Omni Modus

The many moods of canvas and steel.

In the late summer of 2002, Tyler Aiello and Monica Petty Aiello burst onto the Denver art scene as full-blown players. They pulled off this difficult feat by opening Studio Aiello in the nether reaches of what is now the River North Arts District, north of downtown. Studio Aiello was an enormous facility -- Tyler's late mother had purchased the place for peanuts years ago -- and the Aiellos used it to present a roster of adventurous contemporary shows. It was apparent that Studio Aiello was the product of hard work, pluck, determination, creativity, enthusiasm and, of course, a lot of money.

Well, the art business is a tough one to pull off no matter how much you have going for you, and last year the Aiellos decided to shut down and off-load the building. They also moved, with their two kids, from their deluxe-ish apartment on the second floor of Studio Aiello to a house. There are some things they miss about Studio Aiello -- notably, curating group shows -- but mostly they're relieved to be rid of it. Especially disappointing to both Monica and Tyler are the many artists they helped over the years who dropped them once they no longer had a gallery.

Though they still run the TarFactory, a workshop cooperative near their old space, closing the gallery has freed up time for them to pursue their own art-making. The products of this extra studio time are now on view at Walker Fine Art, under the title Omni Modus. Regular readers of this column will recall that in the past, I've taken pleasure in making sport of the exhibition titles that Bobbi Walker, owner of her namesake gallery, comes up with; I think she's taunting me with Omni Modus, challenging me to make some clever joke about it. Well, I know I shouldn't look a gift horse like Omni Modus in the mouth, but I refuse to take the bait.

"Galileo Spies the Mighty Bird," by Monica Aiello, in paint, ink, resin and twine.
"Galileo Spies the Mighty Bird," by Monica Aiello, in paint, ink, resin and twine.
Tyler Aiello's welded-steel sculptures from his "Monet's Garden" series.
Tyler Aiello's welded-steel sculptures from his "Monet's Garden" series.

Omni Modus is actually a pair of conjoined solos, with Monica's mixed-media paintings lining the walls of the first set of spaces at Walker, and Tyler's welded-steel sculptures scattered throughout. The two influence one another -- living and working together, that's inevitable -- but their work is not completely compatible visually. Monica revels in strong colors and slick surfaces, while Tyler's palette is somber and his finishes soft. Both do share an interest in naturalistic forms, however, and that's the connection on which the show succeeds.

Monica's paintings are all from the only recently completed "Medici Moons" series, which is based on the four largest moons of Jupiter -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- that are collectively known as the Medici moons. They were discovered by Galileo, who also comes into play, if in name only, in these works. The series marks a continuation of Monica's interest in paintings based on topography and in having topographical effects floating just below transparent surfaces.

Partly inspired by a show she did at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and partly as a product of her lifelong fascination with astronomy, Monica left Earth-bound imagery behind and went into outer space for inspiration. "I thought about Vance Kirkland's work a lot," she says, since he also depicted things out in the universe. "I've really got to talk to Hugh Grant about Kirkland." To which Tyler added, only half jokingly, that he was going to have to build Monica a ceiling-mounted harness to paint from, because that's what Kirkland used.

These panels have a weighty, almost architectural presence, both because they're on thick boards and because the acrylic looks like art glass. This characteristic reminded me of Claire Falkenstein's Venetian glass-and-steel panels, but with Monica substituting plastic and string for more heavy-duty materials that nonetheless have equally spectacular visual effects.

She uses a variety of different palettes for the pieces, choosing a cool blue-green for some, a neutral for others, and a hot orange-and-yellow combination that really works. Because all forms in nature are similar, there's ambiguity in the "Medici Moons" offerings, and viewers would not necessarily know that the subject was the moons of Jupiter if not for the artist's statement. "Surrounding Ra," in that orange-yellow palette, looks like it's covered with flowers, and "Galileo Spies the Mighty Bird" has the flavor of a tidal pool, though what's actually being depicted are volcanoes and craters.

This same formal ambiguity is seen in Tyler's sculptures. There's even something of a moon reference in his use of a repeated disk form. But the real source of these sculptures is more down to earth, as revealed by the title of the series: "Monet's Garden." The overall shapes Tyler employs are evocative of flowers, with the largest ones terminating at the top in blossoms or buds. Still, the abstracted shapes do have a certain surrealistic, sci-fi quality (they are taken from carnivorous species such as pitcher plants) that is only improved by having Monica's lunar paintings in the background.

In order to create these unusual sculptures, Tyler carves his desired form out of a big block of industrial Styrofoam. He coats the carving with plaster to seal the foam against heat from the torch he uses to join the metal disks into a kind of chain mail that covers the plaster shape. Next, he cuts the piece into sections so that it can be taken off the form, then rewelds the elements together to create a finished work.

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