World-famous modern and contemporary artists are part of the stock and trade of the Robischon Gallery, which makes the point with Judy Pfaff: An Installation of Drawings. The fairly large show highlights some of the New York legend's latest creations. It runs until the end of the year.
Pfaff first came to prominence nearly a quarter century ago, and her timing was perfect. It was the late 1970s, when a generation of women called a halt to male dominance of society. The movement made it easier for more women to enter one profession after another, including the fine arts. Pfaff also found herself on the leading edge of an aesthetic trend -- the increased interest in installation art. Although this form dates back to the early twentieth century, it didn't really take off until the 1980s. Interest in installation art still remains strong.
Born in London in 1946, Pfaff came to the United States as a child. She later attended Yale, where she earned an MFA in 1973. While at Yale she studied with painter Al Held, who became her mentor.
Pfaff didn't copy Held, but she did react and respond to his non-doctrinaire minimalism when she created work that broke with minimalism and went into conceptual art with an expressionist twist. Held's less-is-more approach was thus rejoined by Pfaff with her more-is-more philosophy. On the other hand, Pfaff does take Held's abstract illusions of depth and transforms them into actual depth. That's why her installations seem like abstract paintings that people can literally walk through. Aside from this conceptual link, however, it's very hard to connect Held's scrupulously ordered sense of pictorial space with Pfaff's enthusiastically disordered approach to space itself. And that's why it's incorrect to call Pfaff a post-minimalist, as the gallery's press release does. She's much more clearly associated with expressionism than with minimalism, post or otherwise.
The show at Robischon isn't an installation show, though, which is why it's been cleverly subtitled An Installation of Drawings. Drawings may be unexpected from Pfaff, but they're not a new interest for her; they've simply been overshadowed by her installations. Not surprisingly, the drawings in this show deal with many of the same concepts that Pfaff explores in her better-known installations.
Although she employs some typical drawing tools -- pencil, ink, pastel and charcoal -- Pfaff mainly uses found materials, including three-dimensional objects like leaves and twigs, in addition to cut-up pieces of paper, paint and resin. So what Pfaff calls drawings are really assemblages. In fact, in the deep shadow-box frames in which they're displayed, they look like details or fragments from one of her installations. (This is not a reference to the Pfaff piece that was accidentally chopped up a few years ago at the Denver Art Museum. In that snafu, workers from a commercial moving company cut it up to fit into crates instead of dismantling it. The Pfaff had been displayed on the museum's roof as a part of the traveling Landscape as Metaphor exhibit.)
For Installation of Drawings, the three front spaces of Robischon have been converted into one big area, and the portable walls have been pushed to the sides to make room for the largest Pfaff drawings. It looks great, and the show itself is riveting and beautiful.
As we enter the gallery, two of the largest and most important drawings, "Untitled" and "Chrysanthemum," are adjacent to one another, each on its own wall. These two closely related pieces are large and horizontal, and both include a lot of red and a big assortment of media, including oil stick, acrylic resin, encaustic, photos and rice paper. Pfaff's surfaces are usually gorgeous, but the puddles of acrylic resin that dot these drawings are especially nice. They look like glass or hard candy. The use of the rice paper reveals the Asian theme that runs throughout this show, as does the title "Chrysanthemum." Asia, in particular Japan, is not referred to in a literal way, but in a visual one.
One of the most thoroughly Asian pieces in the show is "Red Star," hung midway back. For this large horizontal drawing, Pfaff has created a collage of Japanese prints of insects and pages of Chinese characters on two pieces of paper, each in its own section of a two-part frame. Pfaff has further adorned the pieces of paper with rubber stamps of cherry blossoms rendered in a simple, traditional style and done in red ink; there's also a lot of red paint.
Next to "Red Star" is "Untitled," an unusual and unforgettable drawing. In the vertically oriented piece, Pfaff assembles sprays of oak leaves encased in clear acrylic. These are on top of an abstract drawing of scribbles that are dripping and running from the top, and an all-over pattern of red and yellow dots. The abstract lines and dots are laid over a collage of printed pages depicting spores or seeds.
Across from these drawings, in a large niche, is "Oxygen," one of the quietest and most subtly colored drawings in the show. In this large horizontal piece, Pfaff has created a collage of photos and altered and enlarged digital prints, all depicting a group of ducks on the water. As the photos were enlarged and altered, the ducks became unrecognizable and turned into a pattern of repeated abstract dots. Heightening this effect are painted dots in acrylic resin and ink that mimic the shape of the altered and simplified ducks.
It's hard to say what any of these drawings are about, even the ones with pronounced Asian elements. Perhaps Pfaff's subject is simply nature itself; her drawings are filled with flowers, trees, insects, birds and, in some cases, people. Whatever the subject is, though, the drawings are visually complex, and the show's not to be missed.
Also worth catching before it closes next week is Topology, the small and elegant Rokko Aoyama show at Artyard.
Born in Japan, Aoyama attended Parson's School of Design in New York many years ago, but she took a sabbatical from art while she raised her family. She returned to her studies and received a BFA from Colorado State University in Fort Collins in 1991; in 1998 she earned her MFA there. She currently lives and works in Fort Collins.
Aoyama is a newcomer to Denver's exhibition world: Her in-town premiere was only last year, at the now-closed Emmanuel Gallery, in a show organized by Mark Masuoka, who may thus claim to have discovered her. And she is quite a discovery because her conceptual work melds a variety of art currents -- notably pop art and minimalism -- in a very imaginative and biographical way.
The handful of pieces in this show were inspired by Japanese sweets called "manju or omanju," according to Aoyama's written statement. Aoyama gives a short history of the snack, which she describes as "soft and fluffy white flour...with luscious sweet azuki bean paste" that has been cooked by "a particular method of steaming." Her intent was to promote a cross-cultural dialogue through the use of the "exotic images of my native country, Japan, and successfully transform them into...artworks my audience in the West can recognize."
On the wall to the right is "Genus Venus #1," in which Aoyama has lined up oval, breast-shaped porcelain forms on a pair of cantilevered, anodized metal shelves. On the floor below is its companion piece, "Genus Venus #2," in which the same porcelain forms are cradled in clear plastic bubble wrap and then placed in the twelve divisions of a milk crate from Golden Crest dairy. The linear character of the shelves in "Genus Venus #1" and the crate's even divisions in "Genus Venus #2" dictate that the porcelain elements are arranged in a line or a grid. In this way, Aoyama creates pieces that are organic and geometric at the same time, making both sculptures post-minimalist in style.
Somewhat different is "O-Man-Ju," an installation that occupies a good deal of the Artyard gallery. In this piece, Aoyama has arranged a dozen large clay ovoids of slightly various dimensions in a random pattern across the floor. The bowling ball-sized ovoids are painted with shiny automotive paint in an array of hues, including silver, green and purple.
The last piece, "Genus X," is the only one that looks like it has an edible component, in line with the manju theme. A carefully crafted wooden tray on a recessed wooden base holds six puffy shapes finished in a shiny, pearly pink.
Aoyama's conceptual installations -- with their Japanese accent -- are thoughtful and elegant. And as little as there is in this very modestly sized show, there does seem to be a lot to look at.
Last month, a number of Denver's art-world dignitaries found themselves at a reception at the White House. The occasion was the end of a series of eight sculpture shows that have been presented in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden over the last eight years. The final show, which just closed, originated in Denver with pieces loaned by the Denver Art Museum, the Museum of Outdoor Arts and the Ginny Williams Family Foundation. The shows, collectively titled Twentieth Century American Sculpture at the White House, were promoted by First Lady Hillary Clinton, who wrote in the brochure that her "first date" with Bill Clinton was in a sculpture garden and that she has "always loved sculpture."
"Hillary looked radiant," says Jim Robischon, the owner of the Robischon Gallery, who was among the Denverites in Washington. "She'd just won the Senate race a few days before, and she was just so up." Robischon went to Washington with his wife and business partner, Jennifer Doran, his son and his mother. "We were all thrilled to meet her," he adds.
Peggy Mangold, director of Artyard, was also impressed with the Senator-elect, especially when her husband, Bob Mangold, was singled out for special praise. "She loves kinetic art, and she spent a long time talking with Bob," Mangold says.
Interestingly -- or is that predictably? -- Bob Mangold was the only Colorado artist included in the show. Oh well, the DAM was in charge, and they're not much interested in Colorado sculpture. The Mangold piece came from the MOA, not the DAM, and was selected by MOA director Cynthia Madden Leitner.
But the prejudice against local art apparently didn't extend to Washington, as Mangold was one of the First Lady's favorites. It's a shame that other local sculptors like Chuck Parson, Andy Libertone or Lawrence Argent, to mention the most obvious examples, weren't given the same chance at national exposure.
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