Promises and Threats

Beauty takes over Robischon, but things look pretty beastly at RMCAD.

The Robischon Gallery sets the standard for art exhibitions in Denver. Whatever's going on there, it's always as good as -- or better than -- anything else around. There are two reasons for this: First, the selections are always intriguing, and second, every piece is perfectly situated in Robischon's chic set of white rooms. There are currently three shows in the gallery's three spaces: In the front is Jae Ko: New Sculpture; in the middle is Ross Bleckner,Terry Maker,Brad Miller; and in the back is Judy Pfaff.

Jae Ko's remarkable wall-hung sculptures are up first. Ko is a Korean-born artist who lives in Washington, D.C., and this is the second time Robischon has given her a solo. The mood of the show is austere, but Ko's pieces, though severe-looking, are sumptuous. At first it's unclear what the sculptures are made of, but that's because Ko uses something very strange: adding-machine tape.

Ko buys rolls of the tape, an almost worthless surplus material from a now-archaic technology, and infuses them with color by submerging them in a tub filled with sumi ink. She then shapes individual pieces by pushing and pulling the multiple layers into unified and iconic shapes evocative of nature.

"Different Way #1," by Brad Miller, burned-plywood 
"drawing."
"Different Way #1," by Brad Miller, burned-plywood "drawing."
"JK 192," by Jae Ko, ink-infused paper sculpture.
"JK 192," by Jae Ko, ink-infused paper sculpture.

Four Kos have been hung on the wall facing the entrance. They are, from left to right, "JK 224," "JK 204," "JK 216" and "JK 215," and they're installed in such a way as to make them look like parts of a single piece instead of a quartet of singles. Each is a monochrome of a deep, rich tone that results from the infusion process. Most of the Ko sculptures are symmetrical, but sometimes the artist creates complicated maze-like shapes, as in "JK 192."

Ross Bleckner, Terry Maker, Brad Miller, in the center space, was a last-minute addition to the schedule. Despite that, the show is really great, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that gallery co-directors Jennifer Doran and Jim Robischon are consummate pros.

Bleckner, an internationally known New York-based abstract artist, starts things off with a handful of his famous prints depicting naturalistic shapes in scatter patterns. In "Chaperon," he's laid out an all-over abstraction of light, rounded shapes on a dark background. It looks sort of like a view of the celestial heavens -- something Bleckner has been perfecting for decades. To the left of "Chaperon" is a very different kind of image, an awkwardly balanced arrangement of shapes suggesting flowers or seed heads.

Next comes the work of Maker. The northern Colorado artist is represented in this exhibit by only a handful of pieces, but it's just enough to give viewers a genuine taste of her very distinctive approach. The most ambitious Maker is a large, vertically oriented panel titled "Studio Scene #5 (Striated)," which has a soft, fuzzy surface that resembles a woolen tapestry. On closer inspection, you can easily see that it's not made of cloth, but, as with the Kos, it's hard to tell what the material might actually be until it's explained.

Surprisingly, the Makers are done in that most ubiquitous of all painting processes: acrylic on canvas. But that's only a small part of the story. Maker begins by covering strips of canvas with paint, then rolling the strips into tight coils that are glued together into big, solid blocks. Maker cuts the resulting mass into thin slices with power tools, then arranges the slices into simple compositions. Her palette is particularly nice, made up of both creamy and dusty earth tones. The delicately colored shades are made even more precious by the surface's fragmentized quality, which was created by the saw blades piercing through the fabric and paint.

Brad Miller, the last in this trio of artists, spent a long time in Colorado before relocating to California a few years ago. He is best known as a ceramic artist, and the show includes a small assortment of his heavily modeled bowls, which are absolutely stunning in form and color. But the main attraction here is not his pottery; it's a lyrical group of artworks that could be called drawings except for one little thing: the way they were made. Miller used a torch instead of a pencil, burning naturalistic patterns into the surface of plywood boards and sheets of thick rag paper.

I liked the Millers, but clearly, the burning method, which links these pieces conceptually to his ceramics, is better when applied to wood than to paper. Wood burns less quickly than paper, allowing Miller to better control the results. The imagery he conjures up in these works is inspired by natural forms -- in particular, leaves, as in "Different Way, #1."

The cavalcade of hits continues in the Viewing Room, where Judy Pfaff is ensconced. From a size perspective, Judy Pfaff is modest, but from the perspective of quality, it's surely one of the most significant shows in town. This intimate exhibit includes the elaborate works on paper that the highly respected New York artist has been doing over the past few years. Pfaff came to the fore in the 1970s, when her zany, more-is-more installations took the international art world by storm. Three decades later, she's still mega-famous, with a monograph on her work having just come out. The book, which is on display at Robischon, was written by no less a modern-art authority than the legendary Irving Sandler, a genuine scholar's scholar.

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