Abstracts in Autumn

Those cold fronts that have recently swept down from Wyoming can mean only one thing--the start of the fall art season. And the forecast for this year's exhibition climate? Batten down the hatches. Exciting shows are cropping up everywhere, even at the almost-always-overcast alternative spaces. And there are some big changes on the horizon, too. There's the launching of the still-nascent Museum of Contemporary Art, which has just opened in temporary quarters on the mezzanine of the high-rise office building at 1999 Broadway. And next month, the Denver Art Museum is set to open its remodeled sixth floor, which will feature European art, as well as its bombastic George Hoover-designed remodel of the old Bach Wing on Acoma Plaza, which will house galleries, a restaurant, a bookstore and the gift shop. (Maybe that weird canopy will grow on us. Naahhh.)

In this kind of atmosphere, the pressures are rising on the commercial art scene as well. And the happy result--at least at two of the city's most elite track-lighted spaces, Rule Modern and Contemporary and the Robischon Gallery--brings viewers the dazzling colors expected this time of year. Both galleries are hosting a duet of riveting solo shows. At Rule, two New York-based, Mexico-born painters are featured, while at Robischon, it's two Colorado artists who get in-depth presentations.

The main room at Rule is reserved for Ricardo Mazal, a painter who's such a perfectionist that before selecting the pieces for this dazzling show, he asked to see a floor plan. "He wanted a measured drawing of the gallery," recalls director Robin Rule. "Then he called me and asked if I'd build a wall across the front--and I did." Reformulating the space wasn't simple. "I had to have an electrician move around the wiring," Rule notes. But Mazal's instincts proved to be right: The new wall is a great improvement--not just for this show, but for future exhibitions. "I feel like I have a whole new space," says Rule.

The newly reconfigured space allows Mazal to completely surround the viewer with the eight paintings that make up Ricardo Mazal: The Yellow Circle. The oil-on-linen works are brand-new, which is testified to by the fact that the gallery reeks of linseed oil. As suggested by the series title, each has been painted in various shades of a dazzling yellow that is reflected throughout the room. Mazal has applied the luminous yellow paint thickly in sunny smears laid on in broad horizontal strokes. Mazal doesn't use brushes--as is apparent--but instead employs a collection of plastic and metal trowels and scrapers to apply the paint.

"I see the paintings as a single piece," says Mazal of the Yellow Circle works, and to his credit, they function as a singular whole while remaining exquisite in their own right. A personal crisis--the failure of a relationship--led the painter to conceive of the series, and he has imbued the paintings with symbolism. For Mazal, the color yellow represents the color of feelings; the circle stands for the friends and supporters who surrounded and protected him. Even the number of paintings in the series has a special significance for Mazal. The eight pieces, he says, "represent the four walls of my apartment and the four walls of my studio."

Given their common birthright, it's perhaps not surprising that the paintings form a progression from more simply composed works to more dense ones. In "#1," a vaporous skein of lines is placed down the center. The lines, which are hardly there at all, are painted in white against the varying tones of yellow. By the time we get to "#7," the white lines have become pronounced and even dominate the picture. All but one of the paintings feature similar golden-yellow grounds and white lines. The odd man out is "#4," in which the yellow ground appears without any accompaniment.

The other Mexico-born New Yorker featured at Rule is Jesus Polanco, who may be remembered by many from the years he spent in Denver in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the Mexican connection is where any similarities with Mazal end. Jesus Polanco: Recent Works, shown in the small back room at Rule, consists of five quirky and extremely elaborate surrealist paintings. Using a wide variety of materials including ink, flashe, gouache, gesso and pencil, Polanco has assembled recognizable subjects in unrecognizable combinations. In "The Shape of My Tongue," two dismembered ears bracket a lotus blossom. A laurel wreath occupies the center of "A Pair of Believers," which also includes tiny drawings of hands and spatters of white paint.

According to Polanco, these paintings are, conceptually speaking, self-portraits. "I'm interested in my identity, which I see as a dislocated horizon of memory and space," he says in a bit of self-analysis as enigmatic as his paintings. "But I don't want to sound too theoretical, because I'm also interested in working with my hands."

The Polanco show fills only one wall of the back space, so director Rule has supplemented the New Yorker's work with a magnificent wall-sized painting by Denver's own Dale Chisman ("Artist and Model," an oil on canvas from 1989), as well as pieces by two New York sculptors, Hanno Ahrens and Richard Heinrich. Ahrens's minimalist 1989 floor piece "Empty and Full in Turn" is made up of several identical parts carved of pine with white pigment rubbed into the grain. Heinrich works with bronze in 1985's "Below the Fold," an abstract-expressionist tabletop piece that has a gorgeous reddish-brown patina.

While sculpture serves mainly as an appetizer for the Rule shows, it's the main course at Robischon's Brad Miller: New Work. This dynamite exhibit in the gallery's front space features some of the latest pieces in ceramics and wood by the nationally known Aspen artist.

A vocabulary of signature organic shapes evocative of plants and primitive, one-celled creatures defines Miller's ceramic sculptures. The beautiful shapes are formed of smooth clay in various earthtones and are then fired, unglazed, and assembled into abstract sculptures. In "Caucus #4," a series of the forms have been strung together to create both the base and shaft of the stoneware sculpture. In other Miller pieces, the ceramic elements are wall-mounted. The stoneware assemblage "Caucus #2," for example, seems to have sprouted in place. It's the same oddball effect Miller gets from the installation "Floaters," a piece comprising more than eighty com-ponents of stoneware and porcelain that have been scattered across the wall and around a corner.

A world apart from the ceramic pieces are Miller's larger sculptures, which have been made of twigs joined together by screws. Like their ceramic cousins, they recall basic, primitive shapes. In "Expanders #2," which sits on the floor, the twigs have been gathered and cut mechanically into a paired egg shape. "Duo #6," also made of mechanically cut twigs, is a double gourd shape hung on the wall.

Beyond the Miller show in the two large middle rooms at Robischon is Trine Bumiller: Paintings From the River Series, the latest exhibit from a Denver artist known for the accomplished abstracts she makes by utilizing the ancient technique of oil glazing. Bumiller slowly builds up her paintings through the painstaking method of laying one transparent coat of glaze over another. She has written that this deliberate process is analogous to the forces that create a river. "Very viscous paint is applied as the painting is lying flat," Bumiller writes in notes accompanying the show. The process, she adds, allows for "accidental and unpredictable forms similar to a river's as it carves its way through the landscape."

The pieces in the Robsichon show are an obvious outgrowth of Bumiller's earlier works. In these new vertical, multi-panel paintings, she conveys rivers in a non-literal way; they aren't landscapes any more than Polanco's paintings are self-portraits. Instead, Bumiller again suggests the river mainly through her palette--cool blues, greens and grays--and the judicious use of abstract lines that can suggest the movement of water in one panel and trees on the banks in the next.

Bumiller's artistic program is particularly easy to follow in "Nest Egg," an oil-on-panel triptych. In the left panel, a network of black lines set against a white background suggests--if only vaguely--trees in a winter landscape. The center panel is a washed-out blue with darker-blue ovals scattered across it like raindrops. On the right side, white lines on a black background recall an aerial shot of the river's tributaries. Bumiller has not created a picture of the river here; rather, we get a glimpse of the images the river may suggest in her mind.

At first it may seem that these four shows featuring the widely varied works of Mazal, Polanco, Miller and Bumiller have little in common other than the choice fall calendar slots they have each been assigned. Despite the obvious differences, though, the work of all four goes far in demonstrating the continuing appeal of abstraction for many of the best contemporary artists. But hurry--just like the autumn leaves, all four shows will be gone in a matter of a few weeks.

Ricardo Mazal: The Yellow Circle and Jesus Polanco: Recent Works, through October 30 at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.

Brad Miller: New Work and Trine Bumiller: Paintings From the River Series, through November 1 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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