Winter Wonders

Two Wazee galleries heat up Denver's art scene with spectacular showings.

Despite the trends elsewhere, winter in Colorado, as much as fall, is high season in the art world.

This may have something to do with the way we handle the colder months. In New York recently, a few inches of snow almost shut down the city. In Denver, on the other hand, it takes a couple of feet before even the outdoor events are canceled. So regardless of the weather, people will have little trouble getting to a quartet of exciting contemporary shows at a pair of the city's toniest galleries, both on Wazee Street in lower downtown.

At the swank Ron Judish Fine Arts, two of Denver's best talents are given top-drawer treatment. In the front is the lyrical and compelling Stephen Batura: Frontier. In the center room and filling the large back space is the triumphant William Stockman: Sketchbook.

At the Robischon Gallery, the city's longest-lasting and most distinguished contemporary-art purveyor, the spacious multi-part gallery in the front -- which is usually divided into two or even three exhibits -- has been given over entirely to a massive solo, Trine Bumiller: New Paintings. In the intimate Viewing Room in the back is a small selection of large works on paper called Judy Pfaff: Recent Prints.

Gallery director Ron Judish is thrilled with the results of his inspired pairing. "I couldn't be more pleased," he says. "Steve's off in an exciting new direction, and Bill just keeps getting better and better." These remarks could easily be seen as little more than shameless promotion for Judish's gallery -- except that he's absolutely right: Both shows look fabulous.

As usual, Judish captures the atmosphere of a small luxurious museum within the confines of the rehabbed Victorian storefront that serves as his gallery's home. Also typical here is the creative and effective installation for which he is justly renowned. But this time it's wilder than ever.

Frontier is a continuation of a new current in Batura's work in which the subject, sometimes only nominally, is rushing water. Batura first exhibited a painting of water last year at Pirate. That piece, titled "floodplain," was a gigantic forty-foot-long multi-panel mural. In style, it was almost completely abstract, though Batura did capture the quality of light reflecting off water. It was also ambitious and appeared to have been done in a fury of creative energy in which Batura used quickly done, slapdash brushwork instead of his more expected meticulous technique.

In Frontier, "floodplain" has been used as an inspirational laboratory for newer paintings that are much smaller than the mural but more fully fleshed out, both pictorially and technically.

It was perhaps "floodplain" that led Judish to install the paintings in an unconventional way. Instead of lining them up, he arranged them in balanced yet asymmetrical clusters. Some are hung close to the floor, others are high up on the wall. It's amazing, but the effect is similar to that of "floodplain" because the installation completely transforms the exhibition space in the manner of an all-encompassing environment.

The paintings here are related to one another, but some are almost abstract expressionist and require some imagination on the part of the viewer to see the water. Others are nearly photographic in their accuracy and, aside from some idiosyncratic color choices, are readily readable as rivers or streams.

"Anamosa," a casein-on-panel piece done in 2000 (like everything else in this exhibit), is on the abstract edge. Using a muted palette reduced to shades of brown and a variety of off-whites, Batura records the surface of quickly moving water on which the sunlight is brightly reflected. But since it's a closeup, it's also just a series of swirling brushstrokes. "Fontanelle," another piece, is even darker and more abstract.

In contrast are the crispy, realistic views of water seen in "Salon" and, above it and to the right, "Emeraldo." In both paintings, the rocks around which the water rushes give us something concrete to focus on; they also lend the paintings a sense of scale. "Salon" features the dark palette seen in "Anamosa," but "Emeraldo" sports a luscious and luminous icy green.

Stockman's work begins in the connecting space that leads back to the large room beyond, and Judish has included an assortment of sizes ranging from small sketch-pad pages to large sheets to gigantic images applied directly to the wall. These signature drawings are consistently good, no matter their size.

Stockman apparently begins with the small sketches, which are both finished studies and working drawings. He then proceeds incrementally to the larger formats. It makes sense, then, to start with the unbelievable display of small pieces at the back. These drawings, done between 1990 and 1999, have not been framed or hung on the wall as expected. Rather, they've been arranged in a suspended grid that floats out a foot from the wall and are arrayed in horizontal lines like towels on a clothesline. Two alligator clips hold each drawing onto a wire that runs behind them.

It takes a long time to look at the small drawings. All of them are different, but each reveals Stockman's approach to the drawn line. In his hand, the charcoal line is graceful and sinuous. This is quite traditional, recalling the style of Ingres and other School of Paris artists from the nineteenth century. But Stockman uses the old-fashioned methods to contemporary ends by including, alongside his lovely renderings of figures and animals, surrealist and fantastic elements, crossed-out and marked-out passages, and words.

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