For a while back in the '80s and early '90s, it looked like formalism -- essentially non-objective abstraction -- was on the ropes. Then about five years ago, it rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of neo-expressionism, on the one hand, and annoyingly personal conceptualism on the other, re-establishing itself as a dominant current in contemporary art. Now many artists, especially young ones, are exploring formalism from every direction and producing a wide range of work -- particularly in painting -- that runs the gamut from new riffs on abstract expressionism to fresh takes on minimalism.
What brings this ever-increasing role of new formalism to mind are the three fabulous painting shows on display in the three front spaces at Judish Fine Arts. Now, I've often noted that many group shows are really a set of solos tied together by a very thin thread, but the three shows at Judish, along with a fourth devoted to sculpture, actually function together as a cogent group effort. Go figure.
The first show is Michael J. Chavez, which features recent paintings by this young up-and-coming artist. This may be the last time -- at least for a while -- that Denver audiences will be treated to Chavez's distinctive paintings, because he's moving to New York in the fall to enter grad school at Hunter College.
Chavez is part of a veritable school of neo- and post-minimalist artists who studied with Clark Richert at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, but he has staked out a distinctly different area of interest than Richert or any of his acolytes. Chavez claims in his written statement to have been interested in effecting the sensory perception of viewers, but I don't believe it. I think he's actually interested in decoration, and from that standpoint, this very beautiful and impressive group of paintings succeeds nobly.
Several people have compared these new Chavez pieces to the work of John Morrison, another Richert protegé, and I know what they mean. However, I see the influence of old modern -- in particular, Matisse's cut-paper collages -- as being more clearly present. Like Matisse, Chavez uses jagged and surprising shapes in solid colors laid out unexpectedly -- and delightfully -- across the picture.
These old-modern elements are seen in "Propound Eyewitness," an acrylic on canvas from 2003 that is the only mural-sized painting in the show. It has a streaked gray ground over which Chavez has placed colored bars and other shapes, some of which are pretty strange and elaborate. Chavez's compositional elements collide and overlap one another, and his painting method reflects this same approach. He applies layer after layer of paint to create rich surface effects; one neat trick is that in some places, the top layers are more or less translucent, revealing the shadows of the colored forms underneath.
Across the back wall are a group of smaller paintings, most dating to 2002, that are more elaborately composed and more flamboyantly colored than "Propound Eyewitness." These paintings, with titles such as "She's Leaving Home" and "My Fantasy," are lyrical though densely composed, and almost overcrowded with shapes. Chavez is gifted in juggling the shapes he employs, making what could have been awkward into something completely elegant.
The second of the four solos, John Clark, features neo-minimalist oils on paper and canvas. Clark, a graduate of Metropolitan State College of Denver, is well known for his minimalist and conceptualist pieces.
For the works on paper, Clark created what he calls "vertical landscapes," in which he lines up thick vertical stripes of muted colors, especially icy creams, greens and grays. For the pieces on canvas, he explored squares using the same tones. There's a problem with the oils on canvas, as far as I'm concerned, and that's the crude craftsmanship. If very little is going on in a painting, there can be no tolerance for wrinkles or wavy lines, and I'm afraid Clark does tolerate these things.
The last of the three painting solos is Clay Magidson, which is made up of neo-abstract-expressionist paintings done on glass panes. Like Chavez, Magidson was a student at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and is a member of the Richert brigade.
There's a clear reference in these Magidsons to Jackson Pollock's classic drip paintings, but they're also distinctly original. For example, Magidson sandwiches several panes of glass, each with different arrangements of paint spatters, so there's an exaggerated illusion of depth, of three-dimensionality. And there's that totally flat and very shiny surface of the glass, which is very un-Pollock-y.
Magidson's formula is deceptively simple -- he flings paint in different colors across the surface of the glass panes -- but the resulting compositions are very complicated, some made more so by being displayed in diptychs and triptychs. All are madly frenetic as visual statements -- even the simplest single-panel pieces, such as "Normal Frazzle," in latex on glass.
The fourth solo at Judish, Norman Epp: Forms of Spirit, has, in a sense, been installed on top of the other shows, as it occupies the gallery's floors where Chavez, Clark and Magidson fill its walls. Strictly speaking, the Epps are not formalist; they're based on abstractions of the figure and forms in nature, as opposed to being pure abstractions, like the painted works here. Nonetheless, they unify the four exhibits, because following the trail of the sculptures inevitably leads viewers through one painting show after the other. In addition, although the three painters' styles appear to be completely different on the surface, they are all doing remarkably similar things that, for some reason, are highly compatible with the Epp sculptures.
Epp is a virtuoso, working in carved stone, cast metal and chiseled wood. Though he sometimes uses different methods and materials together in visually rich combinations, most of the pieces here reflect a single approach. An artist at mid-career with an MFA from the University of Wisconsin, Epp has exhibited his sculptures throughout the Midwest. He came out West just five years ago; since then, he's been an adjunct instructor in drawing at the University of Colorado at Denver, and in 2000, he started to exhibit his work locally. This short tenure in the gallery world is surely why he's not as well known as he should be, given the high quality of his work.
The first Epp group that viewers come across as they make their way through the show comprises three carved limestone stiles with figural references. The pieces, "Primordial Homage," "Paean a Priori" and "Altar to Fecundity," all have a totemic, and therefore phallic, character. These limestone erections contrast sharply with Epp's vaginal vessels, "Codex Grail," "Anna and Anu's Cauldron" and "Pneuman of the Crucible," which he made of different hardwoods and carved with organic abstract shapes. The overall forms of the pieces evoke tree trunks, which, in a sense, is what they were to begin with.
The four shows at Judish, all of which are first-rate, were meant to celebrate the gallery's fifth anniversary, but the mood is hardly celebratory there. When I went over to check out the exhibits last week, gallery director Ron Judish asked me into his office and gave me the bad news: Judish Fine Arts is closing down for good on May 31. "I had nothing to do with the decision," he says. "I'm just an employee." Though the gallery used Judish's name, reputation and expertise, silent partners own it, and they pulled the plug. "I can't blame them; I'd have done the same thing," Judish says. "In the last ten months, the gallery lost more than $100,000." It's easy to forget that galleries are not just cultural amenities, but small businesses, as well.
Judish sees the offbeat location, in the Asbury Methodist Church in Highland, as having been a key problem. Originally located on Wazee Street, the gallery moved to the church in the fall of 2001, which was, in retrospect, a very bad time to have done so. "We were doing okay in LoDo," Judish says, "but it went bad after we moved. The timing was just awful; we reopened just a few weeks after 9/11." The timing was surely very bad, but the space itself is fabulous -- and huge. Inside are half a dozen exhibition spaces, each as large as the entire Rule Gallery.
If Judish Fine Arts has been a business failure, it was certainly an aesthetic success, with nearly every show being great, and with Judish himself single-handedly organizing all of them. His artistic vision is breathtaking, and he used it to put together a wide variety of exhibits that featured a tremendous diversity of artists. Under his direction, the gallery highlighted the accomplishments of scores of noteworthy artists. There were presentations devoted to the big names, such as Andres Serrano, Jason Martin and Alice Neel, plus an assortment of local masters such as Roland Bernier, John Hull and Al Wynne. Then there were the mid-career talents, such as Kate Petley, Bruce Price and Emmett Culligan. Finally, Judish pushed the still-nascent young artists, such as Chavez and Magidson, two of the four being feted in the current exhibitions, which are collectively -- and inadvertently -- serving as the gallery's swan song.
The closing of Judish Fine Arts will be a staggering loss to the art community. The fabulous gallery will long be remembered as one of the best contemporary-art venues -- not just in Denver, but in the entire region.
Director Judish is down but not out; he plans to open a new gallery in a few months. "It's a living, breathing thing," Judish says, "and I just can't walk away from it." For his sake -- and ours -- let's hope he's able to regroup. Because without the contribution Judish makes, the Denver art scene just won't be the same, and by that I mean not nearly as good.
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