Smear Factor

Fresh, painterly riffs on abstraction star at Havu and Sandy Carson.

I think it's easy to comprehend why artists have been so taken with the ethos of abstract expressionism. As the late philosopher king Andy Warhol once noted, it's easier to be sloppy than it is to be neat.

Well, that explains abstract expressionism's appeal to painters, but not why it's been so successful with viewers and collectors. However, I think the answer to that is equally simple: Abstract expressionism is painting about paint. It is a clearly stated yet open-ended program with an intellectual elegance that all but guarantees the success of the formula -- if the artist is up to the challenge of putting it into practice.

Generally speaking, all paintings are an arrangement of pigments on a two-dimensional surface. Abstract expressionism plays with this idea from a variety of angles with an almost limitless array of individual interpretations. This makes it not so much a style as a sensibility. Using that sensibility, hundreds of artists have gone to the aesthetic well and come up with a seemingly infinite supply of first-class creativity.

"The Sicilian," by Amy Metier, oil on canvas.
"The Sicilian," by Amy Metier, oil on canvas.
"California Dreamin'," by Lorey Hobbs, acrylic, 
charcoal and crayon on canvas.
"California Dreamin'," by Lorey Hobbs, acrylic, charcoal and crayon on canvas.


Amy Metier: Solo Exhibition
Through June 18, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360

Alden Mason, Kimberlee Sullivan and Lorey Hobbs
Through July 6, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

The history of the movement goes back to the early twentieth century, when Wassily Kandinsky invented the method in Europe. It didn't really take hold of the art world's imagination though, until painters in New York and across the United States picked up the style in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Interest in abstract expressionism has hardly waned since then. In fact, just a few weeks ago, more than thirty drip paintings were discovered in a storage locker. The reason that find made international news is the possibility that these works could have been done by the patron saint of abstract expressionism, Jackson Pollock.

The movement has been going strong for the more than fifty years since its golden age, and it's strange to consider that this kind of work still passes for contemporary. Not only that, but abstract expressionism is going through somewhat of a renaissance right now, being picked up by many younger artists. I'm sure the present interest in new painting coming out of old modern is simply part and parcel of our culture's broadly felt reflective mood. Everything, not only paintings, is an updated reinterpretation of something from the past. Think of the new Mustang -- or the new urbanism, for that matter. Hey, what are you going to do? The circumstance is immutable. So I guess we're all just going to have to accept the fact that revivalism has completely replaced innovation in contemporary art -- even in the over-the-top realm of conceptual art, which looks so 1970s.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not all bad. The classic modern period was really something, and artists could do worse in choosing to respond to something. One good thing about the revivalist mood is how great -- and nostalgia-free -- a lot of the neo-modern stuff looks. That is good news because a descent into sentimentality would completely rob the neo-modern urge of its credibility, the same way it did with new versions of traditional art, à la Thomas Kinkade.

There's still a lot of tread left on abstract expressionism, as is evidenced by several great exhibits in town.

There's been tons of positive buzz surrounding Amy Metier: Solo Exhibition, which takes over the entire first floor at William Havu Gallery. It's a gorgeous show that fits in well with this discussion about the continuing appeal of abstract expressionism. Metier is no Janie-come-lately to the sensibility; she's been doing paintings related to abstract expressionism since she was a student in the '70s.

Metier graduated from Colorado State University in 1975 and got her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1979. When she entered graduate school, she moved to Boulder, where she still lives. In the 1980s, she taught art at a variety of institutions, including Regis University and Metropolitan State College of Denver. In 1990, she was hired as a professor at the Community College of Denver, and she's remained there ever since.

Well known in the area, Metier has exhibited in top Denver galleries since the early 1980s. She was represented by Sullivan Bisenius Gallery, and later by Inkfish Gallery, both of which were important venues in their day. For the past five years or so, her work has been displayed at Havu.

I first saw Metier's work fifteen years ago, and she was already doing pieces with a whiff of abstract expressionism to them. But there were other abstract influences there, too, notably those of cubism and futurism. Adding structural elements to her compositions is in line with these modern styles but defies the flatness inherent in abstract expressionism.

This relationship to early modernism is still in her work; it's best seen in the preliminary studies displayed under the mezzanine, some of which look absolutely Picassoid. These drawings, like "Spring Series 8," a medley of blocky smears in red and ochre, come up at the end of the show, but I'm mentioning them first because they are the first thing Metier does when addressing a new painting. I especially liked the way she drew linear frames around the edges of the paper in these drawings. The casually drawn lines become part of the formal arrangements of the drawings, but they don't appear in the final works because they are simply meant to convey the margins of the paintings.

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