Under the Influence

Beauty at Cordell Taylor, ties at RMCAD, trouble at Mizel and an insult hurled at the DAM.

When the Cordell Taylor Gallery opened its doors in Denver in the fall of 2001, its specialty was contemporary art from Utah, and all of the represented artists were holdovers from the days when the business was located in Salt Lake City. These out-of-state artists were unknown around here and generated little interest -- a situation that, coupled with the whole 9/11 thing, caused the gallery to get off to a very slow start. To combat the problem, director Ivar Zeile began recruiting Denver artists, and the first one to show at Cordell Taylor was a bright, then-emerging art star named Karen McClanahan. Although she moved away this summer, McClanahan is now back -- figuratively speaking, anyway -- with the elegant and intelligent Synesthesia: New Paintings by Karen McClanahan.

The show is made up of recent works that are closely related to McClanahan's earlier efforts but also mark slight formal and conceptual changes. In her older paintings, McClanahan broke with classic minimalism by adding unexpected organic shapes to otherwise geometric compositions. In these new pieces, she still riffs on '60s minimalism, but she violates the tenets of that earlier style even more than before. She includes visible brush work, even though old-fashioned minimalism calls for paint that is fanatically flat and evenly blended, and, in a related move, defines different surface depths with the paint so that some areas are built up higher than others. This last characteristic is difficult to see straight on, but it catches the light when the paintings are viewed from the side.

McClanahan was born in Flagstaff, Arizona, and studied at Northern Arizona University before going to England and later coming to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. There she became a protegé of one of Colorado's best-known modernist painters, Clark Richert. She graduated from RMCAD with a degree in painting in 2001, and last month entered Hunter College in New York to pursue a master's in fine arts.

"cant," by Karen McClanahan, acrylic on canvas.
"cant," by Karen McClanahan, acrylic on canvas.
The beleaguered Mizel Center.
The beleaguered Mizel Center.

The show's title, Synesthesia, is a term typically used in art to suggest that colors make perceivable sounds or that sounds can be perceived as colors. But that's not how McClanahan uses the word -- even if she does describe the geometrics in her paintings as being "silent." Instead, she wants to effect a physical sensation in viewers through the visual. Simply speaking, for example, "synesthesia" is how she would describe the way one color in a painting can make another vibrate when two opposite shades are juxtaposed.

As revealed by this theoretical underpinning, the paintings in Synesthesia are very sophisticated aesthetically. McClanahan calculated everything in order to make the biggest visual statement possible -- wonderfully refreshing in the art world today since, amazingly, many artists are more interested in telling stories than they are in creating a visual experience, which is pretty weird when you think about it. "I'm not promoting any narrative," McClanahan says forcefully. "I want viewers to bring to the paintings whatever their experiences are. They could be affected by the colors, shapes or forms; I'm not trying to lead them in any way."

The Synesthesia paintings represent a new method for McClanahan. Before, she would get an idea, sketch it out and then paint over the sketches, but for these new ones, she painted directly on the canvas, working intuitively. She began with the geometric shapes, outlining them with tape, and then, when they were finished, overlaid them with the organic shapes. Like many artists, McClanahan works on several pieces simultaneously. "I'll do one step on a big piece and then work on the smaller ones; otherwise I'd get bored," McClanahan explains. "The processes I need to do are so different for the different sizes. With the big ones, there's the physical act of making the brush strokes, and I have to move in front of them -- versus the more meditative experience of doing the small ones, where I just sit and paint."

One striking thing about the paintings is their exaggerated horizontal shape. This is true not only of the large paintings, but also of the studies, which are only vaguely related. McClanahan believes that this horizontality suggests the landscape and gives the paintings the illusion of having perspective, but I don't agree. Rather than conventionalized landscapes, they appear to be non-objective compositions. The results, as in "fled" and "cant," are eye-dazzling in their simple and engaging straight lines and rounded shapes. Appropriately, considering the spare compositions McClanahan prefers, her palette is also extremely limited. She employs only three shades for each painting, but those custom-tinted colors are out of this world. The powdery purples, musty chartreuses and saturated reds -- plus several other spectacular hues -- come across just right in the unexpected combinations the painter conjures up in her works.

Although McClanahan is no longer a Denver artist, she intends to continue her relationship with Cordell Taylor and thus remain a part of the local art scene. She was in town for only a few days last week -- she even missed her own opening -- but it was a real homecoming, with her many pals from RMCAD going to see the show.

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