Now and Then

While Studio Aiello presents new work, RMCAD buys an old campus.

Studio Aiello, under the direction of Tyler and Monica Petty Aiello, is set to grow into a full-scale art center over the next few years. In an old commercial building and on an adjacent lot in the far north reaches of the downtown railroad yards, the Aiellos plan to hold classes and workshops and rent out studios and equipment -- in addition to the capacious gallery that's already here and open to the public.

Since it's not a commercial enterprise, the Aiellos focus on artists they find interesting rather than those whose work would readily sell. As a result, Studio Aiello is a showcase for emerging and hitherto unknown artists as well as more established talents whose work is rarely seen in the area. This includes Mark Travis, the painter given top billing in the gallery's current offering, which has the very straightforward title of Mark Travis, Cordell Taylor, Marius Lehene. Travis was a household name in the local art world until he essentially dropped out almost ten years ago. But a decade is a long time to hide, and many have forgotten him; many more have never even heard of him. It wasn't until Studio Aiello's inaugural show last year -- a juried exhibit, of all things -- that he re-entered the scene.

It's strange for an artist of Travis's accomplishments to subject himself to a jury -- sort of like seeing Jason Alexander pitch for KFC -- but the artist's humble move paid off, and the jurors selected a couple of his fabulous black-and-white paintings.

Those two pieces turned out to be teasers of what was to come, and Travis's art career is going great guns again. Not only is his work seen in depth at Studio Aiello, but he's a featured artist in an exhibit opening at the newish Walker Fine Art in the Golden Triangle on Friday, January 10. When it rains, it pours, I guess. Unlike in other professions, artists can come and go as they please with no apparent negative consequences.

Though Travis is listed first among the three artists included in Studio Aiello's very unified group show, painter Marius Lehene's work is seen first in the large, double-height front gallery just inside the entry and up a short flight of stairs. The Travis paintings, which go very nicely with the Lehenes, are hung in the even larger back gallery, with sculptures by Cordell Taylor spanning both.

Lehene, a Fort Collins resident and Colorado State University art teacher, was also represented in Studio Aiello's inaugural exhibit; unlike Travis, however, he was completely unknown at the time, as he had just moved here from Dallas. The current show marks his first major presentation in Denver, although his work has been widely exhibited since the early '90s in Romania, where he was born, and in Texas, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics and an M.F.A. in painting and drawing from Southern Methodist University.

Lehene's style is abstract-expressionist with an expected European slant, and there are passages that recall the work of the old masters. Though it's hard to discern any recognizable subject matter in his paintings, figures and other objects are clearly there underneath the flourishes of thick paint; it's just hard to make out what, exactly, they are. Such is the case in the beautiful "Styx," an oil on canvas. The River Styx and Charon, the mythological boatman, are subjects for most of this show's Lehene paintings.

Lehene's obvious strength is in his painterly approach, in which he lays the pigment on thick and fast. In the mammoth "Male River," for example, a group of organic forms recedes into the background, and Lehene lays on diagonal brush strokes -- brown at the top and acid yellow at the bottom -- to further obscure them.

The organic shapes of indeterminate type seen in all the Lehenes link them, at least theoretically, to Taylor's sculptures. Taylor, who lives in Salt Lake City, is first and foremost a sculptor, but he is best known around these parts for his namesake Cordell Taylor Gallery, situated just northeast of downtown. His specialty is the transformation of brass and copper industrial parts into abstract sculptures using hammers, molds, torches, nails and quite a bit of polish. He uses a lot of prefabricated metal mesh, which he weaves into a basket-like effect. By finishing the metal and attaching the pieces together with steel hardware, Taylor contrasts the steel's shiny, cold sheen with the warm tones of the polished yellow brass and mellow orangey copper. In the assembly and finishing of his sculptures, Taylor turns the hard metals into evocations of soft flesh, as in the anatomically correct wall sculpture "Adam & Eve," which is hung in a niche that connects the front and back galleries.

The abstraction of the figure is also seen in those eight incredible Travis paintings, done in acrylic and mixed media on canvas. They finish out the show, lining three walls in the enormous back space at Studio Aiello. All are the same size, a monumental five feet by six feet, and all are similar views of female nudes -- although one male is included -- carried out in black and white, thus encompassing a wide range of grays. Each also incorporates collage elements using found paper, some with print.

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