whose disembodied necks taper down to a point. The work is a substantial magnification of a set of ancient game pieces called "Jackals and Hounds" that caught the artist's attention years ago. This work seems destined to embody a boisterous kind of informal abstraction coupled with an element of mystery associated with Egyptian history.

This is a show in which each participating artist deserves the sort of special mention that space never seems to allow. Betty Atherton and Barbara Resch have entered compelling pieces, as have Conrad Nelson, Celeste Rehm and Michael Cellan. If cutting-edge local artwork interests you, be sure to stop by the Gallery of Contemporary Art during the running of this remarkable exhibition to see it for yourself.

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