"Race Day," by Jeffrey Keith, oil on linen.

Beauty, Strength and Weirdness

Bill Havu, director of his namesake William Havu Gallery, has taken an interesting observation and turned it into an excellent show. After noticing that many mid-career artists across the country were creating paintings inspired by abstract expressionism, Havu came up with Wet Paint, a marvelous group effort that examines the work of a trio of these neo-abstract expressionists.

Wet Paint could easily have been handled as three separate but related solos, and I do wish that Havu had done it that way. He would have only had to hang the space at the bottom of the stairs and opposite the information desk slightly differently, because otherwise, the three artists' works are hung separately.

The show begins with visually luscious monochrome paintings by Denver's Jeffrey Keith installed in the entry and the spaces immediately adjacent. Keith has had a long and successful career that goes back decades. In the 1980s, he was known for his funky found-object assemblages, but beginning in the '90s, his abstract paintings came to the fore -- and those are what he's best known for now.


Wet Paint and Random Factors

Wet Paint
Through April 10, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360

Random Factors
Through March 28, Space Gallery, 765 Santa Fe Drive, 720-308-0105

The paintings in the Havu show represent a direct continuation of the things Keith exhibited a couple of years ago at Rule Gallery. In both bodies of work, Keith used rectangular shapes in essentially the same color arranged to form subtle mosaic-like patterns. This monochrome effect is something of an illusion, though, because Keith includes a rainbow of shades used sparingly as accents. For example, the oil-on-linen "Race Day" looks like a field of purpley gray, but there are also dashes of red, yellow, blue and other shades throughout.

In the spaces immediately adjacent to the Keiths are paintings by John Himmelfarb of Chicago. Though the two artists' pieces are distinctly different, their styles work wonderfully together. In the window space is a group of Himmelfarb paintings in which vaguely plant-like shapes are crowded across the picture plane. The palette is dominated by strong, clear colors.

In the space at the bottom of the stairs are the latest Himmelfarbs, which are more elaborate in composition than the earlier ones. In them, the artist has laid cartoon images of figures and inanimate objects on top of an abstract background. These newer paintings are very cool; in them, Himmelfarb consciously refers back to Philip Guston's watershed work of the 1970s, which also combines cartoons and abstraction.

The last of the three artists in Wet Paint is New Yorker Michael Rubin, the most doctrinaire abstract expressionist of the group. Rubin's paintings are all-over abstractions made of what appear to be thousands of evenly spaced brush strokes. The paint has been thickly applied and rises high off the canvases in a regular pattern of juicy pigment mounds. Milton Resnick, a New York School abstract expressionist, is an important source of inspiration for Rubin; in fact, the two were paired in a show a couple of years ago at the Singer Gallery. Like Resnick's, Rubin's compositions have no particular point of attention, instead giving the entire surface the same pictorial value.

Almost all of the paintings by Keith, Himmelfarb and Rubin are brand-spanking-new, and as I walked around the Havu gallery, I could smell the not-yet-dry oil on the paintings. I guess that's why the show's called Wet Paint.

This season has had more than its share of notable ceramics shows, from great solos to sweeping group displays. The latest show to be added to this clay cavalcade is Random Factors, at the Space Gallery. The exhibit features incredible ceramic sculptures and bas-reliefs by emerging Colorado artist Mike Rand, who was born in Leadville and lives in Carbondale.

Beginning in the 1960s, a significant ceramics scene developed in the towns around Aspen, including Carbondale, and by the '70s, it had begun to exert a worldwide influence. This Aspen-type work is best represented by part-time Colorado resident Paul Soldner, who maintains a studio in Basalt. Soldner's work combines Asian aesthetics with abstract expressionism, the two main influences in the area's ceramics scene. That scene has long been bolstered by the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass, where Soldner and other ceramic masters conduct workshops.

Rand is too young to have participated in the golden age of ceramics in the Colorado Rockies, as he was born at the tail end of it, in 1976 -- and apparently his mother wouldn't let him get involved. But he was allowed to attend some of the workshops by Soldner and his peers at Anderson Ranch, and he absorbed by osmosis the ceramics lessons that were all around him.

I guess that's why Rand seems to be channeling the collective spirit of that scene. Like Soldner's, Rand's own work combines Asian influences with the lessons of abstract expressionism. Also somewhat Soldnerian is his use of the vessel form as a basic element to build his sculptures. The creation of functional objects meant to hold liquids and solids is something people began doing several thousand years ago. But as Rand uses the containers -- connected together and turned this way and that -- they are completely non-functional.

Rand must be a fanatic at the potter's wheel, because the show includes hundreds of expressively thrown vessels used in his elaborate pieces. "I have earphones, and I listen to the radio when I'm working at the wheel," Rand says. "It takes me the length of about one pop song to throw one pot." I should add here that had the pots been finished straightforwardly as vases, they'd still be damned good.

The impressive show at Space includes several standouts, but the best pieces are the largest and most ambitious, particularly "Fakura 3-12," a totemic sculpture Rand created by joining three of his signature vases at their bases and then stacking a dozen of them in a precisely vertical pile. The forms have been minimally glazed, with a flash of color visible only here and there.

A somewhat different idea is expressed in "52 Ascend," a wall sculpture in which five separate forms based on conjoined vessels are arranged in a straight line up the wall. The vessel-based shapes, some of which extend straight out from the wall, lend the piece a heightened sense of three-dimensionality, making it more like a sculpture than a bas-relief, which is what it actually is. The deep-black glaze on this piece is gorgeous.

In the smallish back gallery, Rand assembled a group of pieces made from dozens of the vessels pushed together while the clay was still wet. One of them in this very neo-abstract-expressionist group is "Blue Tumbler," which was done in a time-tested Chinese blue-and-white glaze.

Michael Burnett, director of the Space Gallery, doesn't typically turn over his entire place to a single artist. This has to do with both the spaciousness of the gallery and Space's specialty of the house, so to speak: emerging talent. Twenty-something artists typically don't have enough stuff to fill this kind of massive square footage. But unlike most others in his age group, Rand was clearly up to the job of taking charge of all that room, as he proves beyond any shadow of a doubt in Random Factors.

There are major changes planned for the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, including a complete overhaul designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects. I think whatever is done to the center would be fine; it couldn't come out worse than the current building, which is neither attractive nor functional. However, I do wonder what's to become of the Vito Acconci at the entrance, the Clarice Dreyer installation at the outdoor theater, and other works that are permanently installed. Hopefully, spots will be found for them in the new facility.

Lately, everyone seems to be talking about the Arvada Center, but not about the impending construction. Instead, the talk has to do with some inexplicable moves that Jerry Gilmore, director of fine arts and chief curator, has made over the past several months.

In the fall, just as Frank Sampson: Retrospective was set to open, Gilmore pressured the show's organizer, Rudi Cerri, into quitting. Cerri worked for the Arvada Center as an exhibition designer and sometime curator for almost twenty years, whereas Gilmore came on board a year or so ago.

Soon after he was hired, Gilmore started pushing Cerri around and hurling personal insults at him in front of the rest of the staff, which seems like an open-and-shut hostile-workplace complaint to me, though one was never filed. Adding injury to insult, Gilmore excluded Cerri from a dinner at the Arvada Center in honor of Sampson that was held just before the show opened. Under the circumstances, Sampson understandably didn't want to attend the dinner at all and only went on Cerri's urging. Gilmore also told Cerri not to come to the opening, but he went anyway. In a classic tit-for-tat, it was Sampson who did the urging this time, and he and Cerri attended the event together.

I didn't know anything about this until a few weeks later, when I went to review the Sampson retrospective and asked to speak with Cerri. But even before I found out what had really happened, I instinctively knew something was up when Gilmore gave me the very George Costanza-like story that Cerri was going to Italy to become an architect!

The first thing that occurred to me when I found out about the Cerri situation was that Susan Sagara Bolton, the other longtime Arvada Center curator, would be next. And I was right, because just a few weeks ago, Gilmore fired her.

After the "Cerri in Italy" song and dance, I didn't even bother to ask Gilmore about what happened to Bolton. And Bolton isn't talking, either, because she has wisely retained a lawyer. Here's hoping Bolton triumphs in whatever case is eventually filed.


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