Slightly Savage

Minimalism and primitivism mix it up at the Cordell Taylor and Robischon galleries.

Maybe it has to do with how complicated the world is, but for whatever reason, contemporary art -- locally, nationally and internationally -- has been getting increasingly stripped down.

Of course, there's nothing new about minimalism. Even the so-called original, the 1950s- and '60s-era New York School variant, was hardly the first attempt at simple elegance; it had many predecessors dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century. It's undeniable, though, that in the last decade or so, a raft of minimalist currents have been revived. In Denver, it's such a popular approach that there's practically a school of neo- and post-minimal painters and sculptors.

Sculptor Bryan Andrews is surely one of the most distinct among this group. What makes his work so original is that it represents a reconciliation of primitivism and minimalism -- a couple of seemingly irreconcilable things. I once wrote that his work looks like a cross between biker chainsaw wood carving and New York School abstraction, and it's still true. But now I think I'd add that it also owes a debt to the School of Paris and to hillbilly whittling.

"Crinkold" and "King of Those," by Bryan Andrews, painted-wood sculptures.
"Crinkold" and "King of Those," by Bryan Andrews, painted-wood sculptures.
"Steel Torso," by Peter Millett, fabricated steel sculpture.
"Steel Torso," by Peter Millett, fabricated steel sculpture.

Andrews's current show, Playing Blue Chess, at the Cordell Taylor Gallery, shows off a quartet of signature wooden stiles arranged informally in front of a pristine white wall. Andrews calls these vertical spikes "fetem," a word he coined by combining "fetish" and "totem." The designation describes the sculptures: hybrids based on totem poles and fetish objects. But Andrews is not faking tribal art; he has taken the two forms to highly abstracted and severely reduced extremes. And though they are sublimely simple, they reveal the varied sources of his inspiration.

The sculptures have a rough-hewn quality, both because they're partly made from chunks or beams of pine or Douglas fir and because they've been quickly and casually constructed (that's the biker-chainsaw component). Partially painted in monochrome, the sculptures are made up of little more than a couple of boards -- which is the New York School-minimalism aspect. On top of the sculptures are carved figures made of expensive Basswood -- which calls to mind Parisians like Brancusi and Archipenko. But then Andrews has carved his versions in a pointedly naive way. And what else would we expect from someone who hails from the Missouri Ozarks?

The four sculptures are very similar. Each has a square wooden base left in its natural state, with a vertical beam painted an exquisite cobalt-blue acrylic; on top of that is a small abstract carving which, like the base, is left natural. This carving is the only thing that distinguishes one of these fetem from another.

Intimately interrelated, the sculptures function together as a single installation. The first is "Heimdal's Horn," a reference to a figure from Norse mythology who guards the netherworld between heaven and hell. The carving vaguely conveys a figure blowing a horn but looks more like an ax head. The second is "The King of Those," a rigidly upright standing birdman. The third is "Crinkold," another birdman standing with his knees bent. The last is "The Beast," a phallic form. The first three stand together in a diagonal lineup, and they represent a warrior, a leader and a wise man. They are posed in opposition to "The Beast," the meaning of which is obvious.

Andrews says he plans to create an additional six fetem, and I can't wait to see the whole group of ten.

Andrews is also the star of Growth and Decay, at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, which features "Have you seen the Heart of a Giant's leg," a piece he did last year that is among the prototypes for the fetem series. It's essentially the same kind of thing: a small carving on top of a painted beam set on end. But it's much more robust and considerably shorter. The differences between "Giant's leg" and the four fetem are just a hint at the myriad variations Andrews could create -- if he wanted to -- using this simple formula. Let's hope he does.


Interestingly, the venerable Robischon Gallery is also featuring sculpture that combines primitivism and minimalism as half of an exhibit called Vespertine. The other half is dedicated to post-minimal color-field paintings.

The first part is composed of more than a dozen utterly simple works by Seattle-based sculptor Peter Millett; while the pieces refer to mainstream minimalism, they're similar to Andrews's because they have a touch of tribal art cast in them. Living in Seattle is surely the reason Millett's sculptures resemble deconstructed totem poles. The Indians of the northwest coast are world-renowned for their magnificent carved and polychromed totems. But because Millett only uses the totemic shape for two pieces, the reference to American Indian art is subtle and unself-conscious, as are the minimalist elements.

Although these works are not dated, I have a feeling the geometric, architectonic ones are older than the organic, curvilinear ones.

Among those that fall into the former category is "Saffron Window," done in carved and painted fir. It's a wall-hung parallelogram that could be a window. Despite the straightforward shape, the literal reference to a window and the fact that it's only seven inches deep, there's a lot going on in this piece in terms of the rhythm of solids and voids. And the painted yellow surface, with its waxed matte finish, is sumptuous; it almost looks as though the artist stained it.

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