Changing of the Guard
It's a basic contradiction of the art world: Artists compete with each other to get into the best galleries, while the galleries compete with each other to get the best artists.
A standard offshoot of this situation is the endless chain of introductory exhibits, meant either to acquaint the local art audience with some hot new artist or to rub the nose of a known talent's former representative in the ground by flaunting the results of a successful coup.
The William Havu Gallery accomplishes both of these goals by showing off some of the artists who have recently joined the stable there in Introductions, which features the work of five artists. A few are well-known, having recently bolted from other Denver galleries; the rest are new to the Denver exhibition world.
The show goes a long way in laying out gallery director William Havu's extremely broad taste in contemporary art by combining a touch of postmodern, a taste of classic modernism and a heavy dose of neo-traditionalism. Havu, who designs all of the exhibitions himself, has installed the work of each artist in its own distinct grouping within the gallery. This is appropriate, since the approaches of the five artists are so disparate. The exhibit may thus be seen as five distinct solos, and that's perhaps the best way for viewers to approach it.
The show begins with a section devoted to Lauri Lynnxe Murphy's recent mixed-media paintings. Murphy is a well-known figure in the alternative world, having been a member of the Edge co-op in the early 1990s and a founder (in 1996) and guiding spirit behind ILK, where she served as president before taking a more limited role this year. Like most of the other members of ILK, she is a graduate of the Metropolitan State College of Denver (interestingly, Pirate and CORE, two of the city's other co-ops, also came out of Metro's art department) and, until recently, was associated with the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery.
Her paintings at Havu combine a wide variety of sources. With her use of a multi-panel format arranged in grids, she refers to structural abstraction. But each panel sports a different style, and the imagery she employs refers not only to repeated patterns, like the overall grid, but to abstract expressionism, pop art and traditional decorations. Although Murphy has been doing this kind of thing for five years, these recent pieces reveal a greater level of integration of the three-dimensional elements she incorporates. Formerly, these attached, found objects had detracted from the compositions; now they enhance them.
The first piece that comes into view is "Ozone," a mixed-media on nine panels, hung three by three. It can be seen from outside the gallery through the window next to the front door. The painting is essentially blue, though green, gray and other shades are also used. The center panel, upholstered in a dusty-blue shag material, sets the tone. Another panel also refers to textiles by incorporating blue fringe. The majority of the rest of the panels have been painted, each in its own style; one has a vaporous image evocative of clouds, another has hard-edged stars on a flat ground. Several include collages of text, like the display ad from a place called Gormley's.
By using different styles and materials for each of the panels, Murphy seems to be saluting several opposing viewpoints at the same time. And there's no denying the way she appropriates the styles of others. But by combining them, she makes them her own.
Other standouts are "Cipher," in which metallic tones are used, and the wonderful "Pox," which is done mostly in reds and yellows. In both, Murphy creates raised bumps in overall patterns. In "Cipher," these raised patterns remind us of stamped metal, while in "Pox," they disturbingly suggest lesions.
Beyond the Murphys, in the space at the bottom of the grand staircase, we switch gears with a fine selection of recent abstractions by Boulder artist Amy Metier, an art teacher at the Community College of Denver and a graduate of both Colorado State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Metier, who recently left the Robischon Gallery, is one of the state's most accomplished painters. This current batch of paintings is particularly strong. In style, they are a continuation of her work over the last decade, in which representational imagery -- typically the still-life subjects of fruit and flowers -- is barely visible underneath painterly flourishes of sometimes-vivid color. I'm not certain, but a couple of these abstractions, "Crackerjack" and "Big Blue Painting," both done in oil on canvas, look as though they have landscapes drawn underneath, which is somewhat unexpected.
"Big Blue Painting" is stunning. Metier uses washes of scribbled paint, laid on heavily in places and thinly elsewhere, that record the brushwork without obscuring the drawn lines underneath. The drawn elements in "Big Blue Painting" are geometric, but not strictly speaking, since Metier creates rectangles and trapezoids freehand, so that even the straight lines have an expressive gestural quality.
"Alphabet Soup," another large oil on canvas, is more signature Metier. In this painting, she draws and then partly paints out a tabletop still life of fruit and a decanter. As usual, her instinctual color combinations are gorgeous: in this case, a variety of closely related gray-greens punctuated by pinks and blues.
One of the most interesting features of Metier's abstractions is the way they constitute an updating of a number of traditions in abstract painting. There are the obvious references to the early-twentieth-century School of Paris styles of Picasso and Matisse. And there's the tip of the hat to the mid-century New York School's abstract-expressionists, in particular de Kooning, and to the movement's Bay Area counterpart, in particular the work of Richard Diebenkorn. In this way, Metier's paintings seem like examples of good old-fashioned modernism, a persistent current in contemporary art.
Also still garnering followers is the representational style used by Kim Reasor, another of the artists in Introductions. Her five pieces, all oils on canvas, are in the front of the gallery, across from the side of the staircase, with several in the window niche. Reasor is an English-born artist who's been exhibiting her neo-impressionist paintings in Denver over the last decade at venues that include the Colorado History Museum and the Jewish Community Center.
The first of her paintings, "Heaven Above Thunder," is an expected Western landscape, except for the heavy application of paint. The sky is so thick with paint that it has been combed by a tool in places to create parallel ridges of pigment.
In the niche are three Reasor street scenes which, though also thickly painted, are quite different in color and feel. Reasor is able to romanticize and idealize our local sites, giving downtown Aurora a positively European feel in "Day Into Night," an oil on canvas set in front of Pasternack's Pawn Shop on East Colfax.
In the intimate spaces below the loft are the magic-realist works of Missouri artist Jane Troup. These paintings of trees and landscapes have a stilted, almost surrealistic quality. They clearly relate to historical Midwestern precedents such as the regionalist scenes by Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, but they also possess a narrative element with specific meanings that are only hinted at. Despite this ambiguity, there is a clearly conveyed sense of foreboding. Even in "Landscape With Trees & Blue Sky," an oil on board that is superficially about a banal if handsome row of specimen trees in the full sun, there's a creepy edge.
The same effect is conveyed in "Pond on the Edge of the Woods," an oil on canvas laid on board. In this painting, Troup places the viewer in a gloomy wood of bare trees; the pond of the title is a minor feature of the mid-ground. Troup's palette of predominantly browns and grays enhances the dismal mood.
Troup's paintings would look great in a future group outing paired with another artist represented by Havu, Tracy Felix, though Felix's work is notably more lyrical and considerably less angst-ridden.
The last artist in the show is Jean Gumpper, a southern Colorado printmaker. She has shown her prints nationally over the last two decades, but it's only been in the last five years that she's regularly exhibited in Colorado, mostly in Colorado Springs. Here on Havu's second floor, Gumpper is represented by large clay prints and woodcuts. Both types are masterful, with some, such as "Reflections (Cub Lake)," capturing the luminosity of light reflected on water.
Most of Gumpper's prints feature plants or leaves that have been conventionalized and are suggestive of decorative patterns like those seen on wallpaper. The botanicals are placed at the surface of the picture with the background -- water, other plants -- receding behind. The tension this creates give the prints a hallucinogenic look that links them to 1960s pop art.
These five artists newly represented by Havu represent a vast range of stylistic concerns. Surveying a variety of dissimilar material is standard practice for this gallery, but this time the installation has been carried out in such a way as to give each artist sufficient elbow room -- for a change.
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