Smart and Pretty

Ideas and visuals combine in shows at +, Victoria Myhren and Robischon.

Among the standard features of the visual arts, two attributes rise above the others: what something looks like, and what it means. The rise of modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was, to a great extent, all about appearances, with formalism providing a kind of conceptual justification. Post-modern, dating back to the 1960s and coming on strong by the 1980s, posited a visual art based not on seeing, but on thinking about seeing.

Lately I've come to realize that I'm more interested in the first part of this dialectic. If something is beautiful and nothing else, that's enough for me, whereas if something is ugly but fraught with meaning, it's just not enough.

What's brought these thoughts to mind are a series of shows around town that combine aesthetics and conceptual issues. All of them succeed because the art in them catches our eyes -- not because the ideas that lie behind them draw our attention.

"Lift Off II," by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, 
quadtone digital print.
"Lift Off II," by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, quadtone digital print.


Through May 19, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296- 0927

Through May 7, Victoria Myhren Gallery, Shwayder Art Building, 2121 East Asbury Avenue, 303- 871-2846

KAHN + SELESNICK and Gary Emrich: Spectacle
Through May 27, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

There may or may not be some kind of message behind Kate Petley's juicy-looking resin-on-acrylic panels installed in the front room at + Gallery, but I sure can't figure out what it would be. Instead, what strikes me first about the transparent abstractions in DELIRIOUS is how beautiful they are -- and how decorative.

Petley was born in New York and lives in Pagosa Springs. She's been exhibiting nationally since the 1990s and here in Denver for the past five or six years. I first encountered her work at the long-closed and much-lamented Ron Judish Fine Arts.

All of Petley's pieces in the front at + have been mounted on two chrome brackets so that the transparent plastic panels stand away from the walls, allowing light to come through from behind. This gives them a luminescent quality, an attribute that's usually only suggested in art, not actually present in the physical sense. An artist can use colors that make sunlit clouds seem to glow, but these Petleys actually glow -- at least when the gallery lights hit the wall behind them.

For the main part of the show, Petley has created a baker's dozen of her signature pieces. Something new this time around is the incorporation of photographic imagery, though in the best of them, this aspect is handled subtly. Where it is more emphatic, the technique fails. All of the pieces look like art glass, and I was actually tempted to tap them to make sure they weren't. (Oh, okay. I did tap them.)

A major strength is Petley's choice of colors. In "Wing Tips," she assembles several shades of blue, one more gorgeous than the next. In "Available Halos," ambers and rich browns take over. As a result of the physics of pouring the liquid resin, the compositions are predominantly organic abstractions, and in that way, neo-modern.

The Petley panels have an ethereal quality, like looking at the surface of a pool filled with water. If there is a subject matter to them, it's completely overwhelmed by their beauty.

Clearly, South African artist Minnette V´ri's chimera, a multi-part video installation at the Victoria Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, has a lot of subject matter. But it's also a visual experience, because you don't need to know any of the history that V´ri references to appreciate the piece. Not only that, but her commentary is oblique and hard to follow. The topic of chimera is both the she-devil of the title -- in this case, V´ri herself -- and the racist past of South Africa.

V´ri recorded on digital video the bas-reliefs from the Voortrekker Monument in South Africa, which depicts scenes from the inland migration of the Dutch Afrikaners in the mid-nineteenth century. An informative wall panel contains pictures of the monument and a discussion of the migration, which is compared to the westward expansion of the United States. The two events share various archetypes, such as the image of the pioneer woman and the covered wagon. More poignant are the comparisons with the natives in both events, with the Zulu and Ndebele of South Africa standing in for the Ute and Cheyenne in the U.S.

The stunning installation includes four ceiling-mounted video projectors that shoot imagery onto the walls. The picture seen as viewers enter the room bleeds off onto two walls, each featuring details of the Voortrekker bas-reliefs morphing into images of the chimera. A soundtrack combining synthesized electronic sounds and choral music strikes the perfect balance to the ever-changing images. In some, V´ri turns the white marble Voortrekker pieces black.

The piece debuted in 2001; its appearance at DU marks its premiere in the United States. Shannen Hill, a DU professor who specializes in African art and was the Myhren's former director, proposed the show and facilitated V´ri's being an artist-in-residence on campus.

It's hard to understand how the morphing self-portrait as a chimera and the shifting views of the Voortrekker are an attack on the racist regime that ran South Africa before majority rule took over more than a decade ago. Thankfully, that in no way diminishes the incredible experience in store for those who catch chimera before it closes on May 7.

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