Aspen’s Red Brick Biennial shows off wealth of artistic talent |

Aspen’s Red Brick Biennial shows off wealth of artistic talent

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Red Brick Center for the ArtsKat Parkin, "Girl 1 Garden Party," photograph.

ASPEN ” In the big picture, Denver isn’t all that far away from Aspen. And the span of time from 2005 to the present can seem like a mere blink of the eye. Yet those distances, in miles and years, have made an enormous difference in the way Dean Sobel sees the Roaring Fork Valley’s arts community.

In early 2005, Sobel was in the final days of his tenure as the executive director and chief curator of the Aspen Art Museum. In his five years in the position, he had devoted himself not only to the institution’s international-caliber exhibits ” by Willem de Kooning, and such rising stars as German photographer Thomas Demand and Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson ” but also to the swarm of local artists who participated in the Roaring Fork Annual and Roaring Fork Open shows. So in his return to the valley three and a half years later, Sobel figured the valley’s art scene would still seem familiar.

Not at all. Serving as the sole juror for the first-ever Red Brick Biennial, Sobel was amazed at the number of names he did not recognize, at the new forms of work that were fresh to his eyes. He has come to the Red Brick Biennial almost as an outsider.

“It was more unknown to me than I expected. Over time, it changes,” said Sobel. “There weren’t as many artists as I thought I would know. I probably only knew about a third of the artists’ work.”

Since leaving Aspen, Sobel has immersed himself in a project that has elements of the celebrated and the unknown. Not long after parting ways with the Aspen Art Museum, he was hired as director of the Clyfford Still Museum, a project that was just getting off the ground. Still, a 20th-century American painter, was well-known to insiders, who grouped him with the Abstract Expressionists, a movement that included Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But Still was a mystery to the public, having stopped showing his work years before his death, in 1980. He had directed that his paintings, the vast majority of which had never been seen, be left to a city that would build a museum devoted only to his work. Denver was selected, and Sobel was picked to lead the project. The Clyfford Still Museum is in the final stages of a building design; Sobel hopes to break ground on the structure, right next to the Denver Art Museum.

Immersing himself in the upper-tier paintings of Still, however, has not dampened Sobel’s enthusiasm for less ambitious projects. When Debra Muzikar, executive director of the Red Brick Council for the Arts, approached him about being the juror for the Red Brick Biennial, his response was, “Sure, I’d love to do it.” And spending several years poring over the 2,400 or so objects left behind by Still hasn’t made Sobel jaded to art with a lesser pedigree. In one respect at least, the art scene in the Aspen area is just the way he remembered it: rich, diverse and impressive.

“As I remember, for whatever reason, the quantity of quality artworks is disproportionate to the community size of the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said from his Denver office. “You couldn’t go to any other community of 40,000 people and find this quality of work. That might not surprise a lot of people, but it certainly rings through when you curate an exhibition like this.”

– – – –

Recently I did research for a magazine story that included having to locate some prominent artists in the Vail area. After speaking with people at the center of the arts community there, I came up with exactly one name of a respected local artist (Jim Cotter, who makes wall hangings out of unusual materials ” concrete, rusted steel ” and who owns two Vail-area galleries). Like any self-respecting Aspenite, I assumed Vail wouldn’t have as many creative types as the Roaring Fork Valley. But I was honestly stunned by the apparent paucity of visual artists in our neighboring resort.

After 16 years in the Aspen area, my perspective had become skewed, thanks to the wealth of artists I am surrounded by here. The Red Brick Biennial features 26 artists; approximately three times as many submitted work. (Sobel said he made the decision to include fewer artists, but have each artist feature several pieces.) Among them are ceramists, painters, photographers, watercolorists and more; all of them would be considered skilled artists who have a serious devotion to their work. At least several are represented in galleries outside of the valley. Some of the works included in the exhibit are arresting in their creativity, among them: a black-and-white collage by Betty Weiss, who typically works in bold colors; Shelly Safir Marolt’s “Lycee,” a moody painting of two young boys; Michael Raaum’s large-scale, boldly expressionist works; Jennifer Ghormley’s abstracted images of the human body.

Sobel says the Biennial is, in a way, only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the valley’s most successful artists ” James Surls, Daniel Sprick, Jody Guralnick and Linda Girvin, to name a few ” did not submit work.

Among those echoing the view that Aspen’s beauty is hardly limited to the mountains is Muzikar. She has been the executive director of the Red Brick Council ” which operates the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts ” for nearly three years. The Red Brick stages a new exhibit every month, virtually always focusing on local talent. (I was one of the artists featured in the September show.) Muzikar feels as if she is only getting started.

“I have so many ideas, I go crazy,” she said, noting that among her favorite exhibitions were Pouring Vessels, which featured some 50 ceramists, and Uniforms, which focused on the human figure. “It’s hard to place all the artists; there are artists who have waited for years to get in a show. Our valley, it’s incredible. The amount of artists, and nationally and internationally known artists in the valley ” we’re very lucky.

“We just started working on 2009 ” and now I can’t wait for 2009 to happen, because we have so many new artists we’ll be exhibiting.”

Sobel believes that one thing the Red Brick Biennial will accomplish is showing off the side of Aspen that is not about multi-million dollar mansions and the like.

“It’s more diverse, intelligent, with a heavily involved artistic scene,” he said. “I’d want people to think it’s sophisticated, and outperforms what you’d think of as a resort town in Colorado.”

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