For all its accomplishments over the past decade—assembling a formidable collection of Impressionism, establishing itself as a fashion powerhouse, revamping its galleries—the Denver Art Museum still has a ways to go when it comes to serve artists in its own territory.
In all that time, it’s hard to recall even a handful of serious solo shows showcasing the breadth of work by an artist who lives and works in Colorado. It’s possible to quibble about what constitutes “serious,” but I’d say that aside from the shows by Denver artist Bruce Price in 2013 and Daniel Sprick in 2014, DAM has chosen not to produce any authoritative retrospectives on local talent.
If there were other exhibitions developed in-house, with extensive curatorial research, a catalogue, a respectable budget and the kind of all-out promotion that can make a new star or seal a career legacy as big exhibitions can museum, they just don’t stand out.
That said, it’s a different day at DAM, and there are new possibilities. Rory Padeken, the museum’s new curator of modern and contemporary art, has only been on the job for a few days. He holds an important position overseeing a growing collection of artwork from the past two centuries and curating performances that connect the institution’s patrons with the living artists of our time. Contemporary art makes encyclopedic museums relevant.
And add this to those duties: the responsibility to use the power of the museum to nurture and uplift deserving artists in the community that supports it.
The following schedule is a good starting point. Think of it as a list of essential Colorado artists, but narrowed down to those who could, in partnership with a strong curator, pull off an impressive exhibit right now. Some have a history with DAM; others are at the start of their careers. They don’t all live here full time, but their local ties are genuine.
Ana Maria Hernando
Argentinian-born and long-time Boulder-based Ana María Hernando uses wildly imaginative paintings, prints, collages and installations to explore the connections between humans, nature and spirituality. She collaborated with cloistered nuns in Buenos Aires and weavers in the mountains of Peru, drawing attention to the unprecedented achievements of women across the hemisphere. She showcases her ideas in Colorado galleries large and small, occupying spaces with an abundance of color and, more recently, mountains of tulle that invite viewers to consider the possibilities of power, cooperation and abundance in the world. that we all share.
Diego Rodriguez Warner
Diego Rodriguez-Warner is best known for his spellbinding constructions that combine painting, sculpture and collage into monumental wall hangings.
His work does it all, connecting the dots between serious figures in art history and the graffiti artists and street artists pushing definitions of expression in our time. His installations can be romantic, sexy, political and very violent, but it is all brought together by an intimidating level of skill rendered with brush, spray can and knife. Its content and process are complicated mysteries that captivate viewers.
Suchitra Mattai is in the midst of her artistic moment. Museums and galleries knock on his door, attracted by autobiographical works that trace the physical and emotional reverberations of a family line that crosses India, Guyana and the United States. Her work manages to be both personal and profound, connecting her own psyche to the entire history of colonialism. She is best known for her works that upcycle hundreds of used sarees – worn by women across the South Asian diaspora – into monumental installations that explore identity, place and upheaval.
Ian Fisher’s work attracts viewers with its wow factor. He paints clouds – large, beautiful and turbulent clouds in oil on canvas that fill the air with a combination of beauty and awe. Fisher paints like a pilot, elevating his perspective from the ground and into the atmosphere in a way that makes these fierce, temporary gatherings of gas worthy of lasting inspection. Once among Denver’s upstarts, he is now at mid-career, an ideal time for a skilled curator to connect the dots between his work and the long line of Western landscape painters in which DAM specializes.
Kim Dickey redefines what it means to be a ceramist, using the earthy, functional art form as a tool for minimalist, hard-edged sculptures. She makes many things in different forms, but her best-known pieces are constructed from tiny sheets and petals of terracotta and porcelain—sometimes tens of thousands—that are joined together into monumental, geometric objects reminiscent of the pioneers of modern Art. like Donald Judd and Tony Smith. It’s a perfect setup for the themes she explores with astonishing finesse: the conflict between order and chaos, delicacy and durability, the natural and the human. His work is big, colorful, comical and certainly unique.
Ron Hicks has had a long and distinguished career, eschewing trends that come and go in contemporary art and delivering decades of compelling oil portraits that attract solid attention and high price tags. Hicks specializes in women’s faces, and her talent is in finding both human vulnerability and personal power in her subjects.
Lately, he’s something between a hyper-realist and a surrealist; his paintings begin with clear faces and eyes staring directly at viewers, then drift off into dreamland as backgrounds merge into indecipherable shapes, colors and brushstrokes.
Juan Fuentes does that necessary thing we demand of street photographers: he captures the times he lives in with open eyes and a journalist’s sense of truth. There’s something important about that because it’s a time of evolution and presence in Denver’s Latino community, and Fuentes is creating the first draft of its history. But Fuentes’ artistic skill comes from his unique vision as a photographer. He doesn’t just photograph people; he also captures entire environments, acknowledging that his subjects are inseparable from the context in which we encounter them. By pulling back his lens a bit, we can see what kind of car they drive or what house they live in and get to know them better. He gets closer as he moves away.
Amber Cobb makes physical objects that shape the darkness of what it means to be fully human. She explores the blurring of memory, the confusion of sexuality, the analysis of childhood dreams and adult relationships. She is known for her public sculpture of a full-size mattress in poured concrete, but also for coating familiar objects like toys and furniture in dripping silicone paint. The work can be humorous and entertaining, no doubt, but it also addresses our conflicting attitudes about intimacy and raw sensuality. Are we intellectual beings or are we animals? Cobb’s primitive, tactile, gooey designs remind us that we are both.
Joel Swanson’s work examines the words, letters and symbols we use to communicate. It’s crisp, clean and well-constructed, undermining its messages about how messy it can be to say what you mean or mean what you say. He plays – and the charm of his complicated, clever work is that he can look like he’s playing – with text, paper, flashing signs and billboards, creating messages that can be interpreted from different manners depending on when you meet them. Swanson knows how to get the most out of a big arena, and it would be fun to see him explode at DAM.
Martha Russo tells stories through clay, using a language of small earthy objects that she has created and nurtured over her many decades as a ceramist. She brings them together in different (and sometimes massive) forms depending on what she wants to say. Her work can be soft and autobiographical: she has saved a lifetime of memories which she has preserved in porcelain shells and assembles into wall installations. Or they can be intimidating and clinical: she also does ugly, anatomical tracks that examine things like medical procedures. They coalesce into deeply felt constructs that resonate with viewers while challenging the medium’s usual expectations. His work is a treasure trove of Colorado artifacts, real and imagined, just waiting to be collected, expanded, curated, and showcased in a career retrospective.
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