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Durango Arts Center opens annual Members’ Exhibit

The Durango Arts Center is hosting its annual Members’ Exhibit through Feb. 29. The show features the work of more than 40 Durango artists in multiple media./Photo by David Halterman

by Jules Masterjohn

“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” – Groucho Marx

Though it’s not a club, by the strict definition, the Durango Arts Center is certainly the closest thing to a club that exists for artists in our area. And, at least some members of the DAC don’t agree with Marx’s sentiment. Earlier this month, the organization opened its annual Members’ Exhibit with the work of 40-plus artists on display.

According to longtime Durango artists, for somewhere around 20 years, the DAC Members’ Exhibit has been an opportunity for artists to exhibit their work without submitting to the taste or expertise of a juror. The only criteria for having a piece of art in the exhibit is to be a current DAC member, which means anteing up a minimum of $50 a year. For many artists, the membership fee is a small exchange for the opportunity to have work displayed to the public.

Susan Tait, a longtime DAC volunteer recalled, “When I first moved here 16 years ago, I thought that it was kind of neat that I could get something hung, as a new artist to town.” Margaret G. Barge, who has her water color “Animas Valley” in the exhibit, offered, “The show is wonderful, especially for artists who haven’t exhibited before, and it also helps the art center get new members.”

There are also many new names on the gallery walls, placed next to photographs and paintings in watercolor, acrylic and pastel.

One of the few oil paintings as well as one of the most accomplished works on display is “Resurrection,” created by Sarah Comerford. Her life-size portrait grabs the eye upon entering the gallery, not because it hangs near the entrance or its use of attractive complementary colors, but due to its size, materials and subject matter. A memorial to her recently deceased mother, the portrait shows the artist’s mother in full frontal nudity, a convention that has been used frequently by Comerford and throughout the history of art.

In the foreground of a desert landscape that recedes far into the distance creating the illusion of great depth, the figure stands confronting the viewer, grasping long animal pelts. A curtain patterned with peacock feathers and ball fringe hangs directly behind and slightly above the figure. Seven owls sit perched in front of seven silhouettes of gold-leafed cathedral buildings. A large hole penetrates through both, revealing the blue sky behind. In the immediate foreground is a sea of gold leaf with more than 100 realistically rendered eyes peering through the precious surface, the “holy see” as Comerford calls it.

"Resurrection" by Sarah Comerford is a life-sized memorial to her recently deceased mother

With this painting, the artist has created not only an homage to a loved one but also to European religious painting. She displays her knowledge of this genre through her use of gold leaf, referencing illuminated manuscript painting from the late Middle Ages and altarpieces from the early Renaissance. Artists used gold leaf during these periods to “attract the eye of God.” Comerford, perhaps, uses it for the same reason.

Too, her iconography, or use of symbols, places this painting in the company of deeply sacred images, like 15th century painter Robert Campin’s “Merode Alterpiece,” that present meaning through nonliteral or symbolic references. Comerford shared, “My mother always loved the missions of California – she was married in one – and owls are considered by some to be messengers of death. After she moved from California, my mom always missed seeing the wild peacocks. The fox pelts represent my mother shedding her earthly skin.”

Comerford has been generous with “Resurrection,” sharing her well-developed skill as a painter. Though it may be more difficult to access at a quick glance, she has been gracious, too, in presenting her understanding of the history of painting. These aspects merge with her revealing and personal imagery, making for a most satisfying visual, intellectual and emotional experience.

Caroline Lippincott, too, is exploring the history of painting in her watercolor “Indian Artifacts.” Following the 20th century Impressionists’ interest in the fleeting sensations of light on the natural world, she is stretching her wings with the medium. “Indian Artifacts” is a composition of wispy colors and broad contrasts in value that loosely form themselves into recognizable objects, though slowly. Lippincott explained, “These days, I am really looking at light, looking at it in a more abstract way. When I’m looking out the window, I study and see what is there. Slowing down to see everything is what my painting is about. I’m a Luddite in that way!”

Photographer Bob Spencer takes us further into the study of light with his digital archival print “Veiled Woman.” A beautifully toned color photograph of an anonymous veiled woman taken in the marketplace in Fez, Morocco, adds a worldly flavor the exhibit and helps us get more familiar with a sight common in Muslim countries but rare in rural America.

A commercial photographer, Spencer is comfortable having total control of his environment – cameras, light and background. “You can set up a portrait session with a subject and spend an hour just to get one shot. In the case of ‘Veiled Woman,’ I had a 10-second window. I saw her coming, had a few seconds, and took one shot.” What resulted from that instantaneous interaction is a softly blurred image due to the motion of his camera and the woman’s swift movement past him. “Veiled Woman” was taken last year while Spencer lived in Portugal, and traveled to Morocco. The portrait is part of a series of three veiled women images: another is a tough-looking Berber woman wearing a head scarf and the third is a mannequin with a clear plastic bag over her head.

For something almost completely different, we can look to designer/artist Jeff Madeen. Forget Impressionism and light, forget foreign places and sights, forget about the past but don’t forget religion for Madeen is saying something about 21st century worship in his mixed-media sculpture, “Bla Bla.” His interest is the materialism of our times – and its consequences.

Madeen saved his cell phones from the last 10 years, made obsolete through damage or “free upgrades,” and incorporated them into a clear pool of acrylic resin in the center of a circular grey concrete form, which reads a bit like the base of an architectural column.

“My piece ‘Bla Bla’ is about throw-away, mass-produced consumer stuff such as almost all technology-related things. The concrete base is the positive shape from some Styrofoam post-consumer packaging. It does not get recycled in the USA and ends up in a landfill. The resin locks the composition together forever.” His use of a modern-day icon – the cell phone – brings us to the present moment with what he calls “the electronic tether … where we have no place to hide,” an observation shared by many.

Pastel works by Pat Smiley and Jan Goldman, watercolors by Kathleen Holmes and Barb Tobin Klema, a solar etching by Louise Grunewald, an oil painting by Marie McCallum, photographs by Chet Anderson, and an acrylic panting by Sindey Greher are all worth a stop at the DAC to see. And there is still more … .

The DAC Member’s Exhibit runs through Feb. 29 in the Barbara Conrad Gallery on the main floor at the Durango Arts Center, 802 E. Second Ave.



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