Thermo Dynamics

A cultural notion emanating from New York--as do so many--is that the art world closes down for the summer. While this may be true in that city, which wealthy collectors, gallery owners and artists alike abandon for the seashore during the dog days, out here in the hinterlands summer is as good a time as any to see art.

Although the Round World Gallery has followed the lead of its East Coast mentors and closed for the season, the city's other venues are up and running. In fact, a startling number of fine exhibits have opened recently, with more scheduled for the coming weeks. One of the finest is surely Untitled Summer Exhibition #22: Abstraction, now on display at LoDo's Robischon Gallery.

The title is tongue-in-cheek: While the gallery has been operating for 22 summers, the annual group abstraction show is only a three-year-old tradition. The 1998 version was organized by co-directors Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran, who together chose the work from various artists in the gallery's stable. Then Doran supervised the stunning installation, which creates both comparative as well as contrasting relationships between artists taking divergent approaches to abstraction. In the pair of front rooms with their large display windows, Doran has created a dazzling statement that catches the eyes of passersby; it's almost impossible not to go inside.

As you enter, ahead to the left is a Robert Motherwell print hung on its own wall; to the right is a major painting by Sam Scott. At first glance, it may seem that the late, great Motherwell and New Mexico's Scott have a lot in common--but looks can be deceiving. Even if both use smears and smudges as essential elements, conceptually the artists are actually in opposing camps. Whereas Motherwell, like the other abstract expressionists, was interested in spontaneity and instinct as a guiding force, Scott grounds his work in the reality of the external world, creating abstracts based on the landscape.

Though not the largest piece in the show, the Motherwell lithograph is one of the most powerful. "Elegy Black Black (CR #274)" is part of Motherwell's famous "Elegies" commemorating the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell devoted decades to these somber, mostly black-and-white compositions, and it's not hard to see why: The repeated formal arrangement, in which a series of organic shapes are lined up horizontally across the center of each picture, is a seemingly endless source of successful results. The "Elegy" here sets the characteristic organic shapes, done in a deep, rich black, on the left side of the paper against geometric forms, also in black, on the right. Combining gestural and geometric elements, this single print expresses the essential duality of Motherwell's career. On the one hand, he was one of the great abstract expressionists; on the other, he was also a pioneer of minimalism.

Scott's "Cicada Clatters Through the Aspen Grove," an incredible oil on canvas, is meant to be a depiction of the scene described by the title. But this isn't "Where's Waldo?"--you won't see a cicada. Instead, Scott has transformed the vignette into a dense tangle of scribbled lines and scrambled shapes, first laying in a light, smudgy background in white delicately blended with various shades of blue and ocher, then topping this with bold, swirling marks of heavy paint in a variety of colors, but predominately black. In fact, the generous use of black is what pulls the viewer's eye back and forth between the Scott and the Motherwell.

Also visually linked--though not so reliant on black--are three small works by Mark Villarreal in the front rooms. The Berthoud-based artist hasn't shown much in recent years; since he's one of the area's best abstract painters, this display marks a welcome return. Although it had been rumored that Villarreal was in a dry spell, there's no creative drought evident in these paintings. In "Syrma I" and the closely related "Fallen," both diminutive acrylics on canvas, Villarreal uses a light, nearly neutral palette to carry out his clusters of roughly oval shapes. Doran thinks Villarreal's small paintings "hold their own with Motherwell"--no mean feat--and she's right. And in the back gallery, she's again forced the comparison, placing a pair of Motherwell's lithographs from his "American-La France" series near a pair of Villarreal collages.

Also in the back are a selection of pieces by Seattle's Robert Yoder, who takes found objects like linoleum and ad hoc materials like wood to create essentially minimalist compositions--or is that post-minimalist? The simplicity of Yoder's formal arrangements, as well as his use of thick blocks of wood in even the smallest paintings, give his work an unexpected monumentality. Two-thirds of "Candy," a narrow horizontal bar that sits heavily on the wall, is dominated by a floral scene printed on found linoleum; opposite is black and white paint on wood, also probably found. Hung nearby is Yoder's red-on-white "Fire Ants," a nearly square composition in painted wood that looks like it was assembled from a cut-up sign. That also seems to be the case with "Wink," in which fragments of steel address numbers peek out from behind and underneath.

While the usual custom at Robischon is to mount a separate show in the Artforms space, for Abstraction that niche is given over to four major paintings by Denver's Trine Bumiller, a mini-solo exhibit within the group exhibit. Bumiller's signature is gestural abstraction with obtuse though recognizable references to nature. She often conjures up such natural things as roots, rivers and ice crystals, all of which are essentially linear, and painstakingly paints them with layer upon layer of oil glazes. As a result, the surfaces are dense with a definite internal sheen. Here the oil-on-panel diptych "Ice Nine" features on the left a vertical panel covered with a skein of lines in white on a dusty blue ground; on the right the panel is mostly white, over which appears a dense tangle of black lines. Similar in effect is "Wind Cave," in which a loosely conceived grid of white on gray is placed next to a gray field with a meandering brown line. Like Scott, Bumiller is interested in the landscape. But rather than making direct reference to the landscape, she suggests it only through her use of symbols and specific colors.

There's no such subtlety in Dams and Drive-Ins, a separate show of contemporary Western landscapes installed in the newly remodeled viewing room located behind the back gallery. Not only has the space gotten a paint job and carpet, but the cumbersome set of drawers used to store works on paper has been moved to the storage room beyond. As a result, the room is now fully functional as an exhibition space. The dams in Dams and Drive-Ins come from Chuck Forsman, the nationally recognized Boulder artist; the drive-ins are the work of Don Stinson. While Robischon has had a long-standing relationship with Forsman, Denverite Stinson is new to the gallery, having recently left Bill Havu. Bringing these two artists together is a natural; earlier this year they hung side by side in the contemporary realist show at Golden's Foothills Center.

In the oil on panel "Lizard," Forsman places a mountain in the brightly lighted center of the background in the manner of a traditional landscape painting. However, this mountain isn't breathtaking or even picturesque, because earth movers have cut and ravaged it. In fact, only the darkened foreground--and the sky--are found in their natural state. Everything else in view has been damaged by the development of the fictional dam, which remains unseen. Forsman always uses unconventional frames to set off his paintings; in "Lizard," the top is arched to convey the idea that the landscape continues beyond the picture. To emphasize this, Forsman has the clouds drift over the black lacquered frame.

Stinson also looks at damaged goods, but in his work, the land triumphs over the development. In "Paonia Drive-In," an oil on panel, the prairie grasses have overtaken the parking lot. A battered outdoor screen anchors the picture, though Stinson has placed it on the far right edge of a composition that's otherwise dominated by the almost clear sky.

Just as Forsman and Stinson make a wonderful pairing, Dams and Drive-Ins and Untitled Summer Exhibition #22: Abstraction are a refreshing matchup. The two shows are polar opposites--and in the summer, there's no cooler place to be.

Untitled Summer Exhibition #22: Abstraction and Dams and Drive-Ins, through July 25 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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