In the Air

For the denizens of the art world, it's not runs, hits and errors that are on our minds every October, but runs, drips and errors--in acrylics or oil paint or wood or pencil. Right now there are at least a score of worthwhile events being presented in one or another of the more than 100 exhibition venues around the area. So, viewer up--it's art-show time.

In such a crowded field, it's hard to know where to begin. But four shows in the current crop are being talked about--a lot. Along Wazee Street's gallery row downtown are a pair of gorgeous painting shows: Neltje: Breaking Boundaries, at the 1/1 Gallery, and Debra Walker: New Works on Canvas and Paper, at CSK Gallery. Over on alternative row in northwest Denver, two fine installations are on display at the Edge Gallery. Virginia Folkestad fills Edge's West Gallery with Playing for Time, which is the perfect companion for Carlos Fresquez's Lagrima/Teardrop in the East Gallery.

When painter Neltje (she uses just one name) came to Wyoming from New York a decade or so ago, her talent and skill gave her immediate access to the small but vibrant art community in that state. She quickly became Wyoming's chief proponent of the abstract expressionism of the New York School, and the strength of her work soon made her well-known in Wyoming and in nearby Montana. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was also pretty well-known in Denver. But it's been some time since her wonderful paintings have been seen in town.

Neltje's solo exhibit at 1/1, made up of eight large acrylic paintings supplemented by nearly twenty monotypes, is an abridged version of an in-depth show presented this past spring at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. Another part of that show, a selection of her monotypes, is currently touring the West.

The artist has written that she views monotypes as drawings that allow her to work out ideas in preparation for her paintings. And her monotypes at 1/1 are super. Though they're very similar to her paintings, Neltje insists they're distinguishable by the very nature of the printing process, which encourages greater spontaneity and makes the monotypes more immediate. But it would be hard to imagine how these paintings, which she apparently did very quickly, could possibly look more spontaneous. That's because she uses big, bold strokes made with very large, wide brushes.

Neltje's acrylic-on-canvas paintings look a lot alike; each painting is not just related to the others but constitutes a virtual variation on the same theme. According to Neltje, that theme is the nude female figure, and in some of the paintings, the viewer can actually see this aspect. In most of them, however, the subject has been thoroughly obscured by Neltje's flourish of gestural marks. This is exactly the approach taken by abstract-expressionist master Willem de Kooning, clearly Neltje's principal source of inspiration here.

Each of Neltje's paintings is bracketed by a pair of broad black vertical bars that surround a large area of white--the unpainted surface of the commercially prepared, pre-gessoed canvas. In the "space" created by this white area, Neltje lays in swirls of thick, richly colored pigment, much of it dripping and running, meant to evoke the female form, if only through curving brushstrokes. "No Fear of Flying," a 1995 acrylic on canvas, is typical of the series. The torso and head of a woman are barely discernable in the pinks, purples and ochers that predominate. In some places the paint is dense and gloppy, in other places sparse and stain-like.

While Neltje is occupied with the spontaneous gesture, San Francisco's Debra Walker is much more deliberate. The paintings in New Works on Canvas and Paper reveal a thoroughly detailed approach to the rendering of recognizable subject matter--mostly landscapes and city and street scenes. Walker's paintings are remarkable for their complicated surfaces, which the artist creates in two ways: by heavily working the liquid gesso layer she applies to the canvas or paper before she applies the oil paints, or by manipulating the oil paints themselves through thinning with solvents or thickening with multiple coats.

Walker captures moody, almost melancholy scenes with a retro approach that recalls the Bay Area figurative movement of the 1940s and 1950s--especially the early work of Richard Diebenkorn. And like Diebenkorn's, Walker's work is more in line with the School of Paris than it is with the New York School. This is the case even when the subjects of her paintings are clearly American, as in "Raining," an overview of a suburban California street at dusk. In other paintings such as "At the Corner," which reveals a sun-dappled street, the setting seems European. In this painting, Walker looks to French styles such as post-impressionism and cubism, and even conveys a Mediterranean quality with her colors. CSK Gallery director Kent Shira notes that Walker's conservative yet innovative approach fills a niche: "traditional art with a twist, where the subjects are recognizable but they've been tweaked."

Much less traditional but still featuring readily identifiable subjects are the marvelous installations occupying the two main spaces at Edge. In the West Gallery, accomplished local installation artist Virginia Folkestad claims to be looking at her childhood--but maybe it's aging she's really interested in. In the East Gallery, Carlos Fresquez, an artist better known as a painter, uses all four walls to take a look at a unique art tradition in the Hispanic community.

Folkestad's Playing for Time crowds the room with a group of cagelike objects that have been constructed from frames of unfinished lumber. The walls of the cages, which are all open at one point or another, have been filled in with aluminum window screening. By placing a bar at the top of the screens, Folkestad creates a bulge just like the kind children can leave in a screen door. Some of the cages are empty, like the one topped by a wire-mesh construction and surrounded by four troughs filled with felt balls. Other cages contain objects such as a chair on concrete rockers, a ball of string and many other elements, all of which refer to the passage of time.

A central element in the Folkestad installation is the row of "twins in a cradle" made of rolled and folded gray washcloths. They may be meant to suggest exactly what the title says: twin babies in a cradle. But you don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see the female sexual imagery suggested by the forms--and the twins are mounted waist high, no less.

Like all of Folkestad's work, Playing for Time is magnificently crafted. The panels that make up the cage frames, though joined informally with hinges, have been constructed with fine woodworking techniques including pegging and through-mortising. One element that really shows off Folkestad's meticulousness is the pile of transparent dice she presents atop a vertical form made of wax and steel. The dice, which she hand-carved from bars of glycerin soap, are masterfully detailed, and they're a testament to Folkestad's concern for technical accomplishment.

While Folkestad has filled the floor and left the walls bare, Carlos Fresquez takes the opposite approach in Lagrima/Teardrop. Fresquez has painted scenes on all four walls, but they're barely visible because he has employed pale shades of cream, gray and beige. On the painted walls, Fresquez has hung black-and-white paintings of figures and flowers along with small pencil drawings, many with religious or philosophical themes.

Lagrima/Teardrop is partially concerned with the tradition of pano art--pen or pencil drawings on handkerchiefs whose themes are related to what Fresquez has called "raza life." The style was actually developed by Hispanic prison inmates, but Fresquez has greatly expanded on the tradition. And though the pano pieces are but one part of this exhibit, the image of jail is a familiar one here. For instance, the gallery's back wall, which is the first to confront the viewer, features the word "Lagrima" in old English script, placed next to a black, white and amber painting of a jailed Hispanic man.

A compelling aspect of Lagrima/Teardrop is the way Fresquez mixes his own sophisticated painting style with a pointedly naive pictorial approach that apes the touching style of the self-taught prisoners. He has filled the room with symbol-laden images from the Hispanic community, ranging from lowrider cars and zoot suits to religious emblems. Even Fresquez's predominantly black-and-white palette is symbolic, meant to convey the limited materials available to the original pano artists.

Fortunately, the problem of limited materials--or exhibitions--is not something Denver's gallery-going public will need to deal with in the foreseeable future.

Neltje: Breaking Boundaries, through November 2 at 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee Street, 298-9284. Debra Walker: New Works on Canvas and Paper, through November 2 at CSK Gallery, 1637 Wazee Street, 436-9236.

Playing for Time and Lagrima/Teardrop, through October 13 at Edge Gallery, 3658 Navajo Street, 477-7173.

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