Time Marches On

Colorado's abstract art tradition continues.

The Arvada Center is presenting the epoch-defining two-part exhibition Colorado Abstraction, 1975-1999, which fills the entire two-story facility. Last week I reviewed Part I, a breezy look at the key abstract painters and sculptors who emerged in the 1970s. This week I look at Part II, which presents the artists of the 1980s and 1990s. Both parts were organized by museum director Kathy Andrews.

Like the show itself, Part II -- which is handsomely installed in the second-floor galleries -- is bifurcated. For the artists who rose to prominence in the 1980s, Andrews typically paired an older piece with a newer one; for those who came to the fore in the 1990s, she included only a single piece.

In compiling her list of artists from the 1980s, Andrews relied on a decade's worth of experience at the Arvada Center; many of these artists have been the subject of solo shows there, while others have made appearances in group shows. But the 1990s generation was another matter. For this group, she relied on guidance from others. "I had the most trouble coming up with the younger artists," she says. "I talked to a lot of people and asked them who they thought were the most important abstractionists right now."

"Untitled (Benighted Time)," by Homare Ikeda, painting.
"Untitled (Benighted Time)," by Homare Ikeda, painting.

Although Andrews visited numerous studios, some of the artists got her attention in a more informal way. "As I began to look, a buzz about the show developed, and many artists called or sent slides," she says. Some of their works wound up in the show. "I was impressed with all the artists, but especially the younger ones. They know what they're doing and why they're doing it."

There were two important abstract artists, however, who did not accept an invitation to participate -- an incredible circumstance, since many who were not invited would have killed to be selected. According to Andrews, Mark Travis never responded to her repeated requests, and Brad Miller begged off, saying he was too busy.

The resulting Part II is distinct from Part I, not just because of the different date range, but also visually. The aesthetic distinction is a function of the tremendous changes contemporary art has undergone in the past 25 years, and Andrews says she's "delighted the two shows look so different from each other."

In the 1970s, abstraction was still the main course for many artists, even if movements like pop art and hyper-realism had already reintroduced representation. By the 1980s, though, abstraction was in trouble. The revival of recognizable subjects became all the rage, not just because of the pop artists and the super realists, but because of the rise of the ultimate '80s style, neo-expressionism. Artists were also leaving behind media like painting and sculpture to embrace installation and conceptual art.

The 1990s, however, witnessed a return to abstraction despite these countervailing tendencies. This may be part of the same reflexiveness that has us looking backward at the past century. Or, more likely, it demonstrates the continuing appeal of modernism.

Jane Fudge, an associate curator at the Denver Art Museum who wrote the brochure that accompanies Colorado Abstraction, discusses the current situation. She even goes so far as to label abstraction in recent years an "academic" style.

This observation reveals an interesting problem. Abstract art has never found general acceptance with the public -- even when it was unrivaled as the style of choice for contemporary artists. And today, vanguard artists and their supporters have also turned against it, increasingly seeing abstraction as a reactionary approach.

In other words, whereas the general public views abstract art as something that's really wild and out there, enthusiasts of cutting-edge art have thrown it into the waste bin of history, regarding it as quaint and even old-fashioned.

This diversity of opinion demonstrates the ever-widening gulf between the public and the art world, a predicament that will become graver in the coming years and may have a deleterious effect on art.

Andrews hasn't addressed these issues in either part of the show, however. She simply celebrates abstract art without critiquing it. "My intention was to honor artists working in abstraction today," she says.

The hanging arrangement of Part II -- which begins at the top of the grand staircase -- does not manifest the division between the artists of the 1980s and those of the 1990s, a pity because it's left to the visitor to sort out the two generations. To keep them separate, it may be helpful to refer to the exhibition checklist printed on the back of the brochure.

One of the first artists on display is Homare Ikeda, who is represented by a pair of fabulous signature paintings. Ikeda's style is a response to abstract expressionism, in which he takes an all-over approach to composition while exploring the nature of paint. In "Untitled," an oil on canvas from 1989, Ikeda uses thousands of tiny daubs of paint applied thickly in the center. "Untitled (Benighted Time)," an oil and wax on canvas done last year, is also densely painted. Though similar in style, "Untitled" is brightly toned, whereas the later painting is dark and murky.

Ikeda is one of several artists whose work since the '80s demonstrates the continuing power and appeal of abstract expressionism. There is no mystery why: Abstract expressionism is about paint itself, and paint is something in which painters are definitely interested.

Also associated with abstract expressionism are two marvelous paintings by Steve Altman that are hung on either side of the entrance to the west wing. On the right is an untitled piece from 1988 in acrylic, wax and pencil on canvas. In it, three ovals are arranged horizontally in a line on a dark, nearly black background that is accented with scribbles and lines. Altman's more recent effort -- also untitled -- is carried out in acrylic, crayon and oil stick on paper that has been adhered to wood. Both pieces feature gestural brushwork used in automatist passages, but the earlier painting has a more organized composition, with the ovals dividing the picture into three clear parts. The newer piece, painted just this year, is disordered by comparison, though still carefully balanced.

Ania Gola-Kumor is another artist who has been exhibiting since the 1980s. Her work is the heir to abstract expressionism as well as other abstract styles, notably cubism, at least in the case of "Composition," an oil on canvas from 1988. In this piece, she uses a creamy monochrome color scheme to create roughly geometric shapes that overlap one another. On the adjacent wall is the elegant "Untitled," a group of eighteen mixed-media collages done in 1997 and 1998. The collages, which have been individually framed in aluminum and hung in a vertical grid, are dark and lush, characteristics that are offset by the gleam of the aluminum frames.

Painter, sculptor and installation artist Jeffrey Keith has bristled at the idea that he is part of the '80s generation. According to Andrews, he felt his work should have been seen in Part I with the artists of the 1970s. He's right.

Keith has gotten uneven results in a variety of styles and media, but he has always been at his best in the realm of abstract painting. In "Untitled," an oil on ragboard from 1982, Keith uses bold tones of yellow, orange and red for his sunny palette. Surely he chose this painting to complement his superb mural "Water Under the Draw Bridge," an oil on canvas from 1998. The gigantic horizontal painting is hung on the back wall, where it commands the east gallery. Painted for the most part in a toned-up yellow and accented by hard-edged geometric forms down the right side, it has been extensively underpainted, creating a rich, multi-hued result.

The art of underpainting, in which the surface color results from the colors underneath, has also been a keen interest of Trine Bumiller's. Unlike the other painters in Part II, Bumiller does not base her efforts on the abstract expressionists. "Genus," from 1986, has two white spikes, with heavy black shadows running at a slight diagonal from the bottom to the top of the vertical painting. The spikes are set against a boldly painted background of mostly creamy yellow. More familiar is the style of her newer painting, 1998's "Piece of Heaven," in which three distinct panels are stacked horizontally. As she has typically done in recent years, Bumiller has applied coat after coat of nearly transparent oil glazes to this piece.

Several of the 1990s painters also tend to build pictures by building up paint. Jeff Wenzel, for example, paints his images over and over, often tearing off and discarding parts while attaching new fragments. The technique relates to his former career as a ceramic sculptor, working with clay. His "Red Fish II," a 1998 mixed-media work on paper, is the incredibly beautiful result of this unorthodox method. Wenzel is one of the greatest of the current crop of abstract painters.

John Clark is another '90s painter interested in a textured surface, which he makes with tiny swirls of paint that blend the colors. But he also creates a structural component by assembling three distinct panels -- one gray, one cream, one black -- in a vertical line for the mixed-media "Leader of Fire."

Bill Brazzell also cuts up his paintings into separate parts. "Icarus II," an oil, wax and tar on wood from this year, is made up of scores of small square elements. These have been thickly sheathed in a variety of media that have been unified by a shiny transparent covering.

Harry Tulchin lets various layers show through to the surface of "Untitled (For Mark Sandman)," a 1999 acrylic on canvas that has been partly scorched. Scott Holdeman, for his part, paints as thinly as possible, setting black clearly against white in "Products of Understanding," an oil on canvas from 1996.

Another artist who handles surface in a novel way is Andrew Speer. In "Sufficient Grace," an acrylic, oil, encaustic and charcoal on canvas, he has inserted areas that are not on the same plane as the picture's surface but are either slightly higher or lower. They must take a lot of effort to make, and the result is distinctive. Director Andrews notes that Speer is an inspiration for many of the artists in Part II.

Several of the most adventurous artists in Part II have been nurtured by Clark Richert, an important artist whose work is seen in Part I. They are interested in post-minimalism rather than abstract expressionism.

Jason Hoelscher's "Index 1.0" is a pair of acrylic-on-canvas paintings. Each has a white background on which Hoelscher has painted a hard-edged outline of the canvas connected to vertical lines, like line drawings of windows. Hoelscher's unexpected painterly technique, given his minimalist approach to pictorial design, lends his works a sense of deep space. The lines sit on the surface of the pictures, while the background seems to recede into the wall. Melanie Hoshiko gets the opposite result with 1999's "Enter," a three-dimensional wall construction that reads, at least from the front, like a two-dimensional painting.

Mixing up painting and sculpture is surely what Bruce Price has done with the painted sculpture "Inserted and Overlapped," an acrylic on canvas. Price has suggested intersecting forms with his hard-edged color fields, but his piece takes the simple form of a rectangular box. It would not be surprising to see Price break free of the rectangle, as he has broken with the inherent flatness, or near-flatness, of painting.

Although sculpture plays second fiddle to painting in Part II, bona fide sculptors are featured here.

George Peters has obviously worked his way out of abstract sculpture since creating his 1980s piece. His new mixed-media piece, "Homage to Otto," is made up of recognizable images, most notably the flaming airplane hung in the atrium space.

Still working in a totally abstract vein is Carl Reed. His 1980 "Pedestal Piece" is a steel hoop attached to the smashed fragment of an I-beam. The piece has a lovely rusted patina. His newer piece is a sculptural group made up of a cut hemisphere on the floor with a wood-and-steel structure standing nearby. The piece has a poetic, atmospheric quality.

Ceramic genius Scott Chamberlin is represented by three enigmatic wall-hung sculptures, all of which have a cryptic quality owing to the difficult, primordial shapes that the artist prefers to use for his monochrome ceramics. "Heved" and "Flappe," both from the mid-'90s, and this year's "Pente" all suggest primitive life forms, or even internal organs.

As a whole, Colorado Abstraction: 1975-1999 is good, but there are some disappointments. Andrews didn't use the two-part show as an opportunity to illustrate the history of the past 25 years, nor did she make any stylistic observations or provide biographical or historical material on the participants.

But these considerable shortcomings notwithstanding, the show is still a big success, a major accomplishment and a visual treat.

Next week we'll look at the prequel, Vanguard Art in Colorado, which opens this weekend at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and focuses on abstraction from the 1930s to the 1960s.

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