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.

Much different in both palette and effect is the earlier "She-Gong R94-4," an oil and mixed media on wood from 1994. In this painting, golden ocher vertical bars alternate with dark red ones, and in the center of the gold bars are thin stripes in shiny multiple colors. This dark palette lends a contemplative mood to the painting, a characteristic not seen in the new, more brightly hued pieces.

Another unusual painting is the long and lean five-panel "Kuan, A97-7" in which horizontal bars in a light sunny yellow are interspersed with dark, mustard-colored horizontal bars. The darker bars are arranged in such a way as to radiate out from the center.

The collection of paintings creates a transcendent atmosphere; Rule observes that the gallery "feels like a Buddhist temple." Whether that image works or not, the show is surely one of quiet elegance--which is as different from the adjacent show as night is from day.

In the gallery's tiny back space, Jeffrey Keith: Erotic Gouaches focuses on a small body of recent work by University of Denver art teacher and contemporary art-world fixture Jeffrey Keith, who has exhibited widely here and around the country during the last decade or so. He paints monumental abstract-expressionist paintings that are among the finest around. At the same time, he makes goofy and folkloric installations and sculptures, most often incorporating found objects. And at Rule, Keith also does neo-expressionist-style still-life paintings that capture recognizable subjects.

The show is subtitled Erotic Gouaches, which is misleading, since it is not the gouaches themselves that have sexual content but rather the found paper the artist uses as his ground. Keith has torn pages from hardcore pornographic magazines that picture heterosexual couples in various levels of embrace. Keith has then almost painted out the lurid scenes entirely and replaced them with images of sweet things like houses and animals, or even portraits. For the most part, the explicit photos are hidden, but on closer inspection, their details can be made out beneath the thin veils of gouache. In "Bust," for example, what at first glance looks like an expressionist essay on a classically inspired portrait head turns out to also incorporate a frontal view of a nude man. The face of the bust follows the contours of the man's shoulders. In that piece, Keith has painted out the X-rated details, but not so in the aptly titled "Monkey and Oral Sex," in which a monkey head in red, white and black floats above a coffee mug in whose glaze the named sexual act can be clearly seen beneath a light coat of grayish white.

The monkey's head makes a second appearance, this time as an element in the show's only sculpture, "Monkey Plane." The piece, which imitates an old pull toy, is made of an antique carpenter's plane with wheels, on one end of which is a carved wooden monkey head painted red.

With the unlikely pairing of these two shows, Rule has succeeded in giving expression to what is clearly the present reality: In the 1990s, nearly anything goes in contemporary art.

Anything, that is, except traditional representational painting. This is the kind of thing that is the mainstay of that old warhorse, the Artists of America show, now in its eighteenth annual version at the Colorado History Museum. The show, which is sponsored by the Denver Rotary Club, has established itself as one of the most predictable events of the art world.

Though the exhibit is billed as a showcase for "contemporary realism," only a few of the pieces can actually claim to be genuinely contemporary as opposed to old-fashioned, even if they are new. A real standout--especially when seen among the nostalgic depictions of little girls and mountain landscapes--is a lyrical neo-expressionist scene of polka-dotted horses arranged in an all-over pattern. The piece, "Painted Ponies Dance Like Rainbows in the Sky," is a mammoth oil on canvas by famous Santa Fe artist Earl Biss. Unfortunately, we won't be seeing anymore work coming out of Biss's studio, since he died last week from a sudden stroke at the age of 51.

Aside from the Biss and a couple of other things, the show is dominated by rigidly academic paintings and those of a sickeningly sweet sentimental character. And while most of the artists recall specific historical styles, most often impressionism, rarely do the new paintings come up to the level of their ancestral sources.

But the point here is not to bury the AoA; it is to identify a festering problem at the sponsoring institution, the Colorado History Museum. The AoA, the CHM's only annual, has little to do with Colorado and nothing to do with history. And though the museum has presented AoA for eighteen long years, in that same time it has rarely presented exhibits that examine the state's art history. And if there are good financial reasons to continue the show, which is a great moneymaker for the museum, some sense of equity should force them to add, if only as a consolation prize for the art community, an annual that looks at some facet of the state's rich history of artistic accomplishment.

The CHM isn't alone in shamefully ignoring the great legacy of historic Colorado art. The Denver Art Museum, only a block away at the Civic Center, also has a disgraceful track record in this area--but at least at the DAM, what is on display is worth seeing. The same cannot be said for the CHM, especially when it's offering the lackluster AoA.

Jae H. Hahn: Painting and Jeffrey Keith: Erotic Gouaches, both through November 7 at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473.

Artists of America, through November 1 at the Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, 303-866-3681.

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