During the past four or five seasons, a legion of exhibitions have been presented in the area that explore the rich topic of abstract art in Colorado.
These shows, of both modern and contemporary stripes, have revealed the presence of an indigenous Front Range modernist scene -- dating back over sixty years and including several noteworthy talents -- in which abstract and non-objective styles have flourished.
Cydney Payton, director of Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art, has mined this particularly rewarding aesthetic vein for years, and she recently shipped an idea she developed off to New York, which is absolutely, positively, the center of the art world.
The resulting show, called Flat Out, is on view at the Cornell DeWitt Gallery (547 West 27th Street, 212-695-6845) in Chelsea. Its focus is the geometric abstractionist Clark Richert and his progeny among his former students at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design; they include Mary Ehrin, Bruce Price and Karen McClanahan.
I'm going to have to miss the show, which closes on October 12, but if you're in New York in the next week or so, you should check it out.
Back home, a major abstract mural has been unveiled downtown. "Suez," by Boulder painter Amy Metier, has been installed in the lobby of the US Bank tower at 950 17th Street.
Metier is well-established in the region's art scene, having exhibited her work in the area for the last 25 years. (Her lyrical abstractions may be seen by request at the William Havu Gallery.) In the 1970s, she was a student of David Yust's at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Like Richert, Yust is an acknowledged master of contemporary art in Colorado. Interestingly, though, Metier's style has almost nothing in common with that of her former instructor.
In "Suez," Metier continues to explore her interest in color-field abstraction. Her classic instinctual automatist method riffs not only on New York-school abstract expressionism, but also on a variety of Parisian modernist styles.
The 15-by-22-foot mural looks smaller than it really is in the large yet intimate lobby space. The formalist-style building in which it is installed is quite interesting: Completed in 1972, the skyscraper is one of the finest buildings downtown and is among the greatest accomplishments of its designer, Minoru Yamasaki. (This, of course, is the same Minoru Yamasaki who designed the now-lost twin towers of the World Trade Center.)
The crisp rectangularity of Yamasaki's design provided some of the inspiration for Metier. Writing about the lines she used to connect various painted passages in the mural, she notes that they "were used to echo the strong linear divisions throughout the lobby."
Another point of inspiration for "Suez" was its urban setting -- or, as Metier calls it, "the modern landscape." The reference to the landscape was also partly determined, she says, by the painting's site-specific horizontal format. It's hard to say for sure, but there do appear to be buildings and ships, or at least highly abstract versions of each.
Surely one of Metier's great strengths is her sense for color; there's no doubt that she is a master colorist. More than anything else, "Suez" is an example of her advanced expertise in manipulating and contrasting tonal effects. Generous splashes of various blue shades, ranging from dark navy to light sky blue, predominate, but Metier accents them with judiciously used and strategically placed reds, whites and greens.
The mural is on permanent display in the lobby of the US Bank tower, which is open to the public during business hours.
Abstraction by a significant Colorado artist is also the attraction at the William Havu Gallery, in the Golden Triangle, where Emilio Lobato: Solo is the fall opener. This fabulous show is unbelievably vast, with more than sixty pieces hung throughout the various spaces on the first floor and practically overflowing the mezzanine.
In many ways, Lobato, who traces his heritage back to the early Spanish settlers of the San Luis Valley, is a quintessential Colorado artist. He received his formal art training at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, where he studied with the late Mary Chenoweth, a respected teacher and artist. Chenoweth's influence is still visible in Lobato's work, especially in the way he addresses the same ideas again and again, but each time with a clearly different approach.
This attribute is seen in spades in the Havu show, and although everything here is signature Lobato, the new work looks fresh and different.
As usual, Lobato's palette runs to the earth tones of ecru, tan, brown and ivory. But he also employs reds and, to a lesser extent, other colors. His color choices are somewhat predetermined because of a typical feature of his work: the use of found materials. He disassembles old books and incorporates their pages, spines and covers into his pieces. The paint used in and around these collage elements is in the same hues.
All of Lobato's work is interrelated; there's a sense of aesthetic unity, not only in the show, but also in the relationship of the new pieces to the artist's oeuvre to date. Nonetheless, there's no denying the differences among them.
In the front sections of the gallery are several large paintings with collage elements that simultaneously recall Russian constructivism and good old American color-field abstraction. One example is "Noventa millas y cuarenta años (Ninety miles and forty years)," a large horizontal diptych with a geometric composition arrayed across the middle of the two panels. The rest of the painting is essentially blank space created by an expanse of bare linen.
(As implied in the title, "Noventa" is about Cuba, as are all of the pieces in the show. Lobato has traveled to Cuba under the sponsorship of the Mizel Museum of Judaica, now a part of the Mizel Arts Center. He extensively photographed the island nation and came to love Cuban culture.)
Another painting of this type is "El pecado del orgullo (The sin of pride)," an oil and collage on linen. As in "Noventa," most of the surface is made up of unadorned linen, but here a small, dense, geometric and vertically oriented composition has been positioned in the bottom center. It's an unlikely arrangement of pictorial elements, but one that clearly succeeds.
A similar but distinct group hangs in the gallery's center section; it comprises mixed-media collages made of book covers that have been cut into rectangular shapes and arranged in elaborate patterns. The cut-up covers, some with embossed words or images on them, are set on a rigid system of horizontals and verticals and arranged so that some are placed over others.
Underlining the sculptural quality of these not exactly two-dimensional works is the way Lobato holds them together. The different book-cover fragments are adhered with shiny brass finishing tacks, a highly visible characteristic that lends these pieces a sumptuous quality.
Even more 3-D are the small collages hung in a row at the bottom of the staircase. Made of book spines and covers, the collages are really low-relief sculptures -- although their window-box frames appear to flatten them somewhat, and their glass fronts give the false illusion of two-dimensionality.
There is so much more to see in this exhibit, including vaguely Picassoid pieces such as the one used on the exhibition notice, "Monumento a una Ruina Moderno (Monument to a Modern Ruin)," which is covered with a cubist pattern of torn book pages in a range of off-white tones, some of them way off. Come to think of it, those colors are typical of cubism, too.
There are also paintings in which a few simple geometric shapes dominate, and numerous monotypes featuring a wide array of approaches.
After surveying the Lobato show at Havu, a couple of things are obvious to me: Lobato has an unfailing sense of creating a scrupulously composed piece without ever needing to resort to symmetry -- and he never runs out of ideas.
At Edge Gallery in northwest Denver, Mark Brasuell: Everything Has Changed showcases yet another important Colorado abstract painter. Brasuell, who lives in Denver, created this latest group of works in homage to his father, who died this past summer.
"I always tell my students not to address traumatic events in their work," says Brasuell, "and I wound up doing just that. But working on the series really helped me deal with my grief, to work through it."
The show is gorgeous, and Brasuell has every right to be proud of it, which he says he is.
There are several large expressionist abstractions in the show, the best of which is "Pond," an acrylic on canvas. In this painting, Brasuell sets bright yellow-gold and orange shapes in the form of painterly fields against dark grounds that have been done in rich purples and deep greens. The colors are toned up, and the paintings shine like jewels.
These large abstracts and their corollaries, in the shape of small easel-sized pieces, represent an unbroken and continuous thread that harks back to Brasuell's earlier work, but also on display is a distinct group of paintings that reflect the show's subtitle.
These are the pieces that refer directly to his father's death from heart failure. In "Open Heart," which suggests a hand-painted cardiogram, Brasuell uses blood red with small areas in white. Other pieces in this group include "By-Pass" and "Maker."
All seven paintings in this series are tondos, constructed from hand-cut circles of wood. They are extremely small, a decision Brasuell made perhaps because of the sensitive and intensely personal subject matter. All of them are arranged in a single group and eccentrically clustered on the same wall.
Brasuell's elegant show, which closes this Sunday, should not be missed.
Twenty years ago, many in the art world had buried not only abstraction, but painting itself. Now, in 2002, both are back in the driver's seat. So it's a good thing that Colorado painters such as Clark Richert, Amy Metier, Emilio Lobato and Mark Brasuell have resisted the fads. Fortunately -- for them and for us -- they've chosen to keep their noses to the grindstone and have continued to make abstractions all along.
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