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Color Fields Forever

"Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose," by Virginia Maitland, acrylic on canvas.

One of this season's most important shows -- at least to those of us with an interest in the history of contemporary art in our region -- is Opened Windows, a retrospective devoted to the work of Boulder painter Virginia Maitland that is nearly through its too-short five-week run at Studio Aiello. There's only one thing that made me crazy about this heroically large exhibit: It's installed so that the newest material is up front and the oldest things are in the back. This is an example of what I like to call curatorial dyslexia, an all-too-common affliction among exhibition organizers around here.

The gallery's Front Bay could not accommodate the large early works, so Monica Petty Aiello, who co-directs the gallery with her husband, Tyler, decided to put the show in reverse order. But even though I'm sympathetic to her logic -- the Front Bay does have big windows and an even bigger overhead door -- walking through the show as it was intended makes it impossible to understand Maitland's four-decade development as a painter. And isn't that what a retrospective is all about? Happily, this problem is relatively easy for viewers to solve by simply heading to the end of the show and going through it in reverse, which is what I did.

In the Third Bay, there are a couple of paintings Maitland did in the 1960s when she was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia: "Vortex" and "Still Life with a Side of Bacon." The title of that second one gives away her stylistic influence, British artist Francis Bacon. In both pieces, Maitland paints vaguely surrealist versions of representational imagery, including a figure in "Vortex" and objects on a table in "Side of Bacon." In many ways -- the palette, the blending of colors, the smooth brushwork -- these works are traditional-looking, so it's not surprising to discover that Maitland was originally a realist, especially since the Pennsylvania Academy was a center for traditional painting when she was there.

In 1970, Maitland moved to Colorado -- first to Jamestown and then to Boulder, where she's been ever since. The paintings she did during the first few years she lived in the area mark an incredible shift in aesthetic gears. In "James Town," done shortly after she arrived in our state, Maitland completely broke free from representation and traditional painting techniques. The composition is made up of big blocky forms in strong colors, including red, lavender, pink, mustard and black. This painting and others from the same time, such as "Parallel Clocks," are very fresh-looking and could easily have been done right now instead of thirty years ago.

The pivotal painting in the group is the spectacular "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rose," from 1975. The colors are incredible, a luxurious array of blues, reds and purples in amorphous shapes that were created by pouring paint onto a canvas and then moving and tilting it to create the desired forms. "Young Rose" wasn't Maitland's first experiment with brushless painting, but it was the most completely realized of her early attempts. "It was very physical," she says.

"Young Rose" presaged a decade's worth of poured paintings, the signature examples of which are installed in the west half of the Second Bay. In this section are classic Maitlands, the kind of thing that came to mind when I first heard that this show was on the horizon. In these paintings, large sheets of color were poured on top of one another, allowing the colors underneath to show through in places, especially around the margins of the canvas. They are undeniably beautiful; Maitland's instinctive sense for color and flair for balanced compositions are two of her greatest strengths. Among the standouts in this group are "Two Against One," in which a billowy blue field is surmounted by a mustard one with an orange streak in between, and the transcendental "Amethyst," a violet sheet over a delicious teal-y turquoise. "Amethyst" is one of several paintings in Opened Windows that were loaned to the show by private collectors.

Color-field paintings occupied Maitland for years, including during a stint in New York in the late '70s and early '80s. "I had gone there to get famous," Maitland says with a laugh. She fell short of that, but she did exhibit in the city's galleries.

While in New York, Maitland felt pressure to do the same painting over and over. "Everything had to be one idea, all the paintings looking the same and being the same size. I just couldn't do that," she says. "And as corny as it sounds, I wanted to get back to using a brush -- to 'mark-making,' as they say."

In the late '80s, her work changed. Though she still created poured color-field compositions, on top of them she smeared, dripped and scumbled a little bit of pigment. A painting such as "Inner Waves," from 1993, is only slightly different from the color-field pieces of the '80s. But as the years went on, Maitland gradually covered more and more of the surfaces with heavily worked paint, increasingly obscuring the color-field base, as in "Fire in the Yellow Lake," from 2002, and "Sweet Earth Flying," from 2003.  

Last year Maitland changed course again, reverting back to the color fields but adding photo transfers on top instead of the brushy expressionist passages. The first and most impressive of these new works is "Spacious Past," a triptych primarily in blue, black and yellow. Maitland takes heat transfers based on photos of her mother as a young woman and adheres them to the canvas in the same way printed T-shirts are made. She then pours paint on top, but the photo-based imagery is still readable on the surface. In others in this group, Maitland uses digital decal transfers. Because the transfers are adhered directly to the raw canvas, they are seamlessly integrated into the surfaces. The use of photos changes the nature of Maitland's work completely, adding narrative elements to what was formerly a thoroughly non-objective endeavor.

"I'd stagnate as an artist if I didn't change," Maitland says.

Opened Windows at Studio Aiello is more like a museum show than a solo in a commercial gallery, which is what it is. There's even a handsomely done catalogue that's well worth the modest price. And with only ten days or so left to take it in, I say get over there, already.


Like Virginia Maitland, Jeremy Hillhouse is another abstract painter with a decades-long art career in Colorado. Hillhouse is the star attraction at the William Havu Gallery's Western Land: Scapes, another show that's coming down way too soon. An impressive group of Hillhouse's monumental color-field paintings supplemented with works on paper have been installed in the two main spaces right beyond the main entrance.

It's an elegant presentation that was laid out by none other than Dianne Vanderlip, the chief curator in the Modern and Contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum. Vanderlip, who's currently on sabbatical while the DAM's new building is being constructed, is not moonlighting at Havu; rather, she's doing a favor for an old friend. Beginning in 1972, until he retired in 2000, Hillhouse was an exhibition designer at the DAM, and that's how he got to know Vanderlip. To put together this freestanding exhibition within Western Land: Scapes, Vanderlip requested a measured plan of the space she was allotted at Havu and then went to Hillhouse's studio to select the works she wanted to include. She did a great job, and it looks a lot like one of her Close Range shows at the DAM.

The paintings all share the juxtaposition of dark color bars against a light-colored ground. Hillhouse says he bases his abstractions on the landscape, but that's hard to see unless he means aerial views of the ground. Really, though, these works, like Maitland's, are mostly about paint above everything else -- how it flows, how it runs, how it obscures, and how it illuminates.

The front room at Havu is given over to pieces done about a year ago, with the second room displaying more recent work. There's more than a chronological order to this division: The older pieces are covered with organized paint drips, while the newer ones have big areas of drip-free color. Otherwise, they all hold together very tightly.

All of Hillhouse's paintings are monumental, but "Down Flow," a lopsided diptych, is enormous. On two large panels -- the left one is slightly smaller than the right -- Hillhouse has painted wide vertical bars on an off-white ground. The bars and the ground have been created with layer upon layer of paint in different colors; various overlapping hues are revealed only at the edges of the forms.

Next to the Hillhouses is the continuation of Western Land: Scapes, an in-depth show of landscapes by Nebraska artist Stephen Dinsmore. Using actual sketched views of the plains of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, Dinsmore takes an abstract-expressionist approach to the brushwork, essentially scribbling in the details with different colors. Interestingly, these blobby and smeary compositions convincingly convey the scenery.

Upstairs on the mezzanine is the last leg of Western Land: Scapes, a duet featuring small, easel-sized landscapes by Wyoming's Scott Greenig and Texas artist Cheryl Derrick. Greenig, who used to live in Colorado, specializes in hyperrealist views of the mountains. Among the half-dozen paintings on display here are a couple of snow scenes -- notably, "Grey Landscape," in which Greenig perfectly captures the color of a blizzard and pulls off the outlandish feat of suggesting snowflakes by spattering the panel with paint. Derrick, who maintains a studio in northern New Mexico, continues the tradition of southwestern impressionism with creamy, traditional landscapes.  

Western Land: Scapes isn't really a group show, especially because the Hillhouse section is so dominant. Instead, as seems to be the case time and again at Havu, it only makes sense if the show is viewed not as a group endeavor, but as a pair of solos on the main floor and a duet upstairs.


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