Xi Zhang and Out Figured shows provide strong counter-currents to abstraction

In the annals of the Denver art world, the 2011-2012 season will go down as the year of Clyfford Still. The Clyfford Still Museum opened in November, and many museums and galleries presented shows highlighting the artist's influence or abstraction in general in order to honor Still's signature approach.

But in the past few months, a strong countercurrent of exhibits featuring representational imagery — in particular depictions of the figure — has appeared. An example is the small but strong 11 Ceremonies: New Paintings by Xi Zhang at Plus Gallery. The show comprises recent paintings by this young Colorado artist who originally hails from China. Zhang studied at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, where he received his BFA in 2008, and then at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he earned an MFA. With contemporary Chinese art being one of the hottest topics of the early 21st century, it's great to have a hometown player like Zhang in the mix.

The paintings in 11 Ceremonies have an ambitious quality from several perspectives, including technique, subject matter and, most important, a kind of visual charisma. This final characteristic makes Zhang's works seem more monumental than they actually are — though they are pretty large. According to the artist's written statement, the paintings have to do with Zhang's interest in social media, but this is hard to see. That's because they are so apparently hand-wrought, and thus seem to be worlds away from the computer and the Internet. So while social media may be a source, it's possible to ignore this aspect and to focus instead on Zhang's accomplished sense for composition and his striking expertise in putting paint to canvas.

"Ceremony (The Birthday of Million Tear Drops No. 5)," by Xi Zhang, acrylic on canvas.
"Ceremony (The Birthday of Million Tear Drops No. 5)," by Xi Zhang, acrylic on canvas.

Location Info


Plus Gallery

2501 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80205

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Downtown Denver

Center for Visual Art/MSU

965 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204

Category: Art Galleries

Region: Central Denver


Through April 14, at Plus Gallery, 2501 Larimer Street, 303-296-0927, www.plusgallery.com.Through April 7, at Metro's Center for Visual Art, 965 Santa Fe Drive, 303-294-5207, www.metrostatecva.org.

Stylistically, Zhang is an expressionist. In "Ceremony (The Birthday of Million Tear Drops No. 5)," the largest painting in the group, the artist has arrayed five figures across a two-panel acrylic on canvas. The dark ground is very smooth and looks sprayed on, while the figures, members of a modest wedding party, are carried out in a sketchy way. Their contours and facial features are scabrous, the result of the patches of thick pigment laid on to depict them, as well as the over-painted profile drawings. Zhang takes a slightly different approach for the garments the figures wear, including the Maoist blue suits of the two men and the light-colored gowns of the three women. Here Zhang summons up a range of abstract methods, including scribbles and drips, to describe the costumes of all five characters.

Among the many strengths of Zhang's paintings are their elaborately intriguing surfaces and their strong and widely varied palettes, which differ from canvas to canvas. Speaking of colors, Zhang's taste for bold palettes is clear evidence of his origins in Chinese aesthetics, but he also channels the recent art history of figuration in America and Europe, making the resulting works extremely sophisticated on several levels.

Out Figured, now in its final days at the Center for Visual Art, is another example of the figurative theme. The show features the work of half a dozen artists, all of whom focus on the human form while raising disturbing, or at least edgy, philosophical, sexual, psychological or sociological issues.

The exhibit represents the swan song for curator and center director Jennifer Garner, who's returned to Metropolitan State College of Denver to resume teaching full-time as an associate professor in fine arts. For Out Figured, Garner chose artists who she felt were not only technically accomplished, but who also addressed the figure in provocative ways.

The fact that we're in for something strange is established upon entry to the center, where outrageous sculptures by Christina West have been scattered around. Using nineteenth-century porcelain dolls as her source material, West has created large-scale replicas that, like the originals, use white porcelain for the heads, arms and legs of the dolls, but stuffed cloth for the bodies. In some cases, the dolls are piled on the floor, suggesting corpses from a massacre. But if suggestions of genocide weren't enough, all the male dolls sport erect penises in floral printed cloth. They are every bit as outré as they sound. In this same spirit are the photos by the late John Coplans from the '80s, which represent an early variant of the Puppetry of the Penis, but in this case, it's not penises, but old men's asses that are used to create whimsical images. To put it mildly, the sculptures by West and the photos by Coplans are limited in their appeal.

Easier to take — though the subjects are somewhat unnerving — are the digital photo montages by Nederland's Corvo Brothers, who aren't really brothers. These archival pigment prints in muted color palettes feature large figures that dominate the compositions. In "Vessels," a man is laid on a slab with tubes surrounding him and one being inserted into his mouth; it looks to some extent like an old-master depiction of Lazarus. "Saint Damian" and "Wax Venus" also recall historic depictions of the figure, and both are compelling and erotically charged.

The rest of the show is made up of paintings by three artists, each given a separate gallery. Two, Marie Vlasic and Irene Delka McCray, are from Denver, and one, Jenny Morgan, is from New York but used to live here. Interestingly, Morgan was a student of McCray's at RMCAD.

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