Two Sublime

The Rule gallery proves that Mary Obering and Dale Chisman make quite a pair.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in the up-and-coming neighborhood around First Avenue and Broadway, a steady stream of visitors found their way through the doors of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery. At the same time, a client in the gallery's back office was making a purchase. At one point, when the place got particularly crowded, I caught the eye of busy director Robin Rule. "Build it, and they will come," she said with a shrug and a smile.

Currently, and as usual, Rule is showing two unrelated exhibits at the same time, and the two artists represented make a particularly nice comparison because they are essentially opposites.

In the main gallery is the marvelous Mary Obering, Recent Paintings, which showcases geometric abstractions made in Italy by Obering, a New York artist with substantial personal and professional ties to Denver. In the small gallery in the back, the engaging Dale Chisman highlights gestural abstract prints by a Denver artist with substantial personal and professional ties to New York.

"Light Dark Duel," by Mary Obering, mixed-media painting.
"Light Dark Duel," by Mary Obering, mixed-media painting.
Print from the "Voz" series, by Dale Chisman.
Print from the "Voz" series, by Dale Chisman.

Obering was born in 1937 and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the 1950s she attended Hollins College in Virginia and then entered graduate school at Radcliffe College near Boston. Her field of study at the time was not fine art, but psychology; while at Radcliffe, she worked with behaviorist B. F. Skinner. But Obering was already interested in art, which she pursued as a hobby. After leaving school, she got married and moved to New York, where she worked for CBS. In the mid-1960s she came to Denver with her husband and seemingly settled into the life of a housewife, mom and Junior Leaguer.

But Obering's interest in art intervened, and she went back to school when she was in her thirties, acquiring an MFA from the University of Denver in 1971. At first she worked in sculpture with former DU professor Roger Kotoske, but eventually she turned to painting.

Hard-edged abstraction of the sort preferred by Obering was all the rage around here when she graduated from DU. (The popularity of this form is clearly revealed in two recent shows: the first half of Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center, which was on last fall, and the second section of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art's Vanguard Art in Colorado, which closed right before Christmas.)

Obering's career was just taking off when she left DU, but her marriage was breaking up. That summer, she left her husband and went to Italy with her young daughter. As a stroke of luck, Obering met another American there, minimalist master Carl Andre. The two became fast friends. (Obering's continuing friendship with the famous sculptor and her more recent friendship with Rule led directly to the show at the gallery this past summer that featured Andre's work.) Soon after returning from Italy, Obering left Denver for good and relocated to New York.

Andre gave Obering entree into the New York art world, and she soon found herself at the center of the then-still-burgeoning minimalist scene. She met and became especially close to the late Donald Judd, dean of New York minimalism. According to Rule, Judd's later painted work owes a debt of gratitude to Obering's style. But surely Judd exerted an influence on Obering as well, particularly in encouraging her modular approach to abstraction, which is akin to his use of repetition. But Obering is not, and was not, a classic minimalist. Her work has a decidedly decorative component, especially with regard to the somewhat luxurious and varied materials she uses. And though her paintings seem to be simple, and therefore minimal, they are actually very complex. They are elaborately conceived and executed, which is in contrast to the smooth and monochromatic surfaces associated with signature minimalism.

Mary Obering marks the second time the artist has been the subject of a solo presentation at Rule. (Four years ago, Denver was introduced to her work in a retrospective of paintings done between 1978 and 1996.) The show begins just inside the front door, in the intimately scaled entry space at Rule. In a didactic panel painted directly on the wall, Obering dedicates the show to the memory of Robert Qualls, an old friend from Denver.

Adjacent and opposite to the dedication, Rule has displayed a trio of just-completed pieces that cogently lay out Obering's program, both in terms of the materials she incorporates and the reductivism of her simple compositions. A fourth, installed when the show opened, has since been removed.

Obering's newer paintings, most of them done in 1999, are simultaneously related to her classic work and clearly different. The most obvious difference is her somewhat surprising use of natural stone cut into thin panels in lieu of more traditional paints or pigments. She created these paintings in Italy, where the stone was quarried, and she uses the natural abstractions in the rocks' veneers to stand in for painted passages.

Though her use of stone is a relatively recent development, Obering has long employed clay as paint, which is some way anticipates this newer material. In addition to stone and clay, she uses tempera and gold leaf.

"Blue Plain" and "Brown Sky," hung side by side, are both done in egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panel; each has a buff-colored limestone panel as well. Obering has divided each horizontal panel into a pair of squares, which are then divided into a pair of horizontal bars on the right side and a pair vertical ones on the left. The titles and the overall horizontal shapes make oblique references to the landscape, another longtime interest of hers.

Even more exaggerated in its horizontality is the ironically named "Vertical Series (Section 1)"; the title no doubt refers to the precise vertical divisions of the picture between the areas of burnishing clay, gold leaf, egg tempera and buff-colored limestone.

These first three pieces share a quiet palette, despite the sheen of the gold leaf. In the main room, however, Rule has assembled many brightly hued works featuring strong and vibrant shades of red, blue and green.

A rich and gestural lipstick red draws our eyes immediately to the striking "Vertical Series (Section 4)" on the back wall. More subtle is the appeal of the greenish-gray slate that Obering also uses in the piece.

Toward the front of the room is another eye-catcher: "Light Dark Duel" is a small but stunning square-shaped painting with a particularly rich shade of green. Obering has divided the panel in two; on the left is a vertical rectangle of limestone, on the right is one in green egg tempera. She has emphasized the sides of the painting by covering them in gold leaf. Though this may remind viewers of gilt framing, Obering's intention is to make the sides of her paintings as important as the front. As a result, many of her paintings take on a sculptural, three-dimensional quality.

The most sculptural paintings here are from a series of five cruciforms collectively titled "Stations of the Stones" from 1997; it's the only piece in the show that isn't absolutely new. "Stations of the Stones" is hung next to "Light Dark Duel" and fills up most of the north wall. In the five components, all of which are equilateral Greek crosses, Obering varies the size of the pictorial elements created by her different materials. A loose progression is thus created, with the artist employing various-sized squares and rectangles of red and blue tempera, gold leaf, burnishing clay and limestone.

On the east wall are two paintings that stand apart from the rest. Whereas most of the paintings in this show have elements that are lined up evenly and run from top to bottom or side to side, "Selection" and "Slateslip" include elements that stop mid-panel, leaving a jagged, or stepped, footprint. Interestingly, this subtle change introduces depth, with the forms appearing to be in front of the footprint, instead of simply being above it, as they are.

Mary Obering is extremely elegant and represents the kind of art we expect to see at Rule, since minimalism and its progeny are a gallery specialty. Another special interest for Rule is gestural abstraction, as seen in the other show, Dale Chisman. This exhibit, made up of little more than a single suite of etchings, is installed in the small and informal back gallery. But if you ask, you'll also be able to see a handful of new Chisman paintings hung in the storage area.

Chisman is one of the state's most accomplished painters. Born in west Denver, not far from where he still has a home and studio, he represents a contemporary link to the state's modern art history.

At North High School, where he graduated in 1961, Chisman studied with the late Martha Epp. Later that year, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, he trained with Mary Chenoweth, who died a year ago. The two women exerted a strong early influence on Chisman, an artistic relationship that was evident in Epp and Chenoweth's paintings in the BMoCA Vanguard Art in Colorado exhibit.

Chisman went on to Yale University, the University of Colorado and London's Royal Academy. He also spent more than a decade in New York, where he was successful as a painter before returning to Denver in 1984. Little known here at first, Chisman joined the Pirate co-op and handily established himself as one of the city's premier artists. He plans to return to New York soon, if only periodically, and has already rented a studio there.

A large part of Dale Chisman is taken up by a portfolio titled "7-4," which includes seven etchings and four poems set in letter press and placed together in cloth binding. The poems are the work of Juan Ramon Jiménez, an important Spanish poet. The black-and-white etchings have a lyrical quality and include vaguely floral and vegetal references.

The small, almost whimsical character of the etchings is also seen in the Chisman prints from the "Cruz" series and the "Voz" series, which combine etching with the chine collé of pre-printed papers. Some of the pre-printed papers sport geometric patterns, while others have been decorated with simple conventionalized floral motifs. All of the Chisman prints were pulled by Mark Lunning, master printer for Denver's Open Press.

Though Chisman has used recognizable elements before in his otherwise abstract compositions, they are often edgy in content, like wings or scribbles. This expectation has left many in the art world unprepared for the unmistakable flowers that have cropped up in his recent prints and paintings. Chisman's use of a flower as a component was first seen in a painting in Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center. These abstracts with flowers have not been readily accepted, and there's no denying that they are difficult.

Rule has a major painting of the type, "Alter," a 1999 oil on canvas, hanging in the back. On a creamy gray ground covered with smears and smudges, Chisman arranges a number of floral and vegetal forms. Floating above a shape suggestive of a tulip's silhouette is a red rosette. The rosette, made of a radial of red brush strokes, is seen in many of Chisman's recent paintings. "Dale is always ready to take on new things. I think it's great that he's not afraid to create difficult work," says Rule.

This new direction is perhaps what cost Chisman a place in BMoCA's Colorado 2000, a juried show that just opened. There are those in the local art world -- myself included -- who believe that an out-of-state juror's decision to reject Chisman is an outrage. The show, particularly since it's billed as Colorado 2000, is meaningless when one of our modern masters has been left out.

Here's a solution: In the future, let's have the confidence to pull jurors from the pool of local experts. Or, here's a crazy thought: How about an invitational survey? Either way, embarrassments like the Chisman blunder in Boulder could be avoided in the future.

And those flower abstracts by Chisman? I'll confess to being unenthusiastic when I first saw the one at the Arvada Center and then others in Chisman's studio. But you know what? They really grow on you.

The Chisman and Obering exhibits are two of the most urbane shows around -- and both, sadly, close this weekend.

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