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For all of its accomplishments over the past decade — assembling a formidable Impressionism collection, establishing itself as fashion powerhouse, overhauling its galleries — the Denver Art Museum still has some ground to cover when it comes to serving artists on its own turf.
In all of that time, it is difficult to recall even a handful of serious solo exhibitions displaying a breadth of work by an artist who lives and works in Colorado. It’s possible to quibble over what constitutes “serious,” but I would suggest that, aside from shows by Denver artist Bruce Price in 2013 and Daniel Sprick in 2014, DAM has opted out of producing authoritative retrospectives of local talent.
If there were other exhibitions developed in-house, with deep, curatorial research, a catalogue, a respectable budget and the sort of all-out promotion that can make a new star or seal a career legacy in the way major museum shows can, they simply do not stand out.
That said, it’s a different day at DAM, and there are fresh possibilities. Rory Padeken, the museum’s new curator of modern and contemporary art, is just days on the job. He takes on an important position that calls for overseeing a growing collection of art from the past two centuries and staging shows that connect the institution’s customers to the living artists of our time. Contemporary art makes encyclopedic museums relevant.
And let’s add this to those duties: the responsibility to use the museum’s power to nurture and elevate the deserving artists in the community that supports it.
The lineup that follows is a good place to start. Consider it a list of essential Colorado artists, but narrowed down to those who could, in partnership with a solid curator, carry an impressive show right now. Some have a history with DAM; others are early in their career. They don’t all live here full-time but their local connections are genuine.
Born in Argentina and long based in Boulder, Ana María Hernando uses paintings, prints, collages and wildly imaginative installations to explore the connections between humans, nature and spirituality. She’s collaborated with cloistered nuns in Buenos Aires and weavers in the mountains of Peru, calling attention to the unheralded accomplishments of women across the hemisphere. She presents her ideas in Colorado galleries big and small, taking over spaces with an abundance of color and, most recently, mountains of tulle that invite viewers to consider the possibilities of power, cooperation and abundance of the world we all share.
Diego Rodriguez-Warner is best known for his spellbinding constructions that combine painting, carving and collage into monumental wall hangings.
His work does it all, connecting the dots between serious figures in art history and the graffiti and street artists who push the definitions of expression in our own age. His installations can be romantic, sexy, political and very violent, but it is all brought together by a daunting level of skill rendered via paintbrush, spray can and cutting knife. Both his content and his process are complicated mysteries that keep viewers enthralled.
Suchitra Mattai is in the middle of her artistic moment. Museums and galleries are knocking on her door, drawn to autobiographical works that trace the physical and emotional reverberations of a family lineage that runs through India, Guyana and the United States. Her work manages to be both personal and profound, connecting her own psyche to the entire story of colonialism. She is best known for her works that recycle hundreds or used saris — worn by women from across the South Asian diaspora  — into monumental installations that delve into identity, place and upheaval.
Ian Fisher’s work draws in viewers with its wow factor. He paints clouds — big beautiful, turbulent, oil-on-canvas clouds that fill the air with a combination of beauty and intimidation. Fisher paints like a pilot, lifting his perspective off the ground and into the atmosphere in a way that makes these fierce, temporary gatherings of gas feel worthy of lasting inspection. Once among Denver’s upstarts, he is in the mid-career range now, a perfect time for a skilled curator to connect the dots between his work and the long line of Western landscape painters who DAM specializes in.
Kim Dickey redefines what it means to be a ceramicist, employing the earthy, functional  art form as a tool for hard-edged minimalist sculptures. She makes a lot of things in different forms, but her best-known pieces are constructed from tiny, terra cotta and porcelain leaves and petals — sometimes tens of thousands of them — that are brought together into monumental, geometric objects that recall Modern Art pioneers like Donald Judd and Tony Smith. It’s a perfect setup for the themes she explores with amazing finesse: the conflict between order and chaos, delicacy and durability, natural and human-made. Her work is large, colorful, comedic and certainly unique.
Ron Hicks has had a long and distinguished career, eschewing the trends that come and go in contemporary art and delivering decades of mesmerizing oil portraits that command solid attention and high price tags. Hicks specializes in the faces of women, and his skill is to find both human vulnerability and personal power in his subjects.
Lately, he is something between a hyper-realist and a surrealist; his paintings start with clear faces and eyes that gaze directly at viewers and then drift off in into dreamland as backgrounds fade into indecipherable shapes, colors and brush strokes.
Juan Fuentes does that necessary thing we demand from street photographers: He captures the age he lives in with open eyes and a journalist’s sense of truth. There’s something important in that because this is a moment 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, recognizing that his subjects are inseparable from the context in which we encounter them. By pulling back his lens just a little, we can see what kind of car they drive or house they live in and know them better. He gets closer by moving farther away.
Amber Cobb makes physical objects that give form to the murkiness of what it means to be fully human. She explores the fuzziness of memory, the confusion of sexuality, the parsing of childhood dreams and adult relationships. She is known for her public sculpture of a full-size mattress made of cast concrete, but also for covering familiar objects like toys and furniture in drippy silicone paint. The work can be humorous and entertaining, no doubt, but it also takes on our conflicting attitudes about intimacy and raw sensuality. Are we intellectual beings or are we animals? Cobb’s primal, tactile, gooey creations remind us we are both.
Joel Swanson’s work examines the words, letters and symbols that we use to communicate. It’s crisp, clean and well-constructed, undercutting his 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 it can feel like he is playing — with text, paper, flashing signs and billboards, creating messages that can be interpreted in different ways depending on when you encounter them. Swanson knows how to make the most 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 she has created and nurtured over her multiple decades as a ceramicist. She brings them together in different (and sometimes massive) forms depending on what she wants to say. Her work can be sweet and autobiographical: She has saved a lifetime of mementos that she has preserved in porcelain shells and assembles into wall installations. Or they can be intimidating and clinical: She also makes ugly, anatomical bits that examine things like medical procedures. They meld into deeply felt constructions that resonate with viewers while challenging the usual expectations of the medium. Her work is a treasure trove of Colorado artifacts, real and imagined, just waiting to be brought together, developed, curated and showcased into a career retrospective.
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