Flower Power

Blossoms provide the inspiration for contemporary work at Robischon and Sandy Carson.

Using plants and flowers as source material for artwork is definitely an old-timey pursuit whose roots (pardon the pun) go back to the dawn of the Greco-Roman era. Here we are in the 21st century, and many contemporary painters -- not just realists -- still draw inspiration from the ubiquitous foliage. I guess it makes sense, since plants are beautiful things that are all around us. Well, except in January in the Mile High City.

Winter is hardly the time of year you expect to see flowers in Denver -- outside of florists or grocery stores, that is. So maybe it's our collective desire for spring that caused two of the city's top galleries to present shows of floral abstractions in four separate solos. The warm subjects are ideally suited for these cold (or at least coldish) days.

With the trees bare and the grass brown, seeing the vibrantly colored works of art in these shows is like stepping into May. But don't get me wrong -- none of these shows present flowers in a traditional, representational or straightforward way. Instead, the botanical motif is simply one element among many in fairly elaborate abstractions, with each of the four artists coming up with a completely distinctive -- and contemporary -- take on the timeworn subject.

"Plethora," by Trine Bumiller, oil on canvas.
"Plethora," by Trine Bumiller, oil on canvas.
"Conservatory Scatter V," by Robert Kushner, paint 
with glitter and gold leaf on canvas.
"Conservatory Scatter V," by Robert Kushner, paint with glitter and gold leaf on canvas.


Through February 18, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

Through February 17, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

The current offerings at the Robischon Gallery in LoDo, where three of the four floral-themed shows are being presented, start with JUDY PFAFF, an intimate solo featuring prints by the internationally known New York artist. The show is installed in the first space inside the front door.

This is the third time Robischon has featured Pfaff's work, but this show is much smaller than the previous displays. I'm not complaining: Judy Pfaff is filled with some choice selections of small and mid-sized pieces. And, though there are fewer than a dozen works, that's more than enough for a full-fledged solo.

I'm not sure why the show is so small, but I have a feeling it's because Pfaff's work is getting hotter and harder to come by. There's been a major revival of interest in Pfaff lately, partly fueled by the publication of a monograph on her career penned by art history bigwig Irving Sandler. Plus, now that she's nearly sixty -- she was born in London in 1946 -- she's entering that living-legend phase of her life.

Pfaff's gorgeous prints sport various techniques simultaneously, including intaglio, etching and photogravure, among others. At times she also hand-touches them with encaustic paint, giving them a three-dimensional character that makes each print in an edition different from all the others. The frames are notable, as well, with the compositions extending out onto the moldings.

Many of the Pfaff prints incorporate images of leaves, flowers or other natural things. In "The Cold Half of the Month," which is a horizontal abstraction in various shades of gray, from silvery to charcoal, there is an all-over composition created from the outlines of leaves. To print the hundreds of leaves, Pfaff utilized a relief roller to make repeating patterns.

Among the many strengths of these marvelous and contemplative Pfaff pieces are their dense and complicated compositions. This approach mirrors the one she takes in her more famous installations. Also reflecting her installation background is the way the prints have been hung in a modified salon arrangement so that the pieces are stacked several high on two of the walls, allowing them to be seen individually and as parts of a bigger whole.

Pfaff might be the biggest name at Robischon, but the star attraction at the gallery is TRINE BUMILLER, which spreads from the main space into the smaller, adjacent gallery. Bumiller lives in Denver and is a well-established artist, having exhibited her work since the '80s. This show marks her seventh solo at Robischon.

Bumiller's signature is a mural-like composition of abstract paintings done on multiple panels of different sizes and then arranged asymmetrically. Typically, her preferred subject is nature, which she simplifies into patterns. Arguably, her best known work is "Wood, Water, Rock," a monumental multi-part installation that was unveiled this past spring at the new Colorado Convention Center.

I've seen a lot of Bumillers over the years, and this new group at Robischon strikes me as being somewhat different than the earlier ones, though they are clearly related. From my point of view, there are three new things going on. First, the imagery is more recognizable, notably the depictions of flowers. Previously, Bumiller's versions of the natural world were more implicit than explicit, with a mere line suggesting a river, or a simple dot standing in for a star. In the new ones, there's no mistaking what we're looking at -- even when the flowers have been flattened into shadows. Second, the palette has gotten bolder and more heterogeneous. Formerly, there was a tight unity to the colors used on the different panels; now the panels have wildly divergent palettes. Lastly, and perhaps most unexpectedly, is the introduction of Pennsylvania Dutch hex-sign motifs into the paintings. These folkloric and brightly colored geometric patterns refer to her late father, who collected them. He also was an avid gardener, which explains Bumiller's recent interest in flowers.

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