Formal Wares

The five artists featured in the current exhibit at Auraria's Emmanuel Gallery, Elemental, don't constitute a school. Neither are they working in the same style or even in the same media. Yet brought together, pieces by Jeff Starr, Dean Habegger, Frank Shaw, Rodger Lang and Scott Chamberlin produce a consistent and unified display that provides fresh insights for the viewer.

What links these artists is their reliance on what exhibition organizer and gallery director Carol Keller calls "other forms." The shapes to which Keller is referring--she has written that they "seem to emerge from the soul of the artist"--are simple and organic. Some of the forms are anthropomorphic, while others are more broadly biomorphic, suggesting the outlines of living organisms. Keller's claim that these organic elements emanate from the unconscious realm is a hard pill to swallow when one recalls the more than fifty-year history of biomorphism in American painting and sculpture. Instead, the artists' enigmatic images appear to come from nature, recalling twigs, bones, heads and figures.

For the Emmanuel exhibit, widely known Denver painter Jeff Starr has reprised some of the work he displayed earlier this year in a solo show at the Rule Gallery. These paintings, which feature abstract objects set in landscape or still-life settings, represent just one of the several artistic directions Starr has explored over the last few years. He begins by creating sculptures of the abstract forms (which he sometimes exhibits alongside the paintings), and then uses them as models. He places the chosen objects in the foregrounds of his paintings and depicts them with precision. Thus, though the forms themselves are abstractions, he doesn't use abstract techniques to create them, instead relying on the methods used by representational painters.

In the large oil on canvas "Sphinx," the central form recalls a rider mounted on a horse that is crossing a sunlit plain. The golden ochers of the "horse and rider" aren't too different from the color of the plain, but Starr's careful handling of the shadows and the play of light allows the object to stand out against the background anyway. Even more clearly delineated from its surroundings is the abstract form that fills the picture plane of "Otis," an easel-sized oil on canvas. Here the element is reminiscent of a seated female figure a la Picasso. The figure is placed on a gridded floor before walls that have been colored a beautiful, striated yellow-green.

The Dean Habegger paintings in Elemental are also precisely detailed, though his subjects are more readily distinguishable than Starr's. Habegger's principal visual devices are twigs and the branches of trees, seen in closeup. These mostly small paintings, some of which have been elaborately framed, are Habegger's more refined followup to the large, multipanel compositions that made such a big splash last fall when he unveiled them in his single-artist show at Core New Art Space.

Habegger obviously has been influenced by Montana's John Buck, whose prints and sculptures are familiar to local viewers owing to his frequent exhibits in the region. Habegger's use of tree forms against densely patterned backgrounds relates these paintings to Buck's large-format woodcuts. But Habegger's works are noticeably simpler in their design, and his colors are more bold and saturated. And though his wonderful paintings appear to be laden with narrative content, it's hard to decipher the stories they tell. In "Split," an acrylic on wood, the picture has been conceived as a diptych, but it isn't; it's on a single panel. On the left side, a thick log with severed limbs is set against a checkerboard field of red, yellow and blue-green. On the right, a thin twig with a cord wrapped around it is placed on a yellow-green field. The left side has been crisply painted, the right side left smudgy and atmospheric.

One of the genuine revelations of Elemental is the strong work by Frank Shaw, who plays the role of the young upstart surrounded by established talents. Shaw displays both paintings and sculptures. In his paintings, he takes an abstract approach, placing simplified forms against painterly grounds. In the mammoth oil on canvas "Untitled," a dark, meandering line evocative of a bone swims in a murky brown sea of paint. The paint has been thinly applied, like a veil. Shaw has apparently rubbed the surface of the canvas to blend the various dark shades and create the color he uses for the ground.

The abstracted form of a bone is also seen in many of Shaw's sculptures, such as "Muscular Study Fragment," a scabrous linear form made of bronze on steel legs and base. Shaw again combines steel and bronze in the wall-mounted sculpture "OTwoXThree," which includes three identical bone shapes, each set on its own individual shelf.

Given the high standard of ceramics in the Rocky Mountain region, it's not surprising to find the standouts in this strong show contributed by artists who work in clay--especially when the artists in question are nationally known figures like Rodger Lang and Scott Chamberlin.

Lang has created abstract sculptures in his signature kiln-fired clay, as well as some similar expressions executed in beautifully patinated bronze. With "Domed Pyrolith," Lang has fashioned a small but weighty-looking clay sculpture. On a thick circular base with a bull-nosed edge is a rounded form composed of three parts--the shaft, the dome and the finial cap; the three elements are unified by surfaces finished with triangular ridges. The piece is stained to a dull, whitish gunmetal finish, which gets thicker where it's caught in the rough surface of the clay. It all resembles a postmodern Jell-O mold.

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