Fresh Heirs

The world of contemporary art has seen some bad days in the 1990s.
It all started when an economic slump brought the art boom of the 1980s to a crashing halt in New York City, the epicenter of the global market. The severity of the resulting freefall is illustrated by this current joke: Manhattan's gallery central, SoHo, is now NoMo. Compounding the crisis is the fact that, just as the market has tightened, older modern art--the work of the early- to mid-twentieth century--has re-emerged and has been widely embraced, displacing contemporary art in the hearts of many collectors and on the exhibition schedules of many galleries. In the 1980s, a painting done just a year before was seen as old hat, but in the '90s, age brings cachet. And since the art market is only one pie, the bigger the piece dedicated to vintage art, the smaller the piece for current material.

These are just two of the reasons that it seems as if the 1990s has no new generation of artists to call its own--a style vacuum just as easily detected in Denver as anywhere else. Want proof? Compare and contrast the current local climate with the scene here in the 1980s. Ten years ago it seemed that a new crop of artists popped up every time you turned around. Now established names dominate (many of them former '80s wunderkinds) and new faces rarely appear. Instead of a score of artists coming on full-bore--as used to happen every six months at the Pirate and Edge co-ops--there's now only the occasional emergence of an art star.

But there are signs that the creative ice jam may be beginning to break--and none too soon. This summer, newish names are well on their way to becoming established ones. And there's no better place to get acquainted with three of the most promising of them than at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery's The Third Degree: 3 Investigations in Abstraction. Gallery director Robin Rule has organized a theme show featuring abstract painters Christina Snouffer, Bruce Price and Sean Hughes.

The 27-year-old Snouffer, who was born in San Diego, has been exhibiting locally only for the last couple of years. But you wouldn't know it to look at her mature and accomplished mixed-media paintings, which appear to be the work of an old pro. Her eight paintings in the Rule show--some of them multi-panel pieces--are all quietly elegant and seamlessly unified. They share her preferred palette (shades that range from charcoal to browns and dark grayish-greens), along with her interest in industrial design and architecture.

Snouffer says her attachment to a somber array of rainy-day shades stems from her experiences in Japan, where she lived as an exchange student for many years, both during high school and later as a student at the Stanford University Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. And the subdued colors are the perfect complement to her fascination with the urban landscape. "The subject of my paintings is the undercurrent of pattern and texture of the buildings in the city," she says. "The overlooked things, like a rusted fire escape in an alley. The things which seem meaningless are meaningful to me."

Those interests are clearly expressed in the marvelous paintings that hang on the south wall of the main room at Rule. Each has a geometric grid laid over scabrous paint that's suggestive of rust or other decayed surfaces. The effects achieved with the paint are based on actual details of the real world; in fact, Snouffer found inspiration in photo enlargements of the sides of dumpsters or the faces of doors. These color pictures, which record the scuffs and scratches in the industrially painted metal, are oddly beautiful. Much more than preparatory pieces to the paintings, they're worthy of being exhibited on their own.

Whereas the photos are flat and glossy, Snouffer's paintings feature a three-dimensional pattern pushed into the thick paint. The artist accomplishes this by dragging plastic trowels--some of which she custom-made herself--through the paint while it's still wet. A good example of what can result from this unorthodox technique is a mixed media and encaustic on wood titled "In the Form of a Question." The entire surface of the painting is covered with parallel grooves.

At first sight, it looks as though Bruce Price is doing the same thing as Snouffer--contrasting geometric patterns with expressionist content. But though Price and Snouffer have backgrounds in minimalism and conceptualism in common, Price adds a dash of postmodernism, calling his work "immediate, spontaneous and local." Price also looks to the abstract expressionists, even though his approach is decidedly different. Whereas the abstract expressionists sometimes literally threw paint at the canvas, Price lays on his pigments with an almost scientific precision. And while Snouffer flatly declares that she's "not interested in making pretty pictures," Price says "art is about making things pretty"--and he's being only somewhat ironic. Adds the artist by way of clarification, "Make that beautiful, not pretty."

The 38-year-old Price was born in rural Indiana and attended Richland College in Dallas before coming to Denver in 1995. He's a 1997 graduate of Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he was the protege of legendary geometric abstractionist Clark Richert, who describes Price as "one of the first students that [RMCAD] has produced to have the potential to make a major contribution to contemporary art." Coming from the matter-of-fact Richert, that's hardly faint praise.

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