The Show Must Go On

As the world turns ugly, the local art season gets off to a beautiful start.

Like that of the academic world, national television and professional football, the art world's season starts in the fall. Although a few pre-season openers were unveiled in Denver over Labor Day weekend, most of the 2001-2002 entries were set to open a week or two later.

I don't need to remind anyone what happened on September 11 in New York City, nor do I need to note that the art world, like the stock market, is headquartered there. Many of the most important galleries (and I'm talking about some of the most influential galleries on earth) are located just a few subway stops from the World Trade Center, in neighborhoods such as Tribeca, Chelsea and SoHo. Like the Financial District, those neighborhoods are in Lower Manhattan.

That means the prospects for this year's New York art season are pretty dismal, both psychologically and financially. It's unlikely that an art-auction record will be set; it's hard to imagine some new art-star kid suddenly becoming the toast of the Big Apple.

"One Inch Above #10," by Ricardo Mazal, oil on linen.
"One Inch Above #10," by Ricardo Mazal, oil on linen.
Detail from "Dance the Line, Blur the Rhythm," by Amy Sloan Kirchoff, acrylic on canvas.
Detail from "Dance the Line, Blur the Rhythm," by Amy Sloan Kirchoff, acrylic on canvas.

But here in Denver (a place that hasn't been considered much of an art-world asset before), far from New York, our geographic isolation may buffer us from the East's new austerity. And in any case, in the wake of the terrorist actions, several local gallery owners decided that the show -- or shows -- must go on.

Ricardo Mazal: Recent Paintings was scheduled to open September 14 at the Rule Gallery. "Ricardo lives in New York," says gallery director Robin Rule. "A lot of our artists live in New York, and a lot of them live in Lower Manhattan, and though Ricardo was in Santa Fe at the time, he was very upset. A lot of his friends lived within blocks of the World Trade Center. People don't realize there were a lot of artists down there. There were even artists with studios in the buildings."

As other organizations started canceling or postponing cultural events, Rule faced a difficult decision. "My first thought was to cancel," she recalls, "but I didn't know how I could do it, since the invitations had gone out a long time ago and the work had already gotten here, and Ricardo was driving up from Santa Fe. And if I did cancel, the whole schedule would be thrown off, so I just went on pure adrenaline and kept busy all week."

She was so busy putting up the show and setting up the preview that the opening reception is somewhat of a blur. "I don't even remember who was there or anything," Rule says.

The cocktail party might have been forgettable. Fortunately, Mazal's pieces are not.

Although he now resides in New York, Mazal was born in Mexico in 1950. Trained in the '70s at the University of Illinois as a graphic designer, he didn't turn to painting until he was in his mid-thirties, when he moved to Barcelona, an '80s art hotbed, and taught himself to paint. By the end of the decade, Mazal was exhibiting his abstract paintings in galleries in Europe and New York. Encouraged by his welcome reception from the New York art world, he moved there in 1991.

Rule's main gallery is devoted to a group of closely related Mazal abstracts. From one perspective, these paintings seem a complete departure for the artist; from another, they appear to be a clear continuation of the style displayed at Mazal shows at both Rule and the Singer Gallery over the past several years. Like those works, the newer paintings feature overall compositions organized through a network of lines. But where the earlier paintings were encrusted with thickly applied paint, these paintings are extremely flat, the pigments cut with solvents so that they stain the surface in the thinnest way possible. Mazal used ad hoc tools rather than brushes to create them, employing metal, plastic and cardboard trowels, some made specifically to achieve a particular desired effect.

Because the Mazal paintings are so monumental, Rule was able to construct a credible show using only five of them. It begins in the entry space with "One Inch Above #12," an oil-on-linen, wall-sized -- as opposed to easel-sized -- piece that presents all of the issues Mazal addresses in these works. Measuring more than than six by seven feet, this painting represents the smaller of the two sizes used in the "One Inch Above" series; the larger size, used for "One Inch Above #10," for example, is more than seven by eight feet.

For all of the paintings in the series, Mazal laid on a thin ground with broad swaths of color. The colors are subtle, predominated by bluish blacks and grays -- in some places purely blue -- as well as passages of umber, sepia and sienna. He then placed expressively drawn lines in the same colors on top of this ground. The arrangement of geometric shapes includes squares, rectangles and triangles; they sit on the surface of the picture plane as the ground recedes from the viewer, giving the painting a three-dimensional sense.

Pointing to the thin stains of the ground, Rule remarks that these paintings remind her of the color-field paintings Helen Frankenthaler did in the '50s and '60s. I see what she means, but I think these Mazal paintings are more reminiscent of abstract surrealism from the '40s and '50s, the kind of thing embraced by William Baziotes and Adolph Gottlieb. In fact, when I interviewed Mazal a few years ago, he mentioned Baziotes as an important source of inspiration.

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