“The Past Is Present,” by Suchitra Mattai, installation in mixed materials.
“The Past Is Present,” by Suchitra Mattai, installation in mixed materials.
Courtesy of K Contemporary

Review: Wide-Ranging Contemporary Art at Two Neighboring Galleries

Since the 1980s, contemporary art has been a free-for-all of pluralism, with everything from arch-conservative realist painting to non-narrative video projections slapped with the label. Current offerings at K Contemporary and David B. Smith Gallery show just how wide-ranging the expressions have become.

At K Contemporary, named Best New Gallery in the Best of Denver 2018, Suchitra Mattai: Sweet Asylum focuses on recent works by the Denver-based artist, some made especially for this show. Suchitra Mattai was born in Guyana, a former British colony in South America, to descendants of indentured servants from India, and Indian motifs collide with English ones in her art. So in some sense her work is about ethnic identity, but it’s also about imperialism and the complex relationships between colonizers and the colonized. Mattai herself is ambivalent about her place in the history of European expansion: Had the English not colonized India, she explains, she would not have been born in Guyana and would not now be in Denver, but would instead be living in the shadow of the Himalayas.

“The Past Is Present,” a large and impressive wall installation that debuted at the LA Art Show earlier this year, sums up her interests...and ambivalence. Applied directly to the wall is a vinyl wrap on which a pixilated scene has been printed; the scene is based on a framed needlepoint that’s hung off-center on top of the wrap, and the squares of the pixilation refer directly back to the yarn squares of the needlepoint. This central image depicts slaves and a slave master in a tropical setting, with a three-masted sailing ship in the harbor in the background.
Mattai has altered the needlepoint with radiating lines emanating from a small boy and extending onto the wrap. Arranged asymmetrically around the central image are other needlepoint pieces and some prints that cover much of the rest of the wrap and even spill off onto the wall. Like the central image, these represent the clash of Europe with the rest of the world, sometimes through the introduction of Mattai’s sewn references to Indian ornaments into otherwise wholly European imagery.

"Male," installation by Suchitra Mattai, fabric and video.
"Male," installation by Suchitra Mattai, fabric and video.
Courtesy of K Contemporary

“Mala,” whose title refers to a traditional garland worn in India, is another impressive wall installation. Using a variety of found scarves and other fabrics, Mattai has created a deeply layered symmetrical drapery, like one you might see in an old theater; in the top center is a video projection of her train travel throughout the world, showing the important role of geography in identity.

Seeing all this, you have to wonder how she came up with the scarves, prints and needlepoints in these pieces. She says she hunts things down on Etsy and eBay, and typically knows what she wants in advance. Every once in a while, though, she comes across something she wasn’t looking for, and that discovery can inspire a completely new piece, or even a series. Though Mattai also paints and draws in both her installations and smaller works, she relies heavily on these found objects, in particular found imagery; still, she’s managed to establish her own signature using components created by others.

Down the street, at the David B. Smith Gallery (just named Best Gallery for Contemporary Art), Liz Nielsen & Dylan Gebbia-Richards highlights the work of artists exploring new routes to abstraction. The New York-based Nielsen has found a measure of fame with her juicy, non-objective photograms, which seem like updated versions of color-field works in which shape and shade are interchangeable. The compositions are vaguely geometric: In “Mountain Friends,” two roughly triangular shapes made up of smaller triangles are lined up side by side; in “Channeling II,” the shapes are more organic in form but have been organized in a casually regulated way, suggesting some sense of geometry even though Nielsen creates these varied abstracts instinctively.

"Underwater Mountaina," by Liz Nielsen, photogram.
"Underwater Mountaina," by Liz Nielsen, photogram.
Courtesy of David B. Smith Gallery

At first I mistook the medium used to make these post-color fields; given all the toned-up colors and the clear articulation of the separate if sometimes overlapping shapes, I initially thought they were digital pigment prints. But to my surprise, they turned out to be old-fashioned analog photograms, camera-less photos created by applying objects directly to film. To make her pieces, Nielsen lays transparent shapes on Fujiflex film in a darkroom, then exposes the resulting arrangements to various light sources, including enlargers. Sometimes she adjusts the shapes periodically during the exposure process to add the illusion of depth. Though photograms have been made for over a century, they are almost always in black and white, so Neilsen’s color versions are definitely notable.

Boulder artist Dylan Gebbia-Richards takes a highly original approach to ultra-tactile, all-over abstraction that’s garnered him not only a local reputation, but a national presence. The best evidence of this is his inclusion in The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe & Contemporary Art, a potential blockbuster opening at the renowned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art next month.

Liz Nielsen's photograms (left) and "Above the Clouds" (right) wax painting by Dylan Gebbia-Richards.
Liz Nielsen's photograms (left) and "Above the Clouds" (right) wax painting by Dylan Gebbia-Richards.
Courtesy of David B. Smith Gallery

Here he’s represented by a trio of monumental panels, all three covered with wax that’s been applied in innumerable coats using specialized machines. The wax piles up in stalagmites rising off the surface of the panels, and the different colors are revealed in stratified layers. The overall effect is like a contemporary reinterpretation of mid-century abstract expressionism; after all, the works are clearly abstract, and the narrow towers of wax could stand in for expressive brushwork. However, since the most expressive parts of the paintings are done with a power tool and not Gebbia-Richards’s own hands, the traditional understanding of expressionism as deeply personal is turned on its head. The pieces are spectacular, particularly “Above the Clouds,” which has a more complex palette than usual.

Watercolors by Michelle Blade.
Watercolors by Michelle Blade.
Courtesy of David B. Smith Gallery

Smith has also installed an intimate show of smallish works on paper by an Oregon artist in the projects room in the back. Michelle Blade: Night Visions comprises mildly surrealistic figurative watercolors that are charming and dreamy. These pieces have a decidedly retro quality, recalling the work of early-twentieth-century watercolor artists.

K Contemporary and David B. Smith Gallery, both award-winning venues that spotlight what used to be called cutting-edge art, are just a block from each other in LoDo, so you’ll only need to find one parking space to hit them both.

Suchitra Mattai, through April 28, K Contemporary, 1412 Wazee Street, 303-590-9800, kcontemporaryart.com.

Liz Nielsen & Dylan Gebbia-Richards/Michelle Blade, through May 12, David B. Smith Gallery, 1543A Wazee Street, 303-893-4234, davidbsmithgallery.com.

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