Mixed Bouquets

Colorful parables take root in exhibits at Havu and the Lakewood Cultural Center.

If you're like me, you're getting pretty tired of all the brown grass, bare trees and snow that's wearing out its welcome around here. Spring officially starts next week, but the signatures of winter are sure to be around for at least another month.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking, then, but as I walked into the William Havu Gallery the other day, it already felt like spring.

That can only be explained by the wildly colored abstract paintings in John Himmelfarb, an engaging show installed in the first couple of spaces at Havu and the first of three exhibits at the gallery right now.

"Elegy," by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, mixed-medium multi-part painting.
"Elegy," by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, mixed-medium multi-part painting.
Detail of "Beyond Equilibrium," by iMiNiMi, installation.
Detail of "Beyond Equilibrium," by iMiNiMi, installation.

Details

John Himmelfarb, Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, and Bernice Strawn
Through April 5, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street 303-893-2360

Beyond Equilibrium
Through April 12
Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 Allison Parkway, Lakewood
303-987-7876

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Himmelfarb lives in Chicago, where he was born in 1946, and although he's been exhibiting for nearly thirty years, this is his Denver debut. The paintings at Havu include some from the mid- to late 1990s, as well as others that were only recently done, and there's an obvious transition in the work. The older ones are more dense, with layered compositions, while the newer ones are looser and airier. Despite the differences, all of the paintings employ a meandering or trailing line that is Himmelfarb's chief painterly device. In town for the opening, the artist indicated that the use of the line was inspired by streets and rail lines and that the paintings are about Chicago.

A good example of the earlier style is "Passage Blue Island," an acrylic on canvas from 1994. Using a generous amount of red and blue, Himmelfarb laid down a background with short and repetitive brush strokes; a complicated network of white lines was then applied. Finally, yellow and green were used to fill in certain areas. Gallery director Bill Havu points out that the three layers of painting correspond to the traditional relationship between foreground, mid-ground and background, something that isn't often seen in abstracts.

In the newer paintings, Himmelfarb has condensed the number of layers from three to two: foreground and background. He's also reduced the background, using only the unadorned gessoed surface of the canvas. This provides an off-white ground for the linear decorations done in blue, red, ecru and brown. The newer work is less texturally rich than the older pieces, but it's more lyrical.

"Lyrical" is also a good word to describe the multi-panel paintings in Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, the second of the three shows at Havu -- along with "political," "funky," and on and on. The multiplicity of descriptive attributes associated with Murphy's work is no accident, since she crams as many meanings and art techniques into a single piece as she possibly can. Looking at the dozen-plus pieces in the show -- all done in the last year -- you can imagine that Murphy's been in a kind of creative overdrive.

Well known in the area, Murphy has exhibited her work for the last ten years in the city's alternative spaces, galleries and art centers. Typically, she creates mixed-media paintings done in multi-part formats, often nine panels in a grid. Some of the panels are upholstered, others have collages on them, and still others are painted. Murphy hunts far and wide, going to thrift stores and garage sales, for the materials she incorporates into her work.

Nothing indicates her manic approach better than a comparison of "Lunar" and "Gyro," a pair of glittering works that hark back to the golden age of the go-go boot. Both nine-panel pieces are arranged in three-by-three grids. Each of the eighteen panels has a unique appearance, made with individual materials and custom-fitted techniques. Some of the materials include fabric, tape and balls of different sizes. Both works sport multiple shades of silver and silvery gold. According to Murphy, "Gyro" is composed entirely of the rejected ideas she had for "Lunar."

Neither piece has a perceivable narrative content, something that, while not unprecedented for Murphy, has been rare. More expected are works that are political in nature, specifically of the feminist stripe. There are several examples of these characteristic works at Havu, including "Fleshy," which concerns the constructed images society foists on women. There's a blond ponytail, a Band-Aid and a set of false nails. These found materials are supplemented by magazine images of women's hair. The resulting piece is lighthearted, though Murphy uses the humor to indict the cult of feminine beauty.

More subtle is "Elegy," the largest Murphy here. The meaning of the predominantly beige piece is unclear, but the topic is obviously the role of women. There's a found image of an anatomical drawing of a female, as well as garter-belt snaps embedded in wax. The center panel is redolent with meaning. Murphy uses 1920s-era cartoons, including pictures of pretty, smiling girls and ugly, frowning ones, plus graceful, dancing girls and their clumsy counterparts. The cartoons are from some sort of old test in which the pretty or graceful constituted the correct answers. It's clear what Murphy's getting at.

Although Murphy acknowledges the feminist aspects of "Elegy," she also sees it as a deeply personal homage to September 11. There are no literal references to the World Trade Center, no flags, no flames. Nonetheless, she says the events of that terrible day were in her mind when she made the piece, the first one she did when she went back to work in the studio a couple of months after the disaster. There's a decidedly melancholy quality to "Elegy," and its yellowed paper and old found images suggest a sense of past loss.

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