Denver artist Julie Puma is on the cusp between being an emerging artist and an established one. With her installation Letters to Stanley in the Balcony Gallery at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, she moves one step closer to the latter. The show has been very well received and has made her better known than she's ever been.
The two-part installation is intensely personal, dealing with the recurring theme of breast cancer in Puma's family. Her mother died of the disease when she was a little girl, and her sister succumbed to it just a few years ago. Puma herself decided to have a double mastectomy when tests revealed that she was prone to developing the potentially deadly condition. But the show also has a universal quality to it, considering how widespread the disease is among women and that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Puma uses various styles, including pop and conceptualism (that's right, I'm calling conceptualism a style), to produce the somber piece. Across the back of the gallery, facing viewers as they enter, is a curtain made of color photocopies of family snapshots and the "Letters" Puma's mother wrote to "Stanley," her husband. Lying on the floor in front of the curtain is a rectangle of river rocks, some of which bear the transferred images of the letters and the photos on them. Like all successful installations, this one takes over and transforms the space.
Letters to Stanley was originally supposed to come down on Thursday, October 13, but that's Yom Kippur, so the Mizel is closed, and no one's going to be taking anything apart then. For this reason, the show's been extended through this Sunday, October 16. Be aware, though, that the Mizel is always closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.
Down the hall, in the Mizel's Singer Gallery, are two solos organized by exhibition director Simon Zalkind: Incognito, a large presentation installed around the gallery's outer walls and dedicated to the paintings of Denver artist Steven Altman; and Crowded, a small show hung on a set of dividing walls that focuses on drawings by New Yorker Elliot Green. The two artists' works have virtually nothing in common, but as usual, Zalkind has made them fit together. Taken as a whole, the Singer looks just great -- and that's as usual, too.
"Steve Altman is one of those artists that I've kind of watched on the periphery for years now," Zalkind says, "and the reason he's on the periphery is that he doesn't elbow his way into the center. But every time I've seen his work, I've thought it was strong and deserved an audience."
Zalkind selected Altman for a solo because he had a sufficiently large body of strong work, and because there were enough transitions in his stylistic development to make for a really interesting show. These pictorial changes can be roughly described as going from the '90s abstract-expressionist pieces to the figural abstracts of the early 21st century that incorporate text. Now he has seemingly made his way back again, with the latest painting being abstract expressionist, albeit of a very different stripe than the earlier ones.
Altman has been exhibiting since the 1980s and garnered a modicum of fame around here back in the '90s, when his work was shown at Robischon and at the long-gone Grant Gallery. His style of that time can be characterized as airy, with just a few scribbled lines and a smear of paint here or there on an otherwise blank canvas. When I first saw his pieces of this type more than ten years ago, I thought they were gorgeous; seeing a group of them at the Singer, I still feel the same way. The passage of time has done nothing to diminish them, which is amazing, since lots of stuff that looked good in the '90s looks stale today. Three enormous ones -- "Pink #1," from 1997, and "Canvas #1" and "Canvas #2," both done in 1998 -- have been hung in the front corner and look marvelous together.
In the past five years, Altman's career has continued to flourish, with regular appearances in exhibitions and a raft of public-art commissions. However, that notoriety didn't come from these fabulous abstracts, but from his more difficult pieces, which feature the use of felt and of representational imagery in the form of figures. These works are mystical and childlike, as illustrated by the mixed media on canvas titled "Infinitely Suggestive," from 2003.
In his most recent pieces, Altman is still incorporating felt -- particularly in "Union" -- but it's more thoroughly unified with the painted parts. "Union," a mass of heavily painted smears that was done earlier this year, is so different from almost everything else in the show, it made me wonder if it's a predictor of things to come.
Zalkind has also been following the career of Crowded artist Green since he first saw his work some years ago at Shark's Ink, which was then in Boulder but is now in Lyons. Green's pieces, in the form of elaborate drawings of crowds of people, are appealing and seem to take some inspiration from Picasso and even more from old comic strips. They're really something.
Altman's Incognito and Green's Crowded are midway through their runs; both close early next month.
Currently inside the front door of the William Havu Gallery is a group of white stands on which three fabulous Martha Daniels ceramic sculptures are displayed. They are not part of any exhibit, but are simply an added bonus for gallery-goers.
The sculptures -- "Stormy Weather," "Door to Belen" and "August" -- are abstract planar compositions made of flat clay shapes appended to one another. In form and surface effects, they remind me of Italian modernist ceramics from the '50s and '60s, long an important source of inspiration for Daniels. The glazes, which are spectacular, are also reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century Italian work, especially the deep reds and sunny yellows and oranges.
Daniels is unquestionably one of Colorado's preeminent ceramic artists, but here's some bad news: She's seriously considering moving to California! If she does, we'll lose one of the state's contemporary masters. Like so many others, I hope she reconsiders and decides to stay.
The rest of the first floor has been given over to the impressive single-artist show coloris: Jeffrey Keith, which showcases recent paintings and works on paper by another well-known and widely respected Colorado artist. Visitors will immediately be struck by the distinctive odor of linseed oil. The smell means that many of these paintings by Keith are still technically wet -- beneath the top surface, anyway.
When he moved to metro Denver in the late '80s, Keith immediately jumped into the local art scene. The latest paintings at Havu are part of a personal stylistic continuum he began more than a decade ago. Paint is tooled onto a linen canvas in broad bars of color that run horizontally in some places and vertically in others. The bars are in an all-over composition, with no particular point of focus.
Keith applies the pigments so thickly that the bars sometimes look as if they've been attached in sheets, collage-style, rather than directly applied to the canvas. But it's just paint on canvas, except in the handful of genuine collages that are also in the show.
The paint is Keith's subject, putting him firmly in the neo-abstract-expressionist camp. But they are not true examples of the style because of the basket-weave structure he creates from swaths of different colors. That is where the title "coloris" comes in: The word defines the pleasure derived from perceiving colors, something Keith unapologetically orchestrates without any hint of a narrative underneath. This color-for-color's-sake philosophy is exemplified by several beautiful oil-on-linen paintings, such as "Blind," "Blush" and "Candide."
In addition to being a practicing artist, Keith taught at the University of Denver for a decade. Among his many students during that time was Julia Rymer, whose night paintings exhibit has been put on display on the mezzanine at Havu, where she was gallery director before leaving to earn her MFA in painting from the Pratt Institute in New York. Today she teaches at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and at Regis University.
Interestingly, despite her sojourn to study in New York, Rymer's paintings still show the effects of her student days with Keith. This is particularly true in the way she handles the grounds of her paintings, which are done in a similar way to Keith's. That feature makes this smaller show a perfect companion for the larger one downstairs.
There are differences, though. For instance, Rymer doesn't adhere to Keith's horizontal-versus-vertical format. Instead, she freely arranges her smears into various orientations, including every gradient of diagonal, and puts on a top layer of scribbles in lighter colors. In "North," an acrylic on canvas, she uses red arching lines on top of a field of purple, purply gray and off-white, among other shades. The formula is similar in "Demeter" and "September," which are hung nearby.
While you're at Havu, don't miss the sculpture garden out back, which is decked out in metal pieces by young Denver artist David Mazza. There are also a pair of Mazzas out front -- one near the gallery's main entrance, and one directly across Cherokee Street.
The William Havu Gallery doesn't promote a single style and has a widely inclusive philosophy. That means that there are often diverse offerings in the various parts of the gallery. But right now, abstraction rules throughout the place. There are the sculptures by Daniels, the paintings by Keith and Rymer, and more sculptures by Mazza. Everything looks great together because it represents a single consistent theme.
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