Cool Summer Treats
Summer used to be the time when the art world all but shut down. The idea was that collectors were on vacation, so why bother with noteworthy exhibits? Directors, curators and dealers would simply throw together a group outing that showed off work by the hottest artists the organizers could easily round up. Solos, on the other hand, were rarely presented in the dog days, being seen as more appropriate to high season in the fall, winter and spring.
Last year at this time, there were wall-to-wall group shows, most notably scene Colorado/sin Colorado, at the Denver Art Museum, and Repeat Offenders, at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Together the two exhibits, filled with a who's who of local artists, provided a virtual topographical map of contemporary art in the state. This year things are definitely different: There have been fewer group shows and lots of artists feted with summer solos, among them Amy Metier, John McEnroe, Bethany Kriegsman, Udo Nger, Stephen Batura, Dale Chihuly and Frank Mechau.
This, of course, is both good and bad -- good because these solos jack up the aesthetic averages of the silly summer season, bad because there's nothing better than a bunch of group shows to give viewers a shorthand guide to art affairs in the Mile High City.
Despite the trend away from them, there are still some summer group efforts around, first and foremost the Museum of Contemporary Art's 2005 Biennial BLOW OUT. There are also a few in the commercial galleries, especially those currently at + Gallery and Rule. The two displays are very different from one another, but each is interesting in its own way.
The show at + Gallery features four artists new to the Denver scene. The idea for it was inspired by a citywide series of outings two summers ago sponsored by the Denver Art Dealers Association, in which member galleries presented work by artists who had never before shown in town. I thought it was a great idea, but for some reason the whole thing was dropped after the debut year.
Ivar Zeile, owner of + Gallery, wanted to revive the concept, and together with gallery director Gilbert Barrera, came up with INCOMING!, a heterogeneous exhibit that introduces the community to four new talents. For three of them -- Doug Mielnicki, Naomi Cohn and Lindsay Dudding -- it marks their first showing in a Denver commercial gallery. Though all three are emerging artists, Mielnicki and Cohn are not kids. Dudding, however, is just out of art school, as is the fourth artist, Kenneth James Beasley of Houston.
Mielnicki is up first, with a painting directly opposite the front door. Entitled "HUG," it's a square-shaped neo-pop composition done in bright colors like yellow and red. In this and other pieces in the main space, Mielnicki makes reference to a number of modern and contemporary artists. I'm not sure I figured out all of them, but I did pick up on Frank Stella, Charles Demuth, Damien Hirst and, most pointedly, Robert Indiana. (The Demuth influence might be coming to Mielnicki secondhand through Indiana -- it's hard to tell.)
A lot subtler in both palette and appeal are the organic abstractions by Cohn and Dudding. Both artists are interested in doing lyrical pictures that have a retro abstract-expressionist character. The Cohns and the Duddings have nothing in common with the Mielnickis, but then again, none of the works by these three artists relate to the oddball Beasleys, which are nonetheless pretty neat. I especially liked the way the blobby sculptures interact formally with the unframed drawings of similarly shaped blobs.
Supplementing INCOMING! is a small John McEnroe solo that includes some of the artist's signature plastic paintings and sculptures. In a back corner near the office, there's also a David Yust painting, which came as a surprise, since I didn't know the highly regarded Fort Collins-based modernist had recently joined +'s stable. Another surprise was that Zeile and Barrera didn't do small presentations of the work of Patti Hallock and Susan Meyer, the two + artists who are included in the MCA's biennial. It would have been a savvy move.
In truth, INCOMING! -- even with the help of McEnroe and Yust -- is pretty frothy. But come to think of it, that's not all bad, considering how hot it can get this time of year.
The show at Rule Gallery has an informal quality, as is revealed by its prosaic title, Summer Group Exhibition, and the fact that an opening reception has not yet been held. (One is planned, however, for Friday, August 5, from 6 to 9 p.m.) For heaven's sake, cards weren't even sent out. But don't let any of this bargain-basement treatment fool you: Rule's Summer Group Exhibition is excellent, every bit as good as the MCA's 2005 Biennial BLOW OUT. That's really amazing, especially since it's apparent that gallery director Robin Rule threw it together with one hand tied behind her back -- and probably holding a martini glass in the other.
The first thing visitors will notice when entering the gallery is Mary Ehrin's installation, "Chambre d'Amour." The piece has been exhibited in Boulder, but this is its Denver unveiling. In form it suggests a birdcage, though taking the title into consideration, it's meant to be a bed. There's an oval, tent-like armature suspended from the ceiling over a cushiony oval platform covered in white feathers on the floor. Enclosing the cushion are strings of faux crystals that hang from the ceiling-mounted armature. The Ehrin installation has a genuine monumental quality, and it defines the mood of the show, with everything else falling in line.
Because of its size, the Ehrin crowds the things near it. I point this out because I don't want anyone to miss the marvelous suite of Andy Libertone drawings that are partly hidden by the installation. The untitled drawings, distinguished by the date of their execution, are done in glittery metallic inks on creamy papers. The linear and somewhat cubistic compositions have an early-modernist feeling that reminded me of the proto-pop style of the late Stuart Davis. Libertone is a legendary Denver artist with a thirty-year-plus career, but he's rarely exhibited in the last five years, which makes it great to come across these recent pieces at Rule.
Next to the Libertones is a wall-mounted shelf with a selection of Jeff Starr's outlandish ceramics. Starr is one of the artists in this show who is also in the MCA biennial. The pieces at Rule are pretty wild, including a creepily realistic rendition of a skull and several more lighthearted pieces in the form of bongs. That's right, I said bongs. Three of the bongs have highly figured surfaces and have been glazed in a luscious copper luster finish. Considering the nature of this topic, Starr would be best advised not to exhibit them in a government-supported venue, because the authorities in Colorado are known to clamp down on controversial art -- especially ceramics. Why, just in the past few months, clay works by Gayla Lemke and Tsehai Johnson have been censored by public officials in separate, widely publicized incidents.
Across from the Starrs are eight pieces by Jason Patz, the only other artist here who makes an appearance in the biennial. Since 2002, Patz has been taking his own picture, and despite the constrictions of this program, he's been able to create a wide range of visual experiences. For example, the photos at Rule are obviously connected to the ones at the MCA, yet they look completely different. Patz encourages this diversity through the use of different techniques, with some done in pinhole, others in 35 mm, and still others in digital processes. He has them printed in different ways, too, sometimes doing it himself and other times using a lab or a computer-printing center. He messes with his facial hair, the lighting, his shirt and the background. Surely the Patz color lightjet prints are among the genuine standouts in the MCA show, but I like the sumptuous Cibachrome prints at Rule even more. The ones at the MCA have Patz's eyes cropped out of the pictures, whereas most of the ones at Rule include his eyes.
On the opposite wall are two intriguing oil-on-canvas paintings by one of the acknowledged contemporary masters of the area, Dale Chisman. These paintings give us a hint of what his new work looks like in advance of his Rule solo scheduled for later this year. The paintings, though referencing abstract expressionism as usual, seem also to be inspired by earlier modernist approaches. They have a Matisse-ian feeling to me, which is something of a shock coming from Chisman. As if that weren't enough, they look like still-life scenes, with the painted grid filling the ground and evoking wallpaper, and the amorphous blobs on the surface standing in for a potted plant or a vase of flowers. Despite this imagery, the paintings are not precious, and still sport the bold brushwork for which Chisman is known.
Around the corner from the Chismans is a single sublime painting by Clark Richert, another local contemporary master, titled "Snelsonian Motion," an acrylic on canvas. The painting is done in a deep aqua covered with multicolored lines that describe the movement of particles, according to the tenets of Snelsonian motion. Luckily for me, there's no need to have any understanding of physics to appreciate how utterly beautiful this Richert painting is.
The Summer Group Exhibition at Rule is the peer of the MCA's biennial. It's even better in some ways because it brings together several generations of Denver artists under one roof, from old-timers like Libertone, Chisman and Richert, who started their careers in the '60s, to kids like Patz, who was wasn't even born until the 1980s.
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