Remember the Fine Arts Center before David Turner took over as its director a few years ago? It wasn't a pretty sight; burdened with eccentric incompetents masquerading as directors and a staff in perpetual uproar. Hostile to local artists, barely supported by the local community, the FAC had apparently consigned itself to permanent irrelevance.
All that changed with Turner's arrival. Competent, unpretentious and reasonable, he's restored the Fine Arts Center to its rightful place as one of the pre-eminent small art museums (and performing arts venues) of the American West.
Two exhibitions that will open Friday evening bear witness to these changes. Fresh, exciting, diverse, quirky and lots of fun, they're more than worth a visit. Miss them at your peril; if you like contemporary art (and even if you don't), to miss them would be like a film buff missing Pulp Fiction.
Colorado 2000 is the third in a series of biennial exhibitions featuring work by contemporary Colorado artists. Juried by Sally Perisho, director of Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts in Denver (and whom many will remember as Gerry Riggs' predecessor at the UCCS Gallery of Contemporary Art), it's a wildly uneven and endlessly interesting show. Two hundred fifty-three artists submitted 689 works, from which Sally selected 101 by 96 artists. There are one or two execrable pieces that somehow made it past Sally's eagle eye, but let's give her credit; there are a lot of good ones and a handful of truly wonderful works of art.
Bill Starke's "Free Man" is everything that good art should be: technically superb, brilliantly composed, emotionally powerful and visually arresting. It's a group of nine standing bronze male nudes on a steel pedestal. Eight are apparently identical casts, standing erect, arms by their sides, still and passive. The ninth, arms outstreched, is in the act of stepping fearlessly into the void. Starke's a professor of anatomy, and like George Stubbs, the 18th century English master who spent uncounted hours in slaughterhouses to understand the anatomy of horses, his knowledge shows in his work.
UCCS' Julia Hoerner is represented by a large-scale inkjet print of a digital image, "The Addict Stripped Bare." It's a witty composition of cigarette packets, cigarettes in an ashtray, and an ornate baroque frame. It has the luminous, fleeting and arresting quality of a half-remembered frame from an MTV video -- Madonna before the altar in "Like a Virgin," perhaps -- No brides though.
Is Jean Gumpper the best artist in Colorado? I posed that question to one of her peers a few weeks ago, who, after thinking for a while, answered: "Only in the sense that John Elway is the best quarterback that the Broncos have ever had." What she meant is that Jean does what she does, large-scale woodcuts, with a level of skill that no one else in the state even approaches. "Last Fling" is subtle, radiant, rich and beautiful. Are we looking at the fallen leaves of autumn? It scarcely matters; Gumpper's work transcends its nominal subject and enters the realm of pure form and color.
Two fine photographs caught my attention. One, by Carol Dass, is of a nude, masked pregnant woman, wearing angel's wings, standing by a window, titled "The Arrival." Classically composed, it's simple, mysterious and disquieting. Another, Lawrence Hampton's tonalist composition "Post, Choptank River, Maryland" is quiet, still, ordinary and perfect.
Marsha Wooley's "Domaine St. Ser" is a wholly traditional landscape, perfectly executed, fresh and alive. James Alvin Dixon's "Kite," Emilio Lobato's "Atrinconado" and Suzanne Linquist's "Two Spheres -- Tidy & Untidy" are all worth lingering over. And since we all have to have a favorite, here's mine: David Maspla's "Incandescent Visions of a Dark Earth." It's an enormous (96" x 72"), highly detailed, and realistic pencil drawing of a phantasmagoric scene that defies description. I'd give it Best of Show by a country mile.
Juried shows have their merits, but comprehensiveness is not one of them. Few of the region's big kahunas are represented; no Virginia Maitland, no Clark Reichert, no Dale Chisman, no Tracy Felix, no Don Coen, no Jeffrey Keith -- it's a long list. And that's too bad, since many of them have never been exhibited in Colorado Springs. (And yes, David, that is a hint.)
Deja Views: Contemporary Art From Recycled Sources, the other new show opening at the Fine Arts Center, is more fun than any art exhibit deserves to be. It might as well be titled "Artists in Full Retreat From Minimalism." I have no idea how to review this stuff, except to say that it's inventive, eclectic, witty, whimsical, cranky and just plain weird, and how can you not like it?
Try to imagine Sura Ruth's piece: a cheerful, squinty, buck-toothed papier-mch porcupine, whose spines are a hundred or so white plastic picnic forks. Or take a look at Jerry Simpson's "Totems," 15 or so totemic images in a classical vertical array, each appropriately titled ("Here comes Santa," "The Fuller Brush Man," etc.). Prepare to smile. And don't forget to go out in the courtyard and have a look at the real thing -- the FAC's Northwest Coast totem pole, rescued from a lumberyard 50 years ago.
More seriously, Maria Martinez constructs traditional New Mexican religious images out of wire and circuit boards. I particularly liked "La Guadaloupana." The combination of the deep mystery of religion with the secular mysteries of the information age creates an interesting aesthetic.
And finally, what do you want to take home and put in the family room? Don't know about you, but I'd choose Robert LeDonne's "XP 2000 Recycled Dreams (DeLorean)." It once was a DeLorean, and it still is -- at least, the left half, a couple of tires and some sheet metal. It's the ghost of a car, the faint echo of adolescent dreams, a reminder of the transience of everything. And it's a wonderful transformation, from a car that any kid would lust for to a work of art that any sensible adult would covet.
Fitzgerald was wrong; there are second acts in American lives. That is, if you're a wrecked sports car or a package of plastic forks.