Several current local shows zero in on the renewed vitality of abstract art in the Nineties. Chief among these are the group exhibit Reinventing the Abstract, at the Mackey Gallery, and a single-artist display, Gary Passanise, at the CSK Gallery.

In the Mackey show, gallery director Mary Mackey includes her own monotypes along with Jeff Wenzel's mixed-media paintings and Norah Krogman's photograms. Though the temptation to include her own pieces in every show must be great for Mackey, this marks only the second time she has displayed a body of her own work.

Mackey has exclusively printed monotypes for the last two years, and the work included in this show principally surveys her stylistic development over the past few months. The earlier pieces, like her work of years past, recall the paintings of the great abstract expressionists of the mid-twentieth century. Lines and scribbles are set against color fields, the goal being the arrangement of color with no discernible subject other than the act of printing. Even Mackey's palette is nostalgic, with dusty, pale greens and vivid, dry oranges and reds predominating.

Her most recent pieces, only four of which are included, look back still further, recalling the early twentieth-century work of Picasso. In these lyrical monotypes, which have been named after Italian cities, the human figure, especially the face, has been introduced for the first time in Mackey's work. These prints have been so heavily reworked that the viewer may wonder, as I did, why Mackey doesn't simply turn to painting.

Painting, of course, is the forte of Jeff Wenzel, one of the best abstractionists working in our region. Signature works such as 1993's "Janice" are constructed of torn and wrinkled pieces of painted paper that have been assembled and then painted again. The painted pieces of paper have then been organized into roughly rectangular shapes--often monumental in size--and mounted on black painted boards that function in lieu of a frame. Wenzel employs marvelous and well-thought-out color schemes; in "Janice," a beautiful lavender is contrasted with grays and yellows.

Also included in the Mackey show are Wenzel ceramics from the 1980s--works that in many ways served as prototypes for his more recent paintings. Wenzel worked for a time as studio assistant to the famous father of abstract ceramics, Peter Voulkos, and the master's method of twisting and assembling clay has greatly influenced him. Wenzel's ceramics suggest that his paintings are a direct translation of the lessons he learned in clay.

Also translating one medium into another is Norah Krogman. Her sepia-toned photograms from the "Memory Drawing Series" seem to spring directly from her sculpture and installations of the last few years. Krogman's method is to take a construction typically featuring gauze and screening (materials she has often employed in her three-dimensional work), lay it momentarily on a sheet of photo-sensitive acetate and, finally, develop it in an ammonia bath. In spite of the process, the resulting pieces look more like paintings than photographs. Organic forms recalling hair and feathers are expressed in various shades of brown, which stand out against the white of the paper backing, creating a melancholy atmosphere.

More abstract distractions can be found at the CSK Gallery, where St. Louis-based artist Gary Passanise makes his Denver debut in a show featuring wonderful minimalist sculpture and wall reliefs along with some prints.

Two elegant sculptures from Passanise's "Ascending Rectangle Series" have been included, both of them using straight lines to create simple asymmetrical arrangements. Straight lines also are the dominant feature of a sophisticated, untitled wall panel that creates a four-part checkerboard with squares of charred wood, enamel and wax-covered plywood. In "Number 4," another wall piece that combines ad hoc art materials, the wooden outline of a square floats at the surface of a field of translucent white wax.

Passanise takes the same idea--geometric simplicity--and expresses it eloquently in various mediums. Just like the artists in the Mackey show, he has linked one art medium with another--and emerged the stronger for it.


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