Paint the Town

A Bruce Price solo at +, with paintings and more at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

I know the fall run just started this past week, but I don't think it's too early to say that FULL: New Paintings by Bruce Price, at + Gallery, is one of the best shows of the 2005-2006 season. I'm an old hand at these matters, and I'm certain nothing is going to come down the pike to change my opinion. FULL is made up of half a dozen large canvases installed in the front space, and in a small room in the back is a tight survey of Price's work from the past twenty years. Since I like starting things at the beginning, I think it makes sense to head to the historic section first and then take in the newest pieces.

Price was born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1958. Early on, his interest in the arts was limited to classical music, but like so many classical musicians then and now, Price made his living not by plying his craft with an orchestra, but by working as a waiter. In 1993 he was living in Dallas, Texas, and began to study the visual arts at Richland College. He moved to Denver a year later and entered the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, graduating as class valedictorian with a BFA in 1997.

Since then, he's shown at some of the area's top venues, including Rule Gallery, the gone-but-not-forgotten Ron Judish Fine Arts, the Arvada Center, the Singer Gallery and + (FULL is his second solo there). His work has also been on display in New York, including a solo at the OK Harris Gallery.

"Multiple + Many," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.
"Multiple + Many," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.
"Confluence," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.
"Confluence," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.

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Through October 8, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927

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The oldest pieces in the retrospective section at + are a series of small studies done in 1986, while Price was living in Minneapolis. In these mixed-media works, he used geometric forms, especially squares, rectangles and straight lines, to create all-over abstract compositions based on the repetition of similar or identical shapes. So Price was interested in patterns as his principal means of aesthetic expression even before he moved to Denver and got plugged in with master pattern painter Clark Richert, his mentor and teacher at RMCAD.

With the exception of these '80s studies, the paintings in this part of the show are from the past five or six years, meaning that most were done after Price graduated from RMCAD. Next to the studies are three of Price's signature box paintings, arranged so that they are sitting in niches. These pieces, which may technically be sculptures, comprise geometric abstractions painted on freestanding boxes.

On the opposite wall is a group of works that reveal the adaptability of Price's decorative formula: "Taped Cut Hand," a stripped painting of horizontal colored bars; "Frame," which combines a border with a field; and "Monochrome #3," a gray ground. Each marks a distinctively different approach, yet each is linked conceptually to the others, which all connect to "Don," from 2003, a diamond-shaped panel covered with a tight, plaid-like composition.

"Don" is the type of painting Price showed in FILL, his previous + exhibition, presented in the spring of 2004; as such, it provides a taking-off point for the new paintings in FULL. The titles of the two shows are also interrelated: While FILL refers to the center of a traditional decorative program, FULL is both a play on FILL and a reference to the fact that Price covered his works with the maximum amount of visual information possible.

Though not always flat, Price's paintings previously conveyed space that was parallel to the wall even when there were various planes at work simultaneously. In these new paintings, spaces cut diagonally through the imagined three-dimensionality of the pictures and collide with each other. In a couple, there's what could be called traditional perspective, even though there are no traditional pictorial components on which to hang it.

Price sees a conceptual distinction between his new paintings -- all of which were done over the past nine months or so -- and his early work: Whereas the latter were about order, the former are about organization. "These paintings are very active," he says. "Organization implies movement, as opposed to order, which implies a static state."

There are other obvious differences, too -- in particular, the large size of most of them. "The scale increase is clear," notes Price. "And when I put my brush on the first large one, I thought to myself, ŒWhy have I been painting small paintings?' I've been interested in complexity and turbulence for quite some time, and if you're going to have a lot going on in a painting, it helps to have enough space to have a lot going on in."

The essential dialectic of the paintings is the juxtaposition of composition versus field. However, since Price has filled his pictures in an all-over way, the distinction between the two is fairly arbitrary in places.

All of these paintings are fascinating, and although all are based on the same set of ideas, there's a broad range of visual effects. "Confluence," which faces the front door, is the simplest in terms of composition as well as a straightforward, predominating light-and-dark rhythm. Much more elaborate is "Large Painting," which has an almost pop-art quality. The most spectacularly dense composition in the group is "Multiple + Many," in which various plaids and checkerboard patterns are crammed into the painting, one on top of the other. It's a masterpiece.

Price is a post-minimalist in that he pointedly violates the standards of minimalism while remaining in a dialogue with that movement. But he eschews the title and calls himself a pattern painter. Patterns were important in early modernism, notably in the work of Matisse, and Price does not deny this influence. Interestingly, Matisse's reputation has been on the upswing lately, and he's begun to rival Picasso as the essential modernist. Price is interested in Matisse's sense of composition, but also in the modern master's use of pattern on pattern as an important pictorial device.

When I spoke with Price about his recent works, I asked him what they were about. First he laughed and said, "Talk about an open-ended question." But then he got down to business, saying, "I'm trying to make complex paintings that don't babble." Looking at the six large, spectacular paintings up front at +, I'd say that he's succeeded.

Price has been one of the most talked-about abstract artists active in Colorado during the past ten years. With the magnificent paintings in FULL, he can also be called one of the area's most important artists of any kind.


The new Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex has been the site of various festive opening events over the past two weeks. Peter Lucking of Denver architectural firm Semple Brown designed the state-of-the-art concert hall, which has already been nicknamed "the Ellie." The opera house was slipped inside the exterior walls of the 1904-1908 Quigg Newton Denver Municipal Auditorium, a neo-classical structure designed by Robert Willison.

As could be expected in such an important cultural space, there is a fine-art component, paid for by the city's "One Percent for Art" program. Unfortunately, though, as is all too typical with such projects, the most important pieces specifically commissioned for the opera house are not yet in place.

First among the missing is Denver artist Stephen Batura's mural "Rehearsal," in which more than a hundred figures are depicted preparing for a performance of a famous, though unnamed, opera. The mural, which is thirty feet tall, is not yet finished, but Batura does not intend to rush it into completion -- and bravo to him for that. I'd be surprised if it got there by October, when it's tentatively due.

Then there's John DeAndrea's "Maria Mosina and Igor Vassim," a female-and-male life-sized figural group cast from the bodies of two dancers with the Colorado Ballet. It's not finished yet, either. Also planned is another DeAndrea, which is currently untitled and will depict a circle of three dancers. But that's not even due until 2007.

Art objects already on site at the opera house are those that were provided by private citizens and are not part of the official public-art budget. In the foyer is "Antique Gold and Pale Aquamarine Chandelier," by Dale Chihuly. The piece, donated by Jeremy and Susan Shamos and Jerry and Debi Tepper, was displayed in the Chihulyexhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center this past summer. Hung in the hallway are seven abstract tapestries by the late Herbert Bayer, which were provided by Jamie White and Andrew Sirotnak. Finally, in the Chambers Grant Salon on the lower level are three mammoth Vance Kirkland murals: "Space Mysteries," from 1958, "Vibrations of Scarlet on Crimson," from 1968, and "Explosions in Unknown Space," from 1976.

The trio of oil-on-linen paintings is on permanent loan from the Kirkland Museum. Hugh Grant, the museum's director, picked them out, pointedly choosing one painting from each of three decades. Grant is the "Grant" part of the Chambers Grant Salon; the "Chambers" part is his wife, Merle Chambers. Along with the Chambers Family Fund, the couple donated $2 million to the opera house, which is why the salon was named in their honor -- not because the Kirkland loaned those Kirklands.

There was a storm in the salon, though, because designer Lucking decided to hang the three Kirklands as though they were parts of a single triptych. When Grant saw the full-sized computer-generated prints of the Kirklands hung that close together, he had a fit. At first Lucking held his ground, but Grant held all the cards, because the Kirklands are on loan and he can withdraw the gift at any time. So Grant prevailed, as could have been predicted, but the lighting has to be changed, as it was already installed to suit the original locations.

When I heard of the Kirkland dust-up, I had to laugh. Knowing the dense hanging and packed installation approach that is Grant's signature, I guess you'd have to say that if something feels too crowded to him, it's absolutely too crowded.

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