On and Off Broadway

Fall has arrived, and with it the most desirable slots in the exhibition schedules of the city's art galleries. This time of year, excellent solo shows by established artists seem to pop up nearly everywhere. Among the most notable this autumn are a fine pair of exhibits that feature the work of accomplished artists at mid-career.

Marking the grand reopening of the recently relocated Inkfish Gallery is Amy Metier: New Works on Canvas and Paper, which brings the artist's representational watercolors together with beautiful abstract oil paintings. Just around the corner, at Open Press Fine Art Printmaking, is Doris Laughton: Sex, Lies and Monotypes, an in-depth look at two years' worth of monotypes and collages by an artist making her local debut.

Comparisons between the two shows are easy to make: Metier and Laughton both explore the interaction of representational and abstract imagery, and both share an interest in the use of strong, toned-up colors. But that's where the similarities end. On closer inspection, these artists are as different from one another as oil painting is from collage.

Metier, who lives in Boulder, has taught for the past seven years at the Community College of Denver, where she now serves as head of the painting and drawing department. Born in 1953 and raised in Wyoming, she began her art education in the 1970s at the Kinsky Art Institute in Vienna. After returning to this country, she continued her studies at Colorado State University and later at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Metier is perhaps best known for her oil paintings, last seen in Denver three years ago at Inkfish. Those paintings were highly abstract still lifes in which Metier explored three-dimensional space by showing different views of an object at the same time--which is called "simultaneity" and is what cubism was all about. She also attempted to create the appearance of movement--which is called "dynamism" and was the keystone of futurism. Metier's most recent work on canvas is also concerned with taking the still life apart. But this time, she shows at least some interest in putting it back together--by dispensing with the techniques of the early-twentieth-century avant-garde.

Metier says she was honored when gallery director Paul Hughes chose her to launch Inkfish's new location. But just as she began work last spring on the paintings that make up the show, she was beset with a personal tragedy--the sudden death of her father, William Metier, who suffered a heart attack while skiing. Metier describes her father's passing as the most devastating event of her life. She says she wondered how she could possibly do the show, briefly considering making her father the subject of the exhibit or painting everything in symbolic blacks and reds. Instead, she says, she has used the Inkfish exhibit to celebrate life, as her father did.

There's a quiet modesty to Metier's work that seems far away from the trendy insanity that seems to occupy many younger artists. Metier says her work "is not about the petty concern of being new or different or cutting--I just want my work to be good." In that regard, she has more than succeeded.

The Inkfish show continues Metier's long interest in the still-life tradition by referring back to the genre paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch masters such as Vermeer. In those historical paintings, references to life and death were conveyed through symbol-laden objects--a bunch of grapes to show fertility, or a skull to indicate mortality. Metier says she felt some of the traditional symbols were "too obvious"; she chose to convey her messages with highly abstract views of vertebrae and vases.

Metier began this latest series with a group of mostly small watercolors, which are essentially conventional takes on flowers or vessels. But the watercolors are merely the laboratory for the marvelous large oils on canvas that dominate the show. In fact, two of the most recent watercolors--"2 Parrots" and "3 Parrots"--lead directly into the oil paintings, in that the details of their recognizable elements are beginning to disappear in a flourish of brushwork and a tangle of lines.

Like the watercolors, the oil paintings became more abstract as Metier went along. The first oil she completed was "Snail," in which the creature of the title is suggested with no more than a spiral and a dash. A vague image evocative of a tall bunch of flowers has been conveyed through scribbles, scratches and paint-outs. In "Lotus," the large floral shapes have been partly obscured by a linear drawing of a human spine that runs across the middle.

One of the last paintings completed by Metier is the fabulous oil-on-canvas diptych "Random Harvest," the title of which was taken from her father's favorite Hollywood movie. "Random Harvest" is made up of two large vertical panels that have been hung with a fairly wide gap between them rather than the more conventional diptych approach in which the panels butt up against one another. Metier's circular composition leads the viewer's eye around the two canvases. On the lefthand canvas, a black outline of a spine echoes the outline of a leafy vine, which links up on the right-hand panel with a scribbled rendition of a vase of flowers set in front of an open window.

In all of her paintings, Metier reveals her skill as a colorist, using lots of bright red, purple and blue against pale tones of cream, yellow and gray. And it's this attribute more than any other that links her work to the pieces featured in Doris Laughton: Sex, Lies and Monotypes, on display a few steps away at Open Press.

Laughton began work on these monotypes and collages two years ago, shortly after she arrived in Colorado from New York via Italy. It was through sheer serendipity that Laughton and her husband, Martin Smith, chose the Rocky Mountains as their new home. The couple wanted to live in the Western wilderness but also wanted to be close to a big city. They had already looked in the Pacific Northwest and in Arizona when, while visiting friends in Denver, they fell in love with a house in the mountains near Bailey. They've lived there since 1994.

Born and raised in New York City, Laughton began her career as a painter more than twenty years ago. At that time, she attended New Jersey's Drew University, which had strong connections to the abstract expressionists of the New York School. At Drew, Laughton gained a first-hand awareness of artists who later influenced her development, most notably abstract-expressionist pioneers Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning. She says Elaine de Kooning, who created a hybrid of abstract expressionism in which portraits or figure studies were rendered sketchily, also had a profound effect on her early work. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Laughton attended various other art schools, including the Parsons School of Design and the New York Academy of Art, both in Manhattan.

In 1990 Martin Smith retired from his job as a high-powered executive with a New York advertising agency, and the couple left to live for four years in Italy. "We chose Italy because I love both the ancient and the modern culture there and because, unlike in France or Spain, it's possible to become a part of the community, because the Italians are very welcoming," Laughton says. The couple set up shop in an old farmhouse outside Rome in the town of Maremma. The house was previously owned by Giuseppe Cesetti, an early-twentieth-century artist famous in Italy and France, and was therefore equipped with a proper studio.

Laughton says her experiences in Italy were enriching. So in 1994, when the couple was about to return to the United States, she became frantic to capture anything Italian. The result of this last-minute burst of energy were two large paintings on cardboard that Laughton cut into strips and then wove into a box. The images on the box in turn provided the source for the monotypes and collages created since her return to this country, all of which were created in collaboration with Mark Lunning, the master printer at Open Press.

And Laughton and Lunning have obviously been busy. In addition to the main gallery, Lunning needed to annex the reception area and the hallway just to accommodate the 28 monotypes and collages on display. The volume of work is even more astounding when one considers the elaborate and involved process Laughton used to arrive at her finished pieces. She began by photographing details of the woven box from Italy. The resulting photos were converted to enlarged photocopies. The photocopied images were transferred to paper by running them through a monotype press. Laughton then ran them through the press again, sometimes repeatedly, embellishing the transfers with inks. In several cases, bits of paper were attached to the print in the chine colle method.

The resulting monotypes are a riot of abstract-expressionist flourishes, gestural geometric shapes and cartoonlike depictions of figures, animals and birds that somehow come together to make coherent statements. A fine example is this year's "Rosie and Matador," which sets stains and scribbles against a pair of goofy-looking horses.

Even better than Laughton's monotypes are her large collages, which are more complicated in their construction. For these works, Laughton took finished monotypes, cut them up and wove them together in the same way that she had made the Italian box. Especially memorable are "The Night's Scream," "Fertile Flirtations" and "Sex, Lies and Monotypes." In the title piece, Laughton uses circles and boxes, along with figures in silhouette, to tell a story about the troubles she encountered when she built her Colorado studio.

Metier and Laughton remind us that there can be many different routes to the same destination. They've each combined recognizable imagery with abstract elements, but they've crafted two very discrete styles along the way.

Amy Metier: New Works on Canvas and Paper, through September 28 at Inkfish Gallery, 116 South Broadway, 715-9528.

Doris Laughton: Sex, Lies and Monotypes, through October 2 at Open Press Fine Art Printmaking, 40 West Bayaud Avenue, 778-1116.

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