Almost Anything Goes

Surveying the two exhibits that make up the fall opener at her namesake Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, director Robin Rule is clearly pleased. Her bright mood reflects the fact that not only do the two shows each highlight the thoughtful and interesting work of very good contemporary artists, but--and this is even more important--the featured work has been selling. "I'm so tired of hearing people say that contemporary art doesn't sell well in Denver," says Rule. "We've been selling like mad." She's even been selling pieces from the gallery's considerable reserves in stock, conveniently stored in the back room.

The Jae H. Hahn: Painting exhibit, which Rule has installed in the gallery's entry space, features some recent work by Jae H. Hahn, a West Coast artist who is just now emerging on the national scene. Although many of us were unaware of Hahn's work until this show, Rule was exposed to her paintings a couple of years ago when Denver artist and then-Rule gallery assistant Christina Snouffer happened on a Hahn show in Los Angeles. Snouffer was probably impressed by Hahn because, like Snouffer, she uses geometric abstraction and refers to Oriental art. By chance, Hahn was also the subject of the traveling solo exhibit Lines. Space. Immanence, which stopped at the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie during the summer of 1997. There Rule was able to examine Hahn's work firsthand. (The University of Wyoming Art Museum is housed in the fabulous, nationally known tepee-shaped building sited dramatically on a bluff at the edge of campus. The building was designed by visionary architect Antoine Predock and was--before the fatal gay-bashing of Matthew Shepard a few weeks ago--the most famous thing associated with the University of Wyoming. Sadly, one of the four arrested in the Shepard case was an art student at the university.)

Rule was struck by Hahn's paintings and immediately arranged for this show in Denver, which differs entirely from last year's Laramie exhibit. It's easy to understand Rule's affection for this kind of work, since Hahn's principal pictorial device is the stripe. The simple style makes her paintings a good fit for Rule's gallery, which is a center for geometric painting. Rule has presented many exhibits on the topic, including those devoted to New York minimalist pioneer Mary Obering and to local master of mathematical painting Clark Richert. The gallery has also hosted that post-minimalist gang of les enfants formidables that includes Snouffer, Bruce Price, Jason Hoelscher and John Clark.

Hahn's paintings must also be seen as post-minimal. Though the use of the stripe links her work to the minimalist tradition, her technique is downright anti-minimal. Whereas the first-generation minimalists such as Barnett Newman and Gene Davis, in their use of stripes laid on monochromatic color fields, reduced the painting to its bare essence, they also took a reductivist approach to technique and sought to achieve an utterly flat surface. Hahn lays down stripes on top of color fields; however, her finish is anything but flat. Instead, her paints are luminous--they almost seem to generate their own light. "These works are like prisms, like Venetian glass. She puts down up to forty layers of medium and oil so the light gets trapped between the layers," Rule explains.

Hahn paints with a homemade mixture of stand oil and pigment. The bottom coats feature a ratio in which the blend has more pigment and less oil. As the layers approach the surface, the amount of pigment is decreased; the final few are done with stand oil alone. This technique will surely remind some of the many contemporary painters, notably Denver's Trine Bumiller, who have revived similar glazing techniques developed in Italy during the Renaissance. In Hahn's case, the procedure is taken from the traditions of Oriental lacquering.

This artistic reference to Asia is no pose on Hahn's part, since she was born and raised in Seoul, Korea. She attended Seoul National University's College of the Fine Arts before permanently settling in Southern California in the 1970s. She attended UCLA and later studied at California State University in Long Beach. Today Hahn lives in Altadena, California.

In the Rule show, Hahn displays the wide range of effects she's able to produce using the extremely limited visual vocabulary of the stripe, mostly in a horizontal arrangement, but here they also appear in diagonal and vertical compositions.

The Hahn exhibit starts off with a bang in the form of a powerful diptych, "Kuan B97-7," a 1997 oil and mixed media on canvas in which lipstick-red stripes form an inverted triangular pattern on a glittering gold ground. The point of the triangle is placed at the bottom center, precisely at the seam of the two panels that make up the diptych. It is a hieratic composition, like many of Hahn's paintings in this show.

Multi-panel formats such as that of "Kuan B97-7" are apparently something Hahn uses often. In another 1997 oil and mixed media on canvas, "Kuan A97-1.2.3.," the triptych arrangement involves three small square canvases, each emblazoned with red and gold horizontal stripes of various widths and lined up so the center panel rises above the two. In such a composition, which is also hieratic, the eye invariably goes to the center, though in this case it goes to the top--despite the distraction of the horizontal stripes.

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