Plaids and Solids

Post-minimalism is all the rage at + Zeile/Judish.

I was really worried about contemporary art at the end of the twentieth century. Things were looking bleak, as public support was clearly on the wane. The art magazines and the art establishment were no help, either, since both were filled with the novel, the outlandish and the absurd, but, sadly, rarely the good. Not only that, but a lot of the art being made and promoted didn't make sense in the big picture of things. Easy-to-appreciate and easily displayed traditional art forms were on the outs, while harder-to-like and difficult-to-display types of art were in the forefront. It was no way to build an audience, and it didn't.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, a revitalized contemporary art is becoming established around the country, and, interestingly, it's old-fashioned art forms that appear to be leading the way out of the doldrums and snaring new audiences. That's right: Video and digital are increasingly becoming old hat, while painting and sculpture are on the comeback trail, big time. But getting through these past ten years was not as monumental an achievement as the New York-based art writers would have it, since both mediums have already transcended the ages.

What turned things around was the proliferation of the posts and the neos that rolled into the new century and injected new ideas into historical ones. Some of this manifested itself in interesting revivals of the originals -- the neos -- while others went an even more interesting route by critiquing the originals -- the posts.

"Cage," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.
"Cage," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.
"Almost Square," by Michael Whiting, automotive paint 
on fabricated steel.
"Almost Square," by Michael Whiting, automotive paint on fabricated steel.

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Through May 14, +Zeile/Judish, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927

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Now, here's the curveball: Many of the posts may be neatly categorized as being part and parcel of neo-modernism, the greatest neo of them all. This post-post-modern style is a reflexive form of modernism and is clearly the latest choice in Western art, architecture and design. Neo-modern has firmly vanquished its predecessor, post-modern, but in truth, post-modern simply forfeited the match when it disintegrated into historicism. This is a paradox, of course: While looking back is central to neo-modern's success, it was also key to the failure of post-modern.

Being paradoxical is very contemporary, and the show in the front space at + Zeile/Judish, Bruce Price: Fill: The New York Paintings, is all about reconciling opposites. The most serious of the internal contradictions in this series of acrylic-on-canvas paintings is that they are based on theories about the nature of ornament, yet according to Price, the works are wholly and pointedly non-decorative. The fact is, his home-baked distinction is hard to understand; easier to comprehend is the visual appeal of the paintings, regardless of their conceptual underpinnings.

The word "fill" in the show's title refers to a concept Price has taken from nineteenth-century theories about ornamentation. An ornamental program would include "frame" and "fill," the "frame" being the painted or sculpted borders that surround the "fill," or the painted or sculpted decorations that are framed. This abiding interest in ornamental theories has led Price to name some of the pieces in honor of early thinkers on the topic, such as Owen Jones, for whom the painting "Owen" is named, and John Ruskin, who is honored by the painting "John." But some others, such as "Cage," are named after composers -- in this case, John Cage. It turns out that Price was a serious musician in a previous life.

All of the paintings except one were exhibited in 2003 at the now-closed Cornell DeWitt Gallery in Manhattan, but this is the first time they've been shown in Denver. Price's signature paintings are post-minimalist works, so although they're based in minimalism, they're done in a way that pointedly violates that movement's tenets. A good example is Price's use of a "more is more" approach to the subject matter, resulting in hundreds of elements being crammed into his pictures; another is his taste for flamboyant surface treatments. Both attributes are antithetical to classic minimalism, which favors simple, austere compositions and flat surface effects.

In a relatively short period of time -- a little over five years -- Price has used his accomplished work to establish himself as one of the area's preeminent abstract painters. Born in 1958 in Topeka, Kansas, Price bounced around the country before coming to Denver in 1994 to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. As a student at RMCAD, he distinguished himself as a consummate painter and began exhibiting his work in the area's galleries, museums and art centers immediately after graduating in 1997. While in school, his mentor was Clark Richert, the state's premier pattern painter.

The seven Price paintings that make up the show at + Zeile/Judish are densely composed. The square-diamond shapes are covered in all-over patterns with rigid horizontal and vertical orientations, so that all of the linear elements meet at ninety-degree angles, while the frames are at 45-degree angles. "In painting these, I discovered that when the pattern goes contrary to the orientation of the canvas, it makes the paintings more like fields, and the space really opens up," Price says.

These pieces will remind some of similarly conceived Mondrians from the early twentieth century, which Price studied. But the patterns on Price's paintings resemble plaids more than Mondrian's do. The patterns also, not surprisingly, resemble Richert's geometric work. That association with Richert is another paradox, according to Price. "I decided I wanted to paint outside the conceptual gibberish, so I referenced work I was doing prior to meeting Clark, work that was based on patterns. These paintings are more 'me' than ever, yet they look more like Clark's work than anything I've ever done."

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