"Plethora," by Trine Bumiller, oil on canvas.
"Plethora," by Trine Bumiller, oil on canvas.

Flower Power

Using plants and flowers as source material for artwork is definitely an old-timey pursuit whose roots (pardon the pun) go back to the dawn of the Greco-Roman era. Here we are in the 21st century, and many contemporary painters -- not just realists -- still draw inspiration from the ubiquitous foliage. I guess it makes sense, since plants are beautiful things that are all around us. Well, except in January in the Mile High City.

Winter is hardly the time of year you expect to see flowers in Denver -- outside of florists or grocery stores, that is. So maybe it's our collective desire for spring that caused two of the city's top galleries to present shows of floral abstractions in four separate solos. The warm subjects are ideally suited for these cold (or at least coldish) days.

With the trees bare and the grass brown, seeing the vibrantly colored works of art in these shows is like stepping into May. But don't get me wrong -- none of these shows present flowers in a traditional, representational or straightforward way. Instead, the botanical motif is simply one element among many in fairly elaborate abstractions, with each of the four artists coming up with a completely distinctive -- and contemporary -- take on the timeworn subject.



Through February 18, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788

Through February 17, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

The current offerings at the Robischon Gallery in LoDo, where three of the four floral-themed shows are being presented, start with JUDY PFAFF, an intimate solo featuring prints by the internationally known New York artist. The show is installed in the first space inside the front door.

This is the third time Robischon has featured Pfaff's work, but this show is much smaller than the previous displays. I'm not complaining: Judy Pfaff is filled with some choice selections of small and mid-sized pieces. And, though there are fewer than a dozen works, that's more than enough for a full-fledged solo.

I'm not sure why the show is so small, but I have a feeling it's because Pfaff's work is getting hotter and harder to come by. There's been a major revival of interest in Pfaff lately, partly fueled by the publication of a monograph on her career penned by art history bigwig Irving Sandler. Plus, now that she's nearly sixty -- she was born in London in 1946 -- she's entering that living-legend phase of her life.

Pfaff's gorgeous prints sport various techniques simultaneously, including intaglio, etching and photogravure, among others. At times she also hand-touches them with encaustic paint, giving them a three-dimensional character that makes each print in an edition different from all the others. The frames are notable, as well, with the compositions extending out onto the moldings.

Many of the Pfaff prints incorporate images of leaves, flowers or other natural things. In "The Cold Half of the Month," which is a horizontal abstraction in various shades of gray, from silvery to charcoal, there is an all-over composition created from the outlines of leaves. To print the hundreds of leaves, Pfaff utilized a relief roller to make repeating patterns.

Among the many strengths of these marvelous and contemplative Pfaff pieces are their dense and complicated compositions. This approach mirrors the one she takes in her more famous installations. Also reflecting her installation background is the way the prints have been hung in a modified salon arrangement so that the pieces are stacked several high on two of the walls, allowing them to be seen individually and as parts of a bigger whole.

Pfaff might be the biggest name at Robischon, but the star attraction at the gallery is TRINE BUMILLER, which spreads from the main space into the smaller, adjacent gallery. Bumiller lives in Denver and is a well-established artist, having exhibited her work since the '80s. This show marks her seventh solo at Robischon.

Bumiller's signature is a mural-like composition of abstract paintings done on multiple panels of different sizes and then arranged asymmetrically. Typically, her preferred subject is nature, which she simplifies into patterns. Arguably, her best known work is "Wood, Water, Rock," a monumental multi-part installation that was unveiled this past spring at the new Colorado Convention Center.

I've seen a lot of Bumillers over the years, and this new group at Robischon strikes me as being somewhat different than the earlier ones, though they are clearly related. From my point of view, there are three new things going on. First, the imagery is more recognizable, notably the depictions of flowers. Previously, Bumiller's versions of the natural world were more implicit than explicit, with a mere line suggesting a river, or a simple dot standing in for a star. In the new ones, there's no mistaking what we're looking at -- even when the flowers have been flattened into shadows. Second, the palette has gotten bolder and more heterogeneous. Formerly, there was a tight unity to the colors used on the different panels; now the panels have wildly divergent palettes. Lastly, and perhaps most unexpectedly, is the introduction of Pennsylvania Dutch hex-sign motifs into the paintings. These folkloric and brightly colored geometric patterns refer to her late father, who collected them. He also was an avid gardener, which explains Bumiller's recent interest in flowers.

Bumiller is obviously experimenting. Some of the new pieces have elements related to the earlier style, while others are further afield from her traditional approach. In "Full Moon," there are a couple of panels with dots and a couple with lines -- the type of thing she's done for years -- along with three paintings that have the new flowers on them. At the top left, Bumiller has placed a panel covered in a sea-foam green circle, a tentative and subtle version of a hex sign.

In "Codicil," the changes are more obvious, with the hex sign fully fleshed out. Its rigid, ordered forms and bright colors are somewhat jarring in comparison to the misty lines and smudges of the other parts of the painting. "Plethora" pushes the floral elements to the forefront, with almost every panel covered in silhouettes of flowers, twigs or leaves.

These recent offerings are very viewer-friendly and easy for even the uninitiated to like, and yet, at the same time, they aren't traditional flower pictures at all.

Unconventional flower pictures are also what ANA MARIA HERNANDO is all about. This show is hung in the Viewing Room in the back. Hernando, who lives in Boulder, is originally from Buenos Aires, and there's a definite Latin American flavor to her work, especially in her use of cut paper. Hernando uses paper that's been pre-printed in floral patterns for embroidering tablecloths. She cuts and slices the papers in ways that completely ignore the guides and then places painted renditions of giant flowers on top, which are done with bold, slashing brush stokes. The use of the tablecloth patterns was not accidental: Hernando explores the role of women in her work, and the tablecloth is an ideal metaphor.

JUDY PFAFF, TRINE BUMILLER and ANA MARIA HERNANDO flow together seamlessly. Putting these particular artists together, as Robischon did, is a thoroughly inspired idea. They function not only as three separate solos but also as one big impressive theme outing, with the work of each subtly melting into the others as viewers proceed through the gallery.

Robert Kushner: WINTER BOUQUETS at Sandy Carson on Santa Fe Drive could well have been installed with the shows at Robischon, because Kushner, like the artists showing there, also uses depictions of flowers as key components in his pieces.

Kushner, who was born in California in 1949, began exhibiting on the East and West coasts in the 1970s and is now a nationally known artist with work in many important collections, including London's Tate Gallery and the Whitney Museum in New York.

The paintings at Sandy Carson are odd in any number of ways, none more so than the fact that they seem to be completely about the creation of luxurious surfaces and could be called "decorative." As bad as that might sound, when you look at the fabulous effects Kushner achieves with paint, metal leaf and glitter, it's hard to knock him for being shallow.

There's clearly a Japanese quality to Kushner's paintings. Some look like panels from screens, particularly "Conservatory Scatter I: Doors," a diptych -- in oil, acrylic, glitter, gold and silver leaf, and mica -- that was done on a pair of antique Japanese sliding doors. Kushner painted four vertical bars filling the entire background of the doors. Scattered from bottom right to top left are blossoms, some outlined in glitter.

Another piece from the same series is "Conservatory Scatter V," which is similar, though painted on the more conventional foundation of stretched canvas. The vertical bars of blue, umber, black and gold are arranged in a complicated rhythm; on top Kushner rendered red peonies and green boughs and leaves, a few of which are accented with glitter.

The use of glitter in several of these paintings is unexpected, since it's a material that's more often associated with grade-school art projects than contemporary art. But traditional Japanese artists sometimes used shavings of colored minerals -- which look just like glitter -- for their screen panels. I'd bet that's where Kushner got the idea.

Robert Kushner: WINTER BOUQUETS at Sandy Carson is a very unusual show, and the paintings are very quirky both technically and aesthetically. But somehow this extremely weird solo worked perfectly for me, especially as the ideal chaser to the thematically interconnected trio at Robischon.


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