Rare Sightings

Jeff Starr and Margaret Neumann riff off their idiosyncrasies.

Like Starr, Neumann was well known in the '80s but has rarely exhibited in the past several years. And again like Starr, her appearance at the MCA has reinvigorated her career and upped her profile in the local art world. This show includes what could be called recent work, even though some of the paintings are fifteen years old, because in the context of Neumann's oeuvre, that is recent. You see, it takes Neumann eighteen months to two years to complete one painting. Given that there are eight paintings in the show, she would have had to start them fifteen years ago. "I work like hell on them. It's hard for me to know when to stop. It's hard for me to pull back," she says.

Neumann was born in New York in 1942. Her parents met at Columbia University; as Jews who had both fled the Holocaust, they had a lot in common. "My first language was German," Neumann notes with a grimace. In 1948, her family moved to Denver, and she grew up in Crestmoor. In 1960 she entered Colorado College in Colorado Springs and studied with the late Mary Chenoweth. "Mary Chenoweth was very nice, really, and a good artist, but she was very eccentric -- she wore capes!" Neumann says. "I was only seventeen, and she was so strange...I didn't like her, and she wasn't good for me." Neumann left CC after two years and went to Columbia University for a summer session, which she loved. She then returned to complete her BFA in 1964 at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she also earned an MFA.

In Boulder, Neumann found the mentors she lacked at CC. George Woodman, Luis Eades and Joe Clower were significant to her development as a painter -- even if they often shook their heads in disbelief when they saw what she was doing. "You know, I'm a really stubborn person, and like most people who think they have some kind of vision, I knew I was right," she says. "And so I just stuck with it."

"El Pato," by Jeff Starr, luster-glazed ceramic.
"El Pato," by Jeff Starr, luster-glazed ceramic.
"Gift," by Margaret Neumann, acrylic on canvas.
"Gift," by Margaret Neumann, acrylic on canvas.

Details

Jeff Starr: A Way of Life
Through January 8, Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473

Shadows and Fog: Margaret Neumann
Through January 2, Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, 1275 19th Street, 303-298-7554

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Neumann's process is contemplative, which is why the paintings take so long to do. "I get some idea for an image, and I put that image in, and I'll really work on it, and finally I think, I can't do anything with this image!" she says. "So then I do something else, and out of that comes something, and out of that comes something. It's kind of like therapy -- and remember, I am a therapist." (In addition to her other degrees, Neumann holds an MSW and works with children at the Jefferson County Center for Mental Health, as well as maintaining a private practice.)

"The paintings are about me. They have a lot to do with being the kid of Holocaust survivors, about anxiety and depression," she says. None of this is hard to believe: The paintings in the show are both challenging and troubling. And there's the Shadows and Fog title, which sounds like a documentary about the concentration camps. Though the paintings are about Neumann, she says that the female figures in them are not meant as self-portraits, but are taken from her dreams -- or would that be nightmares?

The images Neumann uses are almost always the figure handled expressionistically on what is essentially a color field that suggests either water or sky. Like the figures, the rich palettes are also inspired by her dreams. "I dream in the wildest colors," she says. "A lot of people remark on the surfaces of my paintings, but that happens because I put so much paint on." The many layers of pigments allow colors to appear in gorgeous blends on the surface.

As beautiful as the colors are, these are really tough paintings to look at. In "Witness #2," it's the profiles of two women who seem to be veiled in blood; in "Ecliptic," a man is looming over a submerged woman; in "Gift," a bather in an impossible pose is likewise floating in water. They are memorable, to say the very least.

In a way, Neumann's 1980s painting style is way out of date. But what goes around comes around, and it seems ripe for reappraisal. I guess that's why the MCA has chosen to give us this opportunity to do so.

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