"Joust," by Mel Strawn, oil on canvas.
"Joust," by Mel Strawn, oil on canvas.


The art world is constantly searching out fresh material, which is why there's always interest in talented artists in their twenties. But another way to come across stuff that's new is to rediscover artists who've been out of sight for a long time -- people who are typically in their seventies. That's what's on hand in Mel Strawn: Retrospective: 1957-2004, at the diminutive Sandra Phillips Gallery.

Though I was aware of Strawn's reputation, I'd seen only a few pieces by him before this show, and I'll bet most of you haven't seen any. This isn't surprising, because in the past fifteen years or so, he's almost never had a show here in Denver, though he did exhibit fairly frequently elsewhere.

Despite the title, this is not really a retrospective of Strawn's almost-fifty-year career as a painter and printmaker. Come to think of it, it couldn't be: The Sandra Phillips Gallery isn't big enough to accommodate one! Guest curator Sally Perisho dealt with the lack of space by choosing one or two pieces to represent each of the major phases of Strawn's oeuvre. This approach provides a kind of index to his stylistic development, though Perisho expanded the number of selections from his pattern-painting years.


Mel Strawn: Retrospective 1957-2004 and Jeff Wenzel: Paintings

Mel Strawn: Retrospective 1957-2004
Extended through April 9, Sandra Phillips Gallery, 744 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-5969

Jeff Wenzel: Paintings
Through April 7, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

Strawn himself has ensured that a proper retrospective could one day be possible by salting the permanent collections of several local institutions with his work. Beneficiaries of his art largesse include the University of Denver, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Denver Public Library, the Colorado History Museum and the Kirkland Museum. "I've gotten a lot from this part of the country," Strawn says from his mountain home in Salida, "so I'm giving something back."

Even though Strawn was born in Idaho, one grandparent on each side grew up in Colorado, so he considers the state his ancestral home. He attended a variety of art institutions in California in the 1950s before earning his BFA in 1955 and his MFA in 1956 at the California College of Arts and Crafts. Beginning in the late '50s, Strawn embarked on a teaching career, instructing at such places as Michigan State University and Antioch College in Ohio. In 1969 he came to Denver to take over as head of the art school at the University of Denver, where he was the immediate successor to the legendary Vance Kirkland, who had just retired after three decades at the helm. Strawn held the post until 1984, when he left to teach at Western Michigan University. In 1988 he returned to Colorado, where he's remained ever since. The Sandra Phillips show is his first solo presentation in a Denver commercial gallery since moving back, but, he notes, it is also the thirtieth one-artist show he's had during his lifetime. That's nothing to sneeze at.

Mel Strawn starts off with two great 1950s abstract-expressionist paintings, "Lookout" and "Joust." Abstract expressionism was the style of Strawn's work during his graduate-school days and immediately afterward. Both paintings -- but especially "Joust" -- are clearly related to the contemporaneous work of Richard Diebenkorn. And guess what? Diebenkorn was Strawn's graduate advisor at the College of Arts and Crafts.

In the '60s, Strawn took a sabbatical in France and also traveled to Spain and Portugal. A pair of paintings from this period represents a clear change from his earlier works, especially because of the introduction of hard-edged geometric elements. They anticipated the pattern paintings Strawn began to do in the late '70s and continued to create over the next fourteen years. They also bear a strong relationship to the work of the other pattern painters active in Colorado at the time, notably George Woodman, Clark Richert and the rest of the Criss-Cross crowd, a loose association of geometric abstractionists in Boulder.

Strawn, however, labels this a superficial, misleading comparison. "The cellular-pattern paintings have absolutely nothing to do with what was going on here, because I never got up to Boulder, where so many of the Criss-Cross people were exhibiting," he says. "In those days, we weren't flooded with information the way we are today."

Even so, if ever a show were done about the pattern painters of Colorado, surely Strawn's creations would be grouped together with Woodman's and Richert's, because despite the clear differences between them, all three were, without a doubt, riffing off the same zeitgeist.

The pattern paintings, which make up almost half of the display at Sandra Phillips, are all done according to theories Strawn developed during the '60s before moving to Denver. For each one, he drew up a tiling pattern limited to four basic shapes brought together into a single arrangement. Strawn believes that four is the ideal number for designing shapes with built-in structural connections, because the pattern can repeat over and over to the margins of the canvas. "There are no other tile-like systems on earth that are like mine," he says.

The Phillips show includes many other things tucked in here and there, including the artist's digital prints. Strawn has kept relentlessly up to date and is something of a pioneer in digital art, having begun to make art on the computer in the early 1980s. Hands down, the strangest piece in the show is the most recent one: "Medal for Mexican Saxophone Player," a gigantic ceremonial medal done in paper with paint and digital imagery. "There's a general cultural concern with awarding medals," Strawn says, "and so I've started awarding them to the things that interest me."

Though it's small, Mel Strawn: Retrospective 1957-2004 has generated plenty of interest, and it's clear that the still-going-strong septuagenarian is a key player in the history of Colorado abstraction. It's also clear that this intimate Strawn-fest is the best exhibition the Sandra Phillips Gallery has ever presented.

One of the state's greatest contemporary abstract painters is the subject of Jeff Wenzel: Paintings, at the Sandy Carson Gallery, just a few doors north of the Sandra Phillips Gallery on Santa Fe Drive. Wenzel and Strawn make a perfect pairing, because both are abstractionists who work with fragmented imagery.

Wenzel was born in Denver in 1959 and went to college in Iowa before earning his MFA in 1985 at the University of California at Berkeley. There he studied with the now-late abstract-expressionist ceramic artist Peter Voulkos and launched a career in that medium. Working with clay, Wenzel would knead, pull and twist the material to get the desired shapes, something he would carry over into his later painting methods.

In the early '90s, he returned to his birthplace and began to create his now-signature heroically scaled abstracts on torn paper. At first he rarely exhibited, beginning in earnest only after the turn of the last century. Since then, Wenzel has jumped around the Denver gallery scene quite a bit, going from Judish Fine Arts to the William Havu Gallery before winding up at Sandy Carson last year. The current show is Wenzel's first solo at this top-drawer contemporary-art spot, and it makes for a tremendous debut.

The show, which was curated by gallery director William Biety, is installed across the front of Sandy Carson, with the moveable walls placed so that they divide the area into a series of separate spaces. Included works range in date over the past few years, and they are so consistent in quality, it's hard to tell the older ones from the newer. The installation, also overseen by Biety, is sensational, and though most of the works are gigantic, each was given plenty of room to breathe. Considering how boldly colored each piece is, this airiness was essential.

Wenzel's signature method is unusual. He begins by painting paper and then tearing it up. He attaches the torn paper to a board, then goes in and paints on it again. The resulting surfaces are ultra-expressionistic, both because the paint is enthusiastically applied and because of the legacy of wrinkles and ragged edges created during the original tearing.

As viewers enter the gallery, their eyes will immediately be caught by two magnificent paintings hanging on adjacent walls to the left of the front door. On the wall facing the window is the large and complicated "Pesha"; next to it is the bigger, tighter "Chaco Canyon." "Pesha" is a horizontal composition that balances arcing lines with straight ones on a field of white, pink and gray smears. Whereas these smears have indeterminate, wispy shapes, in "Chaco Canyon" Wenzel assembled a cast of strong rectangular shapes and carried them out in deep, rich colors, including black, blue and yellow.

Other standouts in the show include all three large paintings -- which could be called murals -- that hang in the north section of the space. Both "Bela Coola" and "Venetia" are dominated by cool tones in lavender and blue, respectively, mixed with lots of black. That makes the intense "War Hammer" the odd painting out, because it's dominated by hot shades, including lots of orange and yellow. All three are spectacular.

With the many large paintings here, it's easy to overlook the tasty small ones. Some of these are very different from the others, notably "St. Croix," in which Wenzel used magazine pages and other preprinted imagery. Some of the other small pieces -- and one or two of the larger ones -- incorporate printed shooting-range targets, which are black with a series of faint concentric circles in ecru. These rings indicate distance from the center of the target for shooters, but they also provide a great device for Wenzel, who uses them as elements in his compositions.

The exhibit is filled with breathtaking work that shows off Wenzel's instinctual sense for elaborate compositions and his unbelievably sensitive eye for color combinations, and it proves once more how good a painter he is. I found the whole thing visually intoxicating -- and I think many will agree with me on that.


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