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Change and Continuity

"Objective," by Roland Bernier, acrylic on paper.

The story had been circulating for months: Fresh Art Gallery was closing for good, and the newish +Zeile/Judish would be moving into the sharp-looking spot at Ninth Avenue and Santa Fe Drive.

And it was lots more than a rumor. Not only had the tale been spread around by Jeanie King, the director of Fresh Art and the owner of the space, but also by the three fellows behind +Zeile/Judish: owner Ivar Zeile, partner Ron Judish and director Gilbert Barrera. They all told everyone that the move was imminent -- well, as soon as Zeile et al. found a tenant to sublet their location. Not only that, but the crew at +Zeile/Judish took out an ad in the current Art District on Santa Fe exhibition schedule, announcing that they'd soon relocate to 900 Santa Fe, which is, of course, Fresh's address.

The trouble is, the story wound up not being true -- or, at least, only half true. Yes, Fresh Art is closing after its last official exhibit, w.o.w. (works on wheels) w.o.p. (works on paper), a stunning solo devoted to the work of Roland Bernier. But +Zeile/Judish won't be moving in. Unable to find someone to take on their space, the guys announced last week that they're staying put.

King had her own announcement, revealing that at the end of June, Fresh Art will be taken over by a partnership of Spark and Core, which will divide the space. Count on both to seek new members in order to afford the higher rent.

Fresh Art wasn't supposed to be a co-op, but then again, the Bernier show wasn't supposed to happen, either. When Bernier heard that King was shutting down Fresh, he went to her and proposed this solo exhibit. King, still expecting +Zeile/Judish to come in on June 1, had a few weeks to fill, so she agreed to do the show.

King, however, was busy preparing to move to Rhode Island, which is why organizing the show fell to Lisa Gedgaudas, the director of Golem, a frame shop on the premises.

Bernier uses letters as a principal aesthetic device, giving his works a decidedly pop-art feel. The letters spell out words, but they are freely associated and do not tell a story. So despite the use of language, there's no narrative content. Bernier begins by looking through dictionaries for words with the same number of letters; he then assembles what he's found into separate sets so that when he creates a single piece, he can include words of the same length. The results, which Bernier has exhibited locally over the past fifteen years, are at once completely contemporary and very '60s retro. But don't be misled: Bernier is not your typical twenty- or thirty-something retro hipster. He's 72 years old and has been doing cutting-edge stuff, including using words as pictures, for the past four decades.

Bernier was born in Rhode Island and has lived in Denver since the 1970s. Before that, he spent time living and exhibiting in Houston, Los Angeles and New York. When he came to Denver, he took a job teaching art at the then-new Park Avenue Recreation Center, a gig he kept for more than twenty years. A little over ten years ago, Bernier decided he wanted to get back into the art game rather than teach; since then, he's shown at the city's top galleries and the Denver Art Museum, where he was afforded a solo show -- a rare honor for a Colorado artist.

The work at Fresh Art represents two sets of ideas that Bernier has been formulating for several years. He's had the concept for the words on wheels since before the DAM show in 2001, but he didn't start making the pieces until 2002. Though the sculptures in the series are all similar, there is a range of differences among them. For instance, some are small, while others are monumental. But all are broadly based on the form of a wagon with four wheels and a box or platform on which letters have been stacked.

A group of small ones is arranged on pedestals on the south side of the space. They have a funky, almost folk-art feeling enhanced by the painted finishes of brightly colored monochromes. Others displayed elsewhere, such as "Bang," have expressively painted distressed finishes.

The larger ones, which are the size of full-blown sculptures, are the best, and they don't look folksy at all. My favorite is "Cheers," a huge wagon form mounted on a low stand; the box's wheels have real rubber tires and chrome trim. The box itself has been filled with stacks of six-letter words, including the title, "Cheers." All Bernier titles are taken from the words he employs.

For works on paper, Bernier designed a simple alphabet and had it executed in rubber stamps. He also had rubber stamps made up of duotone images of silver-screen stars, including Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. The alphabet predominates in these pieces, with the images of the movie stars part of the background.

 

One thing that's notable about the works on paper are their surfaces, which are very painterly despite the use of the rubber stamps. Nearly all of these pieces are marvelous -- aloof, enigmatic, elegant, smart -- so it's hard to find any that stand out. Having said that, I think "Objective," a diptych, is one of the finest. Like many of the others, it's not big, but it's still monumental.

The Bernier show is impressive and includes more than three dozen major works. The Fresh Art space is the perfect setting for an in-depth solo, yet this is the only one that's been presented here, and, with the changes afoot, the last one ever. Make the effort to see it before it closes on June 4.


There's also a limited amount of time left to catch the current offerings at the William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle. Four single-artist shows fill the place; two of them, Aaron Karp and Sushe Felix, are major presentations, while the other two, Delos Van Earl and Lynn Heitler, are smaller displays.

The first show, installed in the set of spaces immediately inside Havu's front door, is Aaron Karp, which illustrates the New Mexico artist's classic style. Karp is well known to Denver audiences, as he's been exhibiting his large paintings in the top galleries in town since the 1970s.

Karp gives a unique look to his paintings through the use of masking tape. He starts creating the pattern at one end, often changing its orientation halfway across. Even if it looks as though he has heaped the paint on with a knife or spatula, Karp actually uses a conventional brush technique to get the luscious quality that he does. The varying depths of the paint are created by pulling the tape off during the process, leaving the paint that has piled up against it.

Not only is Karp's technique a contributor to his idiosyncratic style, but so, too, are his subjects: abstracted organic shapes arranged in an all-over composition. The show at Havu includes two different bodies of work. In the front are gauzy abstracts in which simple natural shapes are placed upon one another, obscured by wildly expressive brushwork and the use of light-over-dark pigments. In the space at the base of the staircase are some slightly older works, which have more complicated compositions, are more crisply detailed, and are more intensely colored. Both types are pretty cool and absolutely represent an unusual take on organic abstraction as well as on taped painting, which is typically used by hard-edged minimalists and pattern-painters, not those doing nature-based work.

The paintings in Sushe Felix do have hard edges, but this well-known Colorado artist is no minimalist or pattern painter -- nor does she use tape. Felix's work is neo-transcendental, a retro style that refers to the work of early modernists in the American West, which has long been an interest for her. Her paintings are installed in the center space and in the space under the mezzanine, and the selection includes more than a dozen of her signature acrylic-and-mixed-media-on-board paintings.

Felix's compositions are like unassembled puzzles, with an array of rectilinear, triangular and circular shapes scattered across the picture plane. These elements, some of which have been detailed with renditions of clouds or the sun, are arranged to draw the viewer's eyes to the center of the painting. The eyes are also drawn up, with Felix using lighter tones at the top and darker ones at the bottom. All of these attributes are shown off in two of the most ambitious pieces: "Crossover" and "The Sun Also Rises." Other titles, such as "Come Rain or Shine" and "Blue Rondo," refer to the names of songs from the history of jazz, one of Felix's current passions.

The Delos Van Earl show, in the display-window space, includes only a handful of this California artist's steel wall sculptures. The Van Earls are geometric in composition and in overall shape. Contrasting with that geometry are deep gouges in the steel, which Van Earl achieves with corrosive chemicals.

Upstairs is Lynn Heitler, a small group of monotype floral pictures and photo etchings by the established Denver artist, who is better known for her abstract-expressionist pieces. Heitler's works are thoroughly traditional, even down to the yellowed ground she employs that makes them look like nineteenth-century botanicals. Whatever she was thinking when she came up with the idea for this radically conservative work, she struck a chord with collectors, because they've been selling briskly.

 

The four shows at Havu don't really work too well together, but individually, all have something to say for themselves -- especially Aaron Karp and Sushe Felix. But remember, the clock is running out for this quartet, with less than two weeks left on their scheduled runs.


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