Color Fields Forever

Poured paint links Virginia Maitland's abstracts to those by Jeremy Hillhouse.

One of this season's most important shows -- at least to those of us with an interest in the history of contemporary art in our region -- is Opened Windows, a retrospective devoted to the work of Boulder painter Virginia Maitland that is nearly through its too-short five-week run at Studio Aiello. There's only one thing that made me crazy about this heroically large exhibit: It's installed so that the newest material is up front and the oldest things are in the back. This is an example of what I like to call curatorial dyslexia, an all-too-common affliction among exhibition organizers around here.

The gallery's Front Bay could not accommodate the large early works, so Monica Petty Aiello, who co-directs the gallery with her husband, Tyler, decided to put the show in reverse order. But even though I'm sympathetic to her logic -- the Front Bay does have big windows and an even bigger overhead door -- walking through the show as it was intended makes it impossible to understand Maitland's four-decade development as a painter. And isn't that what a retrospective is all about? Happily, this problem is relatively easy for viewers to solve by simply heading to the end of the show and going through it in reverse, which is what I did.

In the Third Bay, there are a couple of paintings Maitland did in the 1960s when she was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia: "Vortex" and "Still Life with a Side of Bacon." The title of that second one gives away her stylistic influence, British artist Francis Bacon. In both pieces, Maitland paints vaguely surrealist versions of representational imagery, including a figure in "Vortex" and objects on a table in "Side of Bacon." In many ways -- the palette, the blending of colors, the smooth brushwork -- these works are traditional-looking, so it's not surprising to discover that Maitland was originally a realist, especially since the Pennsylvania Academy was a center for traditional painting when she was there.

"Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose," by Virginia 
Maitland, acrylic on canvas.
"Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose," by Virginia Maitland, acrylic on canvas.
Detail of "Down Flow," by Jeremy Hillhouse, acrylic on 
canvas.
Detail of "Down Flow," by Jeremy Hillhouse, acrylic on canvas.

Details

Opened Windows
Through January 21, Studio Aiello, 3563 Walnut Street, 303-297-8166

Western Land: Scapes
Through January 22, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street,303-893-2360

In 1970, Maitland moved to Colorado -- first to Jamestown and then to Boulder, where she's been ever since. The paintings she did during the first few years she lived in the area mark an incredible shift in aesthetic gears. In "James Town," done shortly after she arrived in our state, Maitland completely broke free from representation and traditional painting techniques. The composition is made up of big blocky forms in strong colors, including red, lavender, pink, mustard and black. This painting and others from the same time, such as "Parallel Clocks," are very fresh-looking and could easily have been done right now instead of thirty years ago.

The pivotal painting in the group is the spectacular "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose," from 1975. The colors are incredible, a luxurious array of blues, reds and purples in amorphous shapes that were created by pouring paint onto a canvas and then moving and tilting it to create the desired forms. "Young Rose" wasn't Maitland's first experiment with brushless painting, but it was the most completely realized of her early attempts. "It was very physical," she says.

"Young Rose" presaged a decade's worth of poured paintings, the signature examples of which are installed in the west half of the Second Bay. In this section are classic Maitlands, the kind of thing that came to mind when I first heard that this show was on the horizon. In these paintings, large sheets of color were poured on top of one another, allowing the colors underneath to show through in places, especially around the margins of the canvas. They are undeniably beautiful; Maitland's instinctive sense for color and flair for balanced compositions are two of her greatest strengths. Among the standouts in this group are "Two Against One," in which a billowy blue field is surmounted by a mustard one with an orange streak in between, and the transcendental "Amethyst," a violet sheet over a delicious teal-y turquoise. "Amethyst" is one of several paintings in Opened Windows that were loaned to the show by private collectors.

Color-field paintings occupied Maitland for years, including during a stint in New York in the late '70s and early '80s. "I had gone there to get famous," Maitland says with a laugh. She fell short of that, but she did exhibit in the city's galleries.

While in New York, Maitland felt pressure to do the same painting over and over. "Everything had to be one idea, all the paintings looking the same and being the same size. I just couldn't do that," she says. "And as corny as it sounds, I wanted to get back to using a brush -- to 'mark-making,' as they say."

In the late '80s, her work changed. Though she still created poured color-field compositions, on top of them she smeared, dripped and scumbled a little bit of pigment. A painting such as "Inner Waves," from 1993, is only slightly different from the color-field pieces of the '80s. But as the years went on, Maitland gradually covered more and more of the surfaces with heavily worked paint, increasingly obscuring the color-field base, as in "Fire in the Yellow Lake," from 2002, and "Sweet Earth Flying," from 2003.

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