Little Pleasures

Small spaces do a lot with a little.

When I think of a gallery, the typical image I have is of a capacious, carefully lit room. Conjure up the many spaces of this type at the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, the Lab at Belmar or any number of the city's better commercial venues, like Havu, Sandy Carson or Robischon.

But an alternate image also springs to mind — that of the ad hoc operation installed in a former shop, office or home. Camera Obscura is a classic example, where the art is under-lit and has been hung on the existing walls of a turn-of-the-century townhouse. This old-fashioned approach to the art business is quite common across the country and in Denver, where there's no shortage of such outfits.

Untitled oil on canvas by Ania Gola-Kumor.
Untitled oil on canvas by Ania Gola-Kumor.
"Molten Vessel," by Barbara Carpenter, digital color photo.
"Molten Vessel," by Barbara Carpenter, digital color photo.

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Through July 5, Sandra Phillips Gallery, 744 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-5969, www.thesandraphillipsgallery.com.Through June 15, Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-889-2200, www.sparkgallery.com.For a complete slide show of these exhibits, go to slideshow.westword.com.

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The first stop is Sandra Phillips Gallery, where a show with the generic title Abstraction opened a couple of weeks ago. The exhibit was organized by Sally Perisho, who used to be the director of Metropolitan State's Center for Visual Art and now works with the MCA.

The show begins with a group of abstracts by Ania Gola-Kumor. Though she had her first exhibit in town in 1982, Gola-Kumor isn't well known around here, and I think of her as the best unknown artist in Denver. She's originally from Poland and studied at Warsaw's Academy of the Fine Arts, where she earned her MFA; she also attended the College of Art and Industry in Moscow. During the last 25 years, she's shown her paintings in such far-flung places as Santa Fe, New York and London. I first became aware of her work in the 1990s, when I saw her dense and heavily painted abstracts at the now-long-closed Inkfish Gallery; later, I caught an exhibit of her equally compelling mixed-media collages mounted as a wall-sized installation at the Phillip Steele Gallery on the old campus of the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. "I've been hiding," Gola-Kumor said, "but this show has brought me back out." Truthfully, she's been hiding in plain sight, as she's taught foundations and drawing at RMCAD for the past decade.

In the Sandra Phillips show, she's represented by three monumental paintings and two small collages, all of which are untitled, because Gola-Kumor doesn't want to add anything to the visual experience and doesn't want to suggest to viewers what they should see. All of these pieces are spectacular. The paintings, more than the collages, seem to be based on something seen in reality, like a room, but Gola-Kumor has abstracted them to such an extent that they are unrecognizable.

Opposite the Gola-Kumors is an oddball assortment of paintings by Virginia Maitland that include a knockout, "Amethyst," one of her signature color-field paintings from the 1970s. In recent years, Maitland has experimented widely, so, inevitably, some of her pieces fail. I wish she'd go back and re-explore her strong suit — replacing form with color. Beyond the Maitlands are some automatist compositions by Jane Troyer from Dallas, the only artist in the show not living in Colorado. In these paintings, the pigments have been allowed to penetrate the surfaces of the canvases, leaving blurry margins. They're pretty enough, but they're also pretty thin.

Crammed in the corner — which is too bad — are some marvelous vintage drawings by Mel Strawn. A fixture of Colorado art since the 1970s, Strawn succeeded Vance Kirkland as the head of the art department at the University of Denver and now lives a very active retirement down in Salida. For these drawings, most done while he lived on the West Coast with only a couple drawn in Denver, Strawn was apparently working quickly, since they have a satisfying slap-dash character, something that also suggests that he approached them spontaneously. There's a calligraphic look to these drawings, too, in which Strawn has simply scribbled in with charcoal or pencil a complicated, vaguely vegetal set of forms down the center of the pictures. Stylistically, the drawings are clearly abstract-expressionist, but they also have a transcendental feeling. Popular in the American West, transcendentalism embraced the idea of using a centered composition, as opposed to the all-over compositions of the abstract expressionists — but otherwise the distance between the two sensibilities is not all that great. Both rely on a faith in the subconscious wishes of the artist to guide the creation of line and form, more or less automatically giving them spiritual or psychological content.

In the middle of the room at Sandra Phillips are a group of lidded vessel forms in glazed ceramic by Bebe Alexander. I've really liked Alexander's work since I first saw it some years ago in Colorado Clay, but she doesn't do pieces that qualify as abstract, so she's somewhat out of place in this show. Alexander is more concerned with being architectonic, and her pieces sport symmetrical forms — which also contrasts with everything else here. Taken on their own, Alexander's sculptural ceramics with their fuzzy and accomplished glazes are definitely choice.

A few blocks up from Sandra Phillips is Spark Gallery, the city's oldest artist cooperative. In the west gallery is Annalee Schorr's solo, Cacophony, featuring marker on Mylar pieces, and in the east gallery is Things That Went, made up of digitized color photographs by Barbara Carpenter. Both artists are longtime members of Spark.

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