Denver Art Dealers Association


  October 27, 2006
Voelz Chandler:
Strawn show will seem new


Mel Strawn has lived numerous lives in numerous locales, including his residence in Salida as a committed and still active artist. He is married to an artist, father to several, and has moved around the country to study and teach, with service in Korea that involved some work.

And until two mini-retrospectives at Sandra Phillips Gallery - the "Mel Strawn: Retrospective 1957-2004" in spring 2005, and an addendum of a show a year later - I had seen only bits and pieces of his later work in arts institutions outside the metro area.

Those shows at Sandra Phillips were an eye-opener, especially in their presentation of works out of the vault, abstract paintings from the 1950s and 1960s that were so strong they overshadowed the later work I had seen.

These presentations at Phillips also seemed like a fitting precursor to a major retrospective on the boards for this fall at the Denver Central Library, a show whose placement in the oddly shaped seventh-floor Vida Ellison Gallery - a long, long, curved hallway interrupted by a more regular gallery space - cried out for a chronological presentation of work from Strawn's ever-evolving career.

Some do not favor that approach, considering it a forced-march display of an artist's legacy. But it seemed like a good idea when dealing with such immense output, such changes, and the shifts between abstraction (the stunning Strider); to pattern paintings (such as Genie and Dark Genie); to the use of the computer to create manipulated images (Korean Woman); to more politically tinged commentary on wealth and value (various giant "medals" in which squashed bottle caps take on an honorific air).

Unfortunately, "Mel Strawn: All Together Now, 1940s to 2000s" isn't that show. Instead, as curated by the artist, it hops from decade to decade, occasionally, through Strawn's labeling, noting a theme that would have been easier to tie together in a more conservative approach. His earliest paintings, portraits from the 1940s come well into the installation, with work from the 1960s, 1984 and 2004 at the entry.

And a selection of work inspired by Strawn's "four shape" theory is scattered throughout, a missed opportunity for coherence.

All that aside, "All Together Now" is a must-see exhibition, mainly because it is all together now. Some works will seem familiar from the Phillips shows. But most of what stretches down that hallway, and into a room with one of the best views of Denver, will be - or seem - new.

And it should not be missed. Just be prepared to keep backtracking to pick up the threads of what Strawn has been doing for 60 years.

Less felicitous, or perhaps less in keeping with the aura of the Western history reading room is "C700.978883A792-2006: The Gallery of Galleries."

Artist Rodney Wallace, of the studio/gallery KOUBOU a Deux, with some peers organized a show designed to showcase local talent to the hordes from Bulgaria and points east in town to visit the Denver Art Museum's new Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

To that end, the group Think Tank asked more than 50 area galleries, studios and arts groups to select work for the show, so well into January paintings and sculptures from more than 70 artists literally crawl up to the ceiling of the rotunda.

The title - Wallace says it is the Dewey Decimal System number for gallery guides - is certainly clever, and the concept is generous in terms of giving a wide range of artists access to wall space. Although Wallace chose not to use a juror, in order to be more reflective of the Denver art community, sometimes an open show can be perhaps a bit, well, too open.

But it is well worth a trip into the department to visit the model of Daniel Libeskind's concepts for Civic Center, presented Aug. 30 to more than 700 people and until recently housed in a private firm. Now, Civic Center goes public again.

Finally, the library has mounted two architectural shows with a historical bent, including one that involves an event that seems to have happened only yesterday.

That would be the compact installation, in the former gift shop space, of "Michael Graves and the Denver Public Library: Identity and Composition." Graves, with the local Klipp Partnership (now klipp), won the 1990-91 competition to design a new main library. On view here is the competition model and several beautiful pencil drawings of elevations, site plans and perspectives. For those who remember a process that set the tone for numerous competitions since, it's time-travel, for newcomers, an education.

Upstairs, in the gallery outside the Western history department, is a polished exhibition of work by "Classic Colorado Architects."

The definition here of "classic" is broad but bountiful, so along with images of designs by William Fisher and Arthur Fisher are a standout drawing of Burnham Hoyt's proposal for a Civic Center facing the capital and marked by two heroic figural sculptures, perspectives of Denver General Hospital and a site development plan of Arapahoe Acres by Eugene Sternberg, and numerous works by Frank Edbrooke.

Maurice Biscoe, and Aaron Gove and Thomas Walsh also are part of the list, with a few other architects' work added for good measure, including a 1951-53 model of Temple Hoyne Buell's proposed Cherry Creek Shopping Center and William Muchow's competition model for the Cyprus Minerals Office Building.

The operative word for the material and its installation? Classy.

Mel Strawn: All Together Now, 1940s-2000s

What: Retrospective of work by Salida-based artist Strawn

Where and when: Denver Central Library, 7th-floor Vida Ellison Gallery, 10 W. 14th Ave.; through Nov. 24

Of note: Also on view at the library are "Classic Colorado Architects," on the fifth floor, through Dec. 31; "C700.978883 A792-2006: The Gallery of Galleries," in the rotunda of the Western History and Genealogy Department, through Jan. 10; and "Michael Graves and the Denver Public Library," on the first floor, through Dec. 31

Information: 720-865-1821

Mary Voelz Chandler is the art and architecture critic. or 303-954-2677.

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