Report: Denver

On its 40th anniversary, the Arvada Center looks both back and ahead at the state of Colorado Art.

“Rain Waves and Sunrays,” 2015, Sushe Felix Acrylic on panel, 48″ x 36″
Photo: courtesy William Havu Gallery

Arvada is a sprawling suburb located not far to the northwest of Denver but despite that generic description, it’s a distinctive place in several ways. Unlike most of the other suburbs, for instance, it has an old-time downtown crowded with charming historic buildings, the legacy of its small-town origin. The views of the Rockies, with the foothills in the foreground, are among the best in the area. And, perhaps most importantly, the city hosts one of the largest and most significant art centers in the state encompassing theater, music, art instruction and, most significantly for art fans, several sets of handsome and expansive galleries.

It was on July 4, 1976 that the ribbon was cut opening the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Among the many events scheduled to mark the 40th Anniversary this year, are two noteworthy exhibits. In the spacious lower level galleries, the institution’s exhibition manager and chief curator, Collin Parson has mounted “Looking Back: 40 Years/40 Artists”-a short-hand survey of contemporary art in Colorado over the last 40 years, featuring the work of 40 artists. In the upper level galleries, and extending into the adjacent theater gallery, Kristin Bueb, the center’s exhibition coordinator, has organized “Moving Forward: The Next 40 Years,” which focuses on 20 young artists who are up-and-comers on the Colorado scene right now.

Although the center was dedicated so that it would coincide with the national Bicentennial celebration that year, it wasn’t completely finished yet, so it opened to the public a few months later. “It opened September 15 of 1976,” says Parson, “and this show opened September 15 of 2016, so it was exactly 40 years later-we didn’t plan that, we just got lucky.” Parson explains that the initial idea for the center came from the Arvada Historical Society, which was interested in finding a place to house its collection of artifacts and photos. To fund such an undertaking, a municipal bond election was held in 1974, “and it almost didn’t pass,” Bueb points out. During the planning phase the idea morphed beyond a history museum and toward the cultural center it is today. “There have been three major remodeling phases,” Parson explains, “with the center expanding its exhibition, performance and educational programs over the years.”

Parson took the lead role with “Looking Back” and Bueb with “Moving Forward,” however, they actually both worked on both shows. More than a year ago, when they first started to consider the looming anniversary, Parson and Bueb knew that they wanted to mark the celebration with appropriate exhibits. The files were in disarray, and there’s no telling what’s missing from them, but in terms of the records that had been preserved, certain things became apparent. “There was an unconscious repetition of the same themes, going back over the years to the beginning,” Bueb points out, describing a chain of curators who often keyed-in on the same topics-ceramics, Western art, women’s art, Latino art and, most of all, contemporary art made by artists working in the area. “When we started digging through the archives,” says Parson, “what became apparent was that the center had focused on regional contemporary art, mostly from Colorado, and that’s why we decided to honor that focus with these shows.”

“El Aguila y la Serpiente,” 2016, Carlos Fresquez, Mixed-media, 50″ x 40″
Photo: courtesy Arvada Center

Using the archival information, the two created a timeline graphic that’s mounted on the wall of the entry space on the lower level. The timeline lists the exhibits presented over the years. They used these shows as the basis of “Looking Back,” selecting artists for inclusion that had been exhibited in them originally. Parson explains that, “the reason we chose these specific artists-there’s so many artists we could have featured-is that we really tried to select 40 of the artists that we felt were the most influential in the Arvada Center’s history.” The 40 chosen comprise a who’s who of contemporary art in Colorado over several generations, including abstractionists such as Robert Mangold, Emilio Lobato and Dave Yust; representational artists like Frank Sampson, Sushe Felix and Tracy Felix; and conceptualists including Carlos Fresquez, Carley Warren and Virginia Folkestad. Plus, photos and ceramics that follow their own paths separate from those of painting, sculpture and installation. Since the show was inspired by participants in a huge variety of earlier shows, there’s little to connect the things selected to one another. To deal with that, the exhibition design is done so that similar things are put together in discreetly defined spaces, but that wasn’t possible in every case, so there is some fraying at the edges where the presentation isn’t as tight as it could be.

In the upper level galleries, “Moving Forward” includes 20 emerging artists, with most of them, unlike their elders on view downstairs, having never exhibited at the Arvada Center before. For “Moving Forward,” the selection process was less constrained than that for “Looking Back.” Bueb explains, “We wanted to make sure we got a variety of styles and mediums, so we chose artists whose works we’ve seen around and that we’d wanted to show, but hadn’t yet had an opportunity to.” The work of these artists encompass the same three stylistic divisions-abstraction, representational and conceptualism-though conceptualism is the predominating category with many of both the abstract and representational pieces also taking-on conceptual content. And just as in “Looking Back,” there are also photos and ceramics that fall into their own separate categories. The show starts off with a bang with an over-the-top all-over abstraction in pigment and wax by Dylan Gebbia-Richards that towers over the grand staircase that rises from the lobby. Among the other standouts in this show on view in the rabbit warren of spaces upstairs are works by Joseph Coniff, Sandra Fettingis, Ian Fisher, Anna Kaye, Donald Fodness, Kazu Oba and Mario Zoots.

“The shows have been really interesting to do,” muses Bueb, “because they are so different from the other shows we’ve done, since there isn’t a topic or theme, instead they are celebrations of the artists, and the center.” Parson adds, “All of the artists we chose could have filled the entire space by themselves, so imagine how hard it was for us to include only a piece or two by each.”

—Michael Paglia