East Coast, West Coast

Two shows bring the best of both worlds to Denver.

Mazal, who was born in Mexico in 1950 and later trained as a graphic designer at the University of Illinois, moved to Barcelona, Spain, in 1984 to teach himself to paint. He studied the work of abstract painters, including Germany's Gerhard Richter and New Yorker William Baziotes, and produced his first mature series of paintings in the late 1980s. These were exhibited at the Scott Alan Gallery in New York in 1989. Impressed with his reception there, Mazal moved to the city in 1991 and has remained ever since.

Mazal sees his current body of work, the paintings of The Spiral Square Series, as being the culmination of his work over the last ten years. "They come from the earlier paintings," he says. "They're an evolution, not a revolution. They include many of the stages my paintings went through over the last ten years."

In the late '80s, Mazal was using thin washes of oil and turpentine. In this way, he says, he was "creating light by using the white of the canvas" that showed through the thin but dark washes. The bottom layer, the ground used for all of the new Spiral Square Series, has been done in the same way as the older paintings. Instead of constituting his entire technical repertoire, however, the staining is only one of several techniques he uses now.

Pecadoras Series II, by Manuel Neri, sculpture.
Pecadoras Series II, by Manuel Neri, sculpture.
Spiral Square Black I, by Ricardo Mazal, painting.
Spiral Square Black I, by Ricardo Mazal, painting.

In 1991, Mazal began to incorporate an image inspired by the death of his mother. As she lay dying, Mazal's family members surrounded her bed, hand in hand. From this traumatic experience, the artist began to place hidden circles in his paintings. The circles within the squares are redolent of multiple meanings and are another longtime characteristic seen in his newest paintings. In 1993 and 1994 he began to conceive of his paintings as open books, and the random letters and numbers in his new pieces, partially obscured by over-painting, make reference to this.

From 1995 to 1997, Mazal began to cover his under-painting with heavy bars of color, between which only glimpses of the ground were visible. These heavy marks and lines were inspired by the work -- as unlikely as it may seem -- of the late Piet Mondrian, whose geometric paintings were a precursor to the work of the minimalists. This is something seemingly anathema to a maximalist such as Mazal. The bars can still be seen in his most recent paintings, but they have been widely separated, revealing much more of the layers underneath.

Mazal goes to great lengths to explain the origins of various aspects of the Spiral Square paintings because they look so different from his earlier work. Yet even without his remarks, the new paintings are clearly an outgrowth of the older ones.

Ricardo Mazal: Recent Paintings is commanded by four major works exhibited in the main showroom. Four is an important number for Mazal, who almost always creates in multiples of four. Although each painting features a different dominant color at the surface layer, all are linked by the creamy ocher grounds they share. The paintings are named for their dominant color schemes: Black I, Red I, White I and Yellow I. Each is a masterpiece.

"These paintings truly bring everything together. I have the feeling that I have achieved something important with this show," Mazal says. "I have found something that's my own, something so alive and vibrant."

Speaking of alive and vibrant, how about the fact that art has once again found itself at the center of a full-frontal attack by right-wingers? The flash point is an exhibition in, of all places, New York City, the art center of the world. The last time something like this happened was ten years ago, and it started not in New York, but out in the hinterlands.

In 1989, a traveling group exhibit organized by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, included a piece that would live in infamy. New York artist Andres Serrano had snapped a color shot of a plastic crucifix immersed in urine. Aptly called Piss Christ, it was a part of Serrano's Immersion series, in which the photographer took reproductions of religious and secular sculptures, placed them in urine, blood or semen, backlit them, and photographed the resulting tableaux. The cibachrome prints, like Piss Christ, are beautiful.

The SCCA had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $15,000 to defray shipping costs, which meant that the show was, at least in part, federally funded. Suddenly, contemporary art was a topic being discussed in both houses of Congress -- and that was not a good thing. The political battles fought against public funding of controversial art went on for years. The result? The NEA received slightly more than half the funding this year than it had before the Neanderthals in Congress had ever heard of Piss Christ.

The current controversy surrounds a traveling exhibit called Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. The show, which was originally presented at the Royal Academy of the Arts in London in 1997, just opened at New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art. Like Piss Christ, a piece in this show that mixes religious imagery with excrement has been the flash point for conservatives.

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