Across the Board
The show's title implies that the art history we were taught in school -- in which every stylistic phase appears in a neat chronological order -- has fallen by the wayside. Now anything goes, as tight representational imagery is hung side by side with non-objective compositions, abstract sculptures are paired with hyper-realist paintings -- you get the idea. It's this visual cacophony that gallery director Ron Judish has captured with his exhibit. The untitled group show in the back gallery adds an exclamation point to the statement.
As we enter, we see two large abstract sculptures by Alex Harrison on the floor between a wall of neo-romantic figure paintings and a wall of unflinchingly accurate super-realist portraits. To the left is "C=2r" from 1998, a three-foot-in-diameter sphere made of cedar blocks joined by aluminum pins. The other sculpture, "Inflaction," also from 1998, is a rocking skeletal construction of roughly cut cedar boards on which a large aluminum ball moves along like a train. The play of the unfinished lumber's dull surface off the quiet sheen of the aluminum is very nice.
Although Harrison is new to Judish, his work has been exhibited in town for the past five years, mostly through his association with the ILK co-op. He is one of several younger artists given an uptown break by Judish; another is Heidi McFall, who is from Colorado Springs. McFall's three almost identical portraits, each called "Barbara" and distinguished by the numbers 1, 2 and 3, at first look like photo enlargements, but they're actually meticulous pastel drawings. Using a self-taught method characterized by fanatical accuracy, McFall employs blacks and grays to depict an older woman in wraparound shades. Her drawings are amazing demonstrations of skill -- not just in her careful drafting, but in her very contemporary approach to composition. The striking woman, Barbara, is seen up close -- and those sunglasses are really cool.
A very different mood is conjured by a group of 1990s paintings by California artist Rebecca Alzofon. They remind us of Victorian or Beaux Arts pictures, in which delicately done nudes, typically female and all peaches and cream, are seen in natural settings. Alzofon is an accomplished traditional painter, but she adds pictorial elements that bring in contemporary subject matter. In several of the paintings, for example, she has placed a surveyor's stake marked by an orange ribbon to indicate that development is on the way and the scene's ruination already in the bag.
On a long row of cantilevered wall shelves hung in Judish's middle space are what can only be called three-dimensional paintings by Kate Petley, a Texas artist. Petley has leaned decorated Plexiglas squares against one another, producing abstracts with layers of depth. The painted forms on the transparent top panel meld with those on the bottom, which are revealed through it. Even up close, these pieces look like art glass instead of painted plastic -- quite an accomplishment. Nearby are two Petley sculptures made of wire armatures and resin. "Inside," which is on a pedestal, and "Floating," which is hung from the ceiling, both date back a few years but represent a style that's just coming on around the country. These are pieces in which organic shapes reminiscent of body parts (often the womb) predominate.
No real sense can be made from bringing together these four artists, except for the fact that gallery directors like Judish have looked far and wide for stylistic sources. This message is underscored by an equally heterogeneous group display in the back gallery. This show isn't titled and it isn't part of The End of History, but it could have been.
The show begins with four dozen black-and-white portrait photographs of nuns by Denver photographer Michael Ensminger. Though the sisters may appear somber, they aren't. Instead of photographing real nuns, Ensminger has dressed up and posed many of the area's best-known female artists, gallery directors, curators and art-world figures, including Cydney Payton, Chandler Romeo, Dianne Vanderlip, Virginia Folkestad, Sally Perisho and Martha Russo. It's hard to say what Ensminger intended by this sacrilegious one-liner, but his skill at portraiture, especially in terms of composition, is brilliant and remains appealing even after the laughter dies.
Next to these are a group of digital prints by Quintin Gonzalez that are also religious in subject matter. "The Turning of Light," an inkjet on photo paper, shows a crucifix that has a neo-baroque quality despite the more obvious high-tech flourishes inherent in digital printing.
On the other side of the nun photos is a small box painting called "Dyad #2" by Bruce Price, one of the city's best abstract painters. In this elegant little acrylic on canvas from 1999, Price has struck a horizontal line across the front and sides. In the larger, bottom portion, he has used a smeary red over black; on the top, he has used a strong tomato red. Price's deceptively simple style has increasingly found proponents, and he is set for a New York debut next year at the well-known O. K. Harris Gallery.
In the other half of the space is Gail Wagner's impressive wall sculpture, "Wealth." This organic piece, made of cotton yarn, dye, paint and scores of tiny plastic hotdogs, has an unexpected monumentality. The colors are great, too, with the green painted yarn, which has been stiffened, setting off the orange and dark red of the little plastic hotdogs.
Next to the Wagner is a masterful abstract-expressionist painting by Jeff Wenzel, "Red Letter," in paint on paper laid over board. In this brand-new, non-objective composition, Wenzel has placed cut pieces of paper, many adorned with stripes or bands of color, in an instinctive arrangement. The lighter and simpler top area is contrasted with the dense and dark bottom section.
The End of History -- even with help from the unnamed show in the back -- fails to say anything specific; if anything, it says too much. But the quality of the work encourages us to ignore the lack of focus and enjoy the parts of the show that are worth more than the whole.
Also combining opposing artistic sensibilities are two shows installed as one at Spark Gallery. On the walls is Susanna Cavalletti Podboy: walk upon the earth, a group of recent representational landscape paintings; on the floor is Judith Cohn: In the Wilderness, a ceramic installation.
On one level, the pairing is jarring: Podboy's fairly traditional, if expressively painted, pieces contrast starkly with the conceptual and abstract components of Cohn's installation. Although there's a thematic connection in that both are about the natural environment, I'd rather see the artists separated. More and more, Spark members are combining their shows by ditching the dividing wall, a strategy that is almost never successful. In this case, removing the wall gave Cohn's large work room to breathe, but since the installation is not separated from Podboy's paintings, it is never allowed to fully alter the atmosphere.
Boulder artist Podboy's paintings all take in majestic views of our beloved mountains, foothills and plains. They're ambitious, painterly and fairly large. Her style has a retro 1940s quality, especially the swirling thick globs of paint she uses to make details. This isn't unexpected, since Podboy's been doing vaguely old-fashioned landscapes for several years; her newest ones, though, are more bold.
One significant element of her style is the non-decorative palette, which clearly separates her work from the sickly sweet neo-traditionalism that's everywhere lately. In a painting such as "Arapahoe," a substantial oil on canvas, she creates difficult visual connections with colors that are nominally naturalistic. She has filled the foreground with an orangey gold representing the brown grasses of a mountain meadow in the fall. The peaks in the mid-ground are conveyed with a muddy brew of brown, blue, gray, lavender and white. At the top, in the background, a vibrant icy blue and an icier array of whites capture the cold sky.
If the pairing of Cohn and Podbody doesn't work well, at least their palettes do. Cohn, who is one of the most interesting ceramic artists in the city and one of the best sculptors around in any medium, uses glazes that include an astounding red, some beautiful shades of blue, green and turquoise, a remarkable yellow and lots of black and white. In the Wilderness is the latest in a Cohn series concerning nature. In it, she translates abstract ceramic forms that have been slab-built and decorated into metaphors for the forest. She stacks cylindrical forms to create columnar shapes and arranges the dozen or so structures in tight clusters. The installation can be entered in places, but it's mostly meant to be seen from a short distance away.
The columns do not, for the most part, make overt references to tree trunks. But one, toward the front of the group, has been finished in an off-white covered with short vertical daubs that suggest the pattern of tree bark. Others have ovals that remind us of the knotholes left by missing boughs. Still others have no relationship with nature, such as the one finished in a rich red oxide and accented with black, or those that sport horizontal turquoise bands. In the Wilderness is spectacular and represents both a continuation of Cohn's recent work and something notably different.
Despite their failed intermingling, these two shows at Spark are interesting. But the rough pairing, like the shows at Judish, tells us that as the 21st century gets under way, aesthetic anarchy is the ruling stylistic force in contemporary art.
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