Group Dynamics

Wide-ranging themes underline an intriguing group show at Fresh Art.

There's a handsome show called Winter Exhibit: Murphy, Garcia, Jackson, Lee playing at the glitzy Fresh Art Gallery, and it's a signature outing in a number of ways. As usual, everything was hand-selected by director and gallery owner Jeanie King. Also as usual, all of the artists on display explore abstraction -- either the formalist kind or its figural variant. In addition, all of the participants hail from the West, with three from Colorado and one from New Mexico.

Winter Exhibit includes enough stuff by each of the four that King could easily have presented a quartet of solos instead of this loosely organized group show. The individual efforts of the four artists would have definitely looked better had they been separated from one another. I don't understand why King prefers these kinds of group shows, since four solos would be no more work. All she'd need to do is discreetly separate the works into cogent individual groupings and then make some small wording changes in the press release. Not only that, but King has more than enough space in her grandly proportioned gallery to pull it off -- an option most of her competitors lack. Oh, well, it's her place and her call to make.

One call she made that I don't disagree with was taking on Lauri Lynnxe Murphy last year. Murphy is, of course, the "Murphy" of the show's title. She's a highly recognized denizen of downtown's art scene, and in some circles -- especially among young feminist artists -- she's virtually a legend. She also maintains a high profile as the director of Andenken Gallery, though she's giving up that gig next month after holding it only briefly.

"Untitled," by Eric Adrian Lee, painting.
"Untitled," by Eric Adrian Lee, painting.
"Fleurs De Guerre," by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, 
mixed-media painting.
"Fleurs De Guerre," by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, mixed-media painting.

For years, Murphy has been showing her multi-panel, multi-media compositions locally and in Santa Fe, Austin and Tucson. She started a long association with Denver's Edge co-op in 1991, and in 1996 was among the founders of the ILK co-op. But in 2000, she broke away from the pack and, not incidentally, the alternative scene. This happened when Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art included one of her multi-part, mixed-materials essays about her own formidable hair in that year's Colorado Biennial. Based on that success, the William Havu Gallery took her into its prestigious stable. But soon after, in what was then viewed as a shocking move, she bolted from Havu and went to Fresh Art when that gallery decamped to Santa Fe Drive.

The style of work that got Murphy into the Biennial and into the commercial-gallery realm is what she's personally dubbed "baroque minimalism." The phrase is an apparent oxymoron, because there is nothing baroque about minimalism nor anything minimal about baroque. But Murphy did not pair the two idly; rather, she sought to reconcile the opposing tendencies in her own work -- an inspiration that has the whiff of post-modernism to it.

Things are a little different today for Murphy, and that little difference is that she has changed the way she arranges her pieces. Whereas she used to line up identically sized panels in even grids, in the newer works on display here, she uses panels of varying sizes scattered in an airy arrangement across the walls or, in one case, clustered in a corner.

Some of the panels are painted conventionally, but others are collages that use pre-printed papers and found fabrics or vinyl. Murphy has an astounding collection of old paper and cloth and is something of an expert in vintage clothing. However, she does not consider herself a fiber artist, but a painter -- and she's on firm ground on this point. Painters have been incorporating found imagery into their paintings for almost a century, and Murphy buys the found fabric in thrift stores rather than making it herself, as a fiber artist would. Plus, every Murphy work has its own unique palette running across all of the panels, something that links the pieces to conventional painting. In the elegant "Whitewash," for example, it's an array of whites, grays and shades of black; in the engaging "Fleurs De Guerre," it's red, orange and black.

Engaging though "Fleurs De Guerre" may be, it is also somewhat disturbing, because the topic, as suggested by the title, is violence. Two of the principal motifs in the piece are spilled blood and the image of a gun. One panel is incredible, featuring the outline of a pistol on red velvet, the black ink lines so heavily laid in that they seem to have been engraved into the fabric. This panel pays homage to the late Venetian designer Mariano Fortuny, who was known for his impressed velvets. There's that whiff of post-modern again: Fortuny carried out many decorative schemes over his long career but would hardly have branded his velvet with a picture of a gun.

Stylistically, Murphy's work is very compatible with that of her old friend Joe Ramiro Garcia, who lives in Santa Fe and whose surrealistic paintings have a dreamlike character, combining both traditional and abstract painting techniques. However, King hung the Garcias on the opposite end of her capacious exhibition space, so the connection between the two artists is left to our imaginations.

Born in Houston, Garcia studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New Mexico in the late 1980s. Though he frequently exhibits his work, he has mostly shown in his adopted home town of Santa Fe and nearby Taos. This is his first time out at Fresh Art, although he presented his work in Denver at the Sophia Georg Gallery in 1999 and again in 2001.

The most impressive of the Garcia paintings in this show, most of which are oil and alkyd on wood, is "Last Dance." The piece is dominated by a carefully rendered red poppy that stands out beautifully from an elaborately painted blue field incorporating a partly hidden image of a 45 record and part of a conventionalized wreath. "The View," which also includes a rendering of a red poppy, and "Live in Me," which also uses the image of a 45, are other choice paintings by Garcia.

The last of the three painters in the show is Eric Adrian Lee, an emerging artist out of Colorado Springs. The Lee paintings demonstrate a great deal of promise, though they're an odd lot and vary too widely, which is so typical of a beginning artist.

The best of the Lees are very good, particularly the extremely cool neo-pop "Untitled." In it, Lee used black-and-white photo transfers of boxers to fill the bottom of the painting, then covered the rest of the canvas in thick red paint that looks as if it were smeared on with a wide knife. Although photo-based pop art and smeary abstract expressionism were once thought to be antithetical to one another, they have long since been viewed as wholly compatible. In fact, Denver artist John Haeseler, now essentially retired, started doing this kind of neo-pop/expressionist combo some twenty years ago. So Lee's not a pioneer, but he's still onto something good, with a lot of ground yet to mine in the area.

That same blend of pop and abstract expressionism is seen in another Lee painting that's also called "Untitled." (Annoyingly, all the Lee paintings are untitled.) In this piece, a horizontal lozenge shape is outlined in black on a sea-green field that fills the top, while two partial lozenge shapes enclose a field of newsprint at the bottom. Except for the recognizable images and words of the newsprint, the painting is completely non-objective. Lee is a genuine unknown as far as I can tell -- even the gallery had little to say about him -- but based on this work, he's decidedly an up-and-comer.

The work of another emerging artist finishes out the show: Jeff Jackson's stone-and-metal sculptures have been placed throughout the gallery, variously displayed alongside the works of Murphy, Garcia and Lee. This really doesn't work, and it's too bad that Jackson's work wasn't displayed all by itself.

The Jackson sculptures are extremely simple. Many of them are essentially little more than poles, and most are pierced, making them both phallic and vaginal in form -- a pairing that's rarely employed because it's so hard to pull off.

Jackson's sculptures bear a certain relationship to Bryan Andrews's "fetems," which were displayed recently at Cordell Taylor. Especially similar are the simple vertical forms that both use. In truth, though, Andrews's fetems are more completely unified than the more luxurious stiles by Jackson. A relative newcomer to the area, Jackson exhibited his work at Walker Fine Art until this past spring.

As I said at the top, Winter Exhibit is a typical Fresh Art presentation, but there is a disturbing plot twist. As is an open secret among many in the art world, King will be moving back East in a few months and closing Fresh Art. In recent weeks she has been shopping her artists around to other galleries and trying to market her space, which she owns in a condominium-like arrangement. And -- another open secret -- the folks at Cordell Taylor are interested in the place.

I'm one of many who will be sorry to see Fresh Art close, especially since it seemed to have so much going for it. And losing King herself will be a detriment to the art community, because she has been instrumental in the establishment, and success, of Santa Fe Drive as an art district. The shutdown will be a slow one carried out over the next several months, but Winter Exhibit may be the last wholehearted effort mounted at Fresh Art. And that's really too bad.

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