Form Follows Feeling

"Monument," by Jeff Wenzel, mixed media on wood.

Contemporary art seems to be relentlessly rocked by fads. A craze for some novel thing usually starts in the art magazines, and then suddenly it seems like everyone is doing it. Remember when renditions of little archetypal houses were everywhere eight to ten years ago? Where are they now?

Even more interesting than the fads themselves are the genuine contemporary styles that are unchanged by them. When the little archetypal houses came out of the woodwork, they looked new and interesting. But then, as more and more artists started doing them, they began to seem trite. Very soon after that, they started to look completely outdated, the death knell for any art that calls itself contemporary.

At the same time, legitimate styles somehow manage to hold their own, never becoming worn out, always looking up to date and therefore still contemporary. And they occupy the same vaunted position in the art world before, during and after a fad's run.

What brought all of this to mind is the spectacular Jeff Wenzel, now on display at the William Havu Gallery. Wenzel is an old-fashioned formalist, delving as he has for more than a decade into the depths of good old-fashioned abstract expressionism. A lot of things have come and gone during the more than half a century that abstract expressionism has been on contemporary art's agenda, but it's outlasted just about all of them. There have been times during which abstract expressionism has been on the outs -- like when those little houses were being built -- but artists kept doing it anyway, and the watershed style eventually came out on top. Today, abstract expressionism remains a major current in painting and sculpture, and the style is regularly in evidence at top galleries and museums.

Wenzel wasn't even born when the first abstract expressionists were making art history back in the late 1940s, but he does have an authentic and direct link to the giants of that era. In the mid-1980s, while Wenzel was earning his MFA at the University of California at Berkeley, his mentor was the late Peter Voulkos, one of the greatest abstract-expressionist sculptors of all time.

Voulkos's medium was clay, and, not surprisingly, Wenzel, who was the master's student and studio assistant, was a ceramic artist at the time. Clay, which is soft and pliable, like paint, which is runny and drippy, is a good medium for abstract expressionism because it facilitates the expressionism part of the style, responding directly to the physical touch of the artist.

After leaving UC-Berkeley in 1985, Wenzel exhibited his ceramics in California and built a reputation in the Bay Area. But a little over ten years ago, the artist, who had been painting all along, dedicated himself to the medium exclusively, giving up on ceramics. At about the same time, he moved to Denver and almost immediately began showing his work here. Since then, he has established himself as one of the premier abstract painters in the region. Wenzel exhibited for many years at the now defunct Mackey Gallery, and his work was seen briefly at Judish Fine Arts before he defected to Havu last summer.

Jeff Wenzel fills the spaces running from Havu's entryway to the base of the grand staircase with gorgeous automatist compositions, most of which are huge. The paintings, while clearly different from Wenzel's earlier efforts, are apparently also continuations of concerns he's dealt with for a long time. His pieces from the mid- to early '90s had high-relief surfaces that reflected Wenzel's background in ceramics; he treated the paper on which he worked as though it were clay, twisting it, pulling it apart and putting it back together. He would paint big pieces of paper, tear them up into smaller pieces, loosely reattach them and repeat the process over and over until he was satisfied with the results, which he would then mount on a black-painted board.

The new paintings at Havu are done in much the same way, but the surfaces, though still lively, are physically flat, an effect created by Wenzel having pressed the paper onto the wood panel on which the paintings are mounted. He has been perfecting this very effective method for the past couple of years, and I think the paintings work much better flat than they did when they were three-dimensional.

Wenzel's been thinking a lot about his lifelong commitment to abstract expressionism and whether or not he feels it's a credibly contemporary style. "Sometimes I think that what I'm doing is old hat, but really, everything has been done," Wenzel says. He believes post-modernism "burned itself out" and that there's a change on the horizon. "Things are coming around to work that's been done by artists all along, and more and more people are realizing that it's valid to be working in this way."  

For Wenzel, abstract expressionism is a well that hasn't yet run dry. "I know people say, 'Yeah, been there, done that,'" he says, "but there's a lot more that can come out of it; there's a lot more to be mined. It's not something to be touched on and then to move on; it's something that won't be used up in a lifetime, or in the lifetimes of generations of artists. It's just like working from the landscape or the figure: It's inexhaustible."

The appeal of abstract expressionism is twofold for the artist. On the one hand are the formal considerations based on his skill and taste. "I create relationships to all aspects of the paintings," he explains, "and all the parts work in relation to the others. I'm interested in lines, colors and materials." And on the other hand are what Wenzel calls "the subconscious ways of working."

"My formal knowledge only takes me as far as what I'm familiar with, and then I let myself do something that's outside my control -- an action in front of my awareness of what I'm doing. It's not religious, but it is some kind of belief in something. The tension in my work is between the conscious and the deliberate, and the primitive and pre-verbal."

This combination of formal intelligence and intuitive automatism is the hallmark of all great abstract-expressionist painters. But failures can easily happen when one of these aspects is out of balance. That's when results end up looking like a plate of spaghetti, or, using an art world cliché, "apocalyptic wallpaper." Wenzel's pieces never falter; all are beautiful, with the formalism of the abstract perfectly matched to the expressionism of the painterly gestures. "They're more than scribbles," Wenzel says wryly, and, of course, he's right.

The paintings at Havu are all closely related, and when Wenzel refers to scribbles, he's talking about a set of quick-sketch devices that he uses repeatedly. But they're actually classic ancient forms, including ovals, crosses, rectangles and zigzags. Wenzel adds a pictorial element by using a constructivist arrangement of roughly horizontal torn-paper shapes that he has laid down in many layers. Interestingly, some of the paper has pre-printed images of objects and words on it, thus allowing Wenzel to incorporate found imagery into the paintings.

Though he uses essentially the same colors for all of the paintings in the show -- white, tan, red, yellow, blue and black -- the combinations Wenzel selects for each vary widely. For example, compare "Kula" and "Ajax" with "Monument" and "Christchurch": All are done in mixed media on wood, as is everything else in the show. "Kula" and "Ajax" are predominantly white and tan and so come off as subtle, while "Monument" and "Christchurch," with tons of black and red, appear much bolder. The results are amazing, considering that the two sets of paintings have been created using the exact same shades, just in different ratios.

The Wenzel show is the star attraction at Havu, but there are three other solos in the large gallery. In the rooms immediately adjacent to those devoted to the Wenzels is another formalist display, Delos Van Earl, which features a small selection of post-minimal wall sculptures that look sort of like paintings. Earl, a prominent West Coast artist who lives in Desert Hot Springs, California, makes simple geometric abstractions in dark colors on thick cast-steel panels. The surfaces are scuffed and scratched, and in places the steel is deeply corroded, giving it an effect not unlike a battered tin sign, which may have been his inspiration.

More stylistically akin to Wenzel's show is the handsome Michele Winkler, which is installed in the back of the gallery, under the loft-mezzanine. Although the New York-born Winkler studied at the Art Students League, and in California, at the Otis College of Art, painting is her avocation; her day job is as a psychologist.

Winkler has rarely exhibited in the area and is making her debut at Havu with this small show of paintings and works on paper. Some of her paintings, such as the luscious "fourbyfive," a mixed media on board, are abstract expressionist. But most of them, including "1942, no. 8" are a variant style, figural expressionism, which makes sense because the Art Students League and Otis are both centers for the depiction of the figure.

The last show is Betsy Margolius, on display on the mezzanine level. Margolius, who is from Greenwood Village, was very famous locally a decade ago, but she hasn't been seen much lately in Denver, exhibiting instead throughout the Midwest. Maybe it was a pent-up demand for her work that very nearly sold out the show, or perhaps it was the simple appeal of these complicated, broken-image scenes of finely rendered flowers. When I saw the Margoliusexhibit last week, all but a couple had been sold and replaced with other examples of her work -- quite an accomplishment in the tight economy.  

All four exhibits at Havu are worthwhile. But there's no question that Jeff Wenzel is way beyond being just worth the trip to the gallery. I'd say it's essential viewing, being one of the finest shows anywhere this spring.

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