Sex in the City

Two galleries blow hot and cold.

Here at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems strange that so many artists persist in their attempts to render external reality with paint and brushes. Didn't abstraction (on the one hand) and photography (on the other) vanquish the old warhorse of representational painting over a hundred years ago?

No, apparently. Not only is there a big national scene devoted to artists re-creating traditional styles of painting -- something that's of little interest to fans of contemporary art like myself -- but genuinely contemporary artists are now exploring realistic imagery. And that is interesting to me.

Whether the art is traditional or contemporary, the painterly techniques being used have changed little in the over 150 years since Manet was working; some contemporary artists rely on even older methods that date as far back as the Renaissance. So the way many realists keep their work fresh is not through technical advances, but choice of subjects. The edgier the subject, the more contemporary the painting -- even though the methods used to create it are time-tested. Proximity, a show of Peter Illig's latest figural paintings in Pirate's front gallery, makes the point that realism combined with the unexpected keeps contemporary representational painting relevant.

Ricki Klages, "Moving Day," oil on canvas.
Ricki Klages, "Moving Day," oil on canvas.

Details

Proximity and Indefinite Locations
Both through August 18
Pirate: a contemporary art oasis
3659 Navajo Street
303-684-0357

Ricki Klages and Group Show
Both through August 30
Carson Masuoka Gallery
760 Santa Fe Drive
303-573-8585

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Over the past five years, Illig has exhibited his neo-pop narrative work in a variety of venues. Typically, he's shown paintings in which disparate images are juxtaposed à la James Rosenquist and his artistic heirs, such as David Salle; for example, he's painted women's faces inserted in an airplane-assembly-plant scene. Although a few paintings in this older style are included, for the most part his pieces at Pirate link separate, single-image paintings together in multipart assemblages, creating an effect similar to what he'd been doing before. Each of these new paintings features straightforward images in an easy-to-read representational style, even if the individual panels are sometimes done in different palettes, or in half-tones; he then hangs two or three works together in a tight cluster.

One such pairing, "Zip Me" and "Moving Target," is given the most prominent place in the show -- the east wall immediately inside the door -- so that the paintings are the first things viewers see after entering Pirate. They're hung so close together that they almost touch one another. "Zip Me," which hangs to the left, captures a scene right off the cover of a detective novel. On a lurid yellow ground, two figures -- a man zipping up a woman's dress -- are seen, with both posed so that they turn away from the viewer. Illig adds a mystery-novel punch to this mundane scene by including a single disturbing detail: The woman is brandishing a pistol. "Moving Target" depicts a different woman, one who's walking toward the viewer. The expression of concern on her face, her clipped gait captured midstride, and the black-and-white half-tone Illig uses all add to the sense of anxiety introduced by the gun-toting "Zip Me" woman.

In another set of paintings hung on the big south wall, Illig puts "Poet," a black-and-white half-tone painting of a man surrounded by hanging light bulbs, next to "Cubist Dream," a Technicolor shot of a woman pulling her blouse over her head, and "Oblique Reference," another black and white of a woman lying on her back. The ad hoc ménage a trois is charged with sexual energy.

Illig's paintings are redolent with a multiplicity of interpretations. But the myriad of meanings notwithstanding, there's little doubt as to his actual topic: men's sexual attraction to women.

Sex is also the subject of Irene Delka McCray's accomplished representational paintings in Indefinite Locations, installed in the associates' space at Pirate. McCray, whose artistic profile has risen in the last year or so, has a longtime connection to Colorado. She studied studio art at Colorado College and completed her BFA at Colorado State University; in the 1980s, she exhibited her paintings in prestigious venues across the state, including the Denver Art Museum. McCray left the area in the early '90s and spent most of the decade in Santa Fe, teaching at various art schools in that arty town. During that time, the Denver art world changed considerably and, until a couple of years ago, her work was almost never seen here.

In 2000, McCray returned to Colorado. She's subsequently taught painting and drawing at the University of Colorado at Denver and Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and, as she did in the 1980s, she's frequently exhibited her work -- paintings that juxtapose life and death or age and youth.

McCray's realistic style, which seems almost an updated version of Spanish baroque, is pretty creepy. So is her subject matter. The paintings in Indefinite Locations, which constitute a series, present her heart-wrenching view of the intersection of love and death. This heavy-duty topic helps to make the paintings relentlessly difficult aesthetically, and thus utterly non-decorative -- a characteristic reinforced by the strong, dark colors she chooses and the unflattering way she renders her models. At times, it's hard to actually look at these paintings -- they're so darned disturbing.

The title of "Holding Our Dead Selves" says it all -- almost. In this painting, a past-middle-aged couple are posed sitting upright in what could be called a bed, holding their own inverted corpses. Behind the four figures is an eye-catching red cloth that's draped across a stone cliff; the red organizes and unifies the composition. "Hold On Dear Life," a similar oil, also features a red cloth in the background. This painting shows the same woman, but this time's she's hanging onto the inverted, lifeless body of her mate. Beneath him are depictions of primitive carved stiles.

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