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Formal Ware

"Longing," by Nicholas Silici, mixed media on board.

It was two years ago that I first became aware of an unexpected curve in the art road. Despite all expectations, digital media was on the wane, and painting was waxing. The thought gave me a good laugh, because it was such an outrageous idea. Fast-forward to the present, and it's undeniable: Painting is on the comeback trail, and digital is looking tired. The news has been heralded in all the art magazines, in the New York Times and on the walls of Denver's galleries.

The + Gallery, in the Ballpark neighborhood, is hosting a pair of solo shows that feature post-minimalist paintings. Up front is The Edge of Recognition, made up of recent pieces by William Betts; in the back is Click, which comprises Nicholas Silici's latest creations.

Betts, who's making his Denver debut with Edge, does something very clever, considering the dichotomy between digital media and painting: He uses digital technology to create his paintings. The former New Yorker, who now lives in Texas, begins by scanning landscape photos. He then isolates some of the digital information taken and uses it to determine the specific colors and placement of lines in his compositions. Using a high-tech printer that sprays paint instead of ink, Betts lays fine vertical lines onto horizontally oriented panels. The juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal references the landscape originals.

Adhering to this strict formula allows Betts to create paintings that are so consistent, it's hard to distinguish one from another except by color and the order in which each shade is used. But like most systematic paintings -- both the kind done with digital aids and those made the old-fashioned way, with paint and brush -- the predetermined system is not as important as the success of the paintings. Betts really pulls the trick off.

In "Best of Times," yellows and oranges predominate among a host of related tones. Across from it, "When the Dust Settles" has many of the same colors, but the dominating hues are red and black. The true standout here, with its great size and gorgeous, icy palette of blues, grays and greens, is "High Tide."

At first sight, Betts's paintings look like photo-based prints, and in a sense, they are. However, upon closer examination, it's clear that the utterly flat surfaces are done in individually applied pigments. This means that they are not paintings, properly speaking (not even conceptually), but instead are hybrids, and thus neither prints nor paintings.

Denver artist Nicholas Silici also delves into hybrid forms in Click, merging painting with sculpture. The Silici paintings are multi-part, made up of various boxy rectangles painted with thin coats of tinted concrete. The pigmented concrete is used to make monochrome color fields with an atmospheric quality, and the imaginary depth and lack of definition are marvelous foils for the hard geometry of the boxes. In the past, Silici left his concrete paintings in a rough finish, but these -- all done in the last few months -- are sealed in clear polyvinyl acrylic, which has a glossy, wet-look sheen.

The boxes were painted individually, as is revealed by the visible drips on the sides. Silici then put a group of boxes together to create a single piece. In most, like "Stacks" or "Longing," the boxes are arranged hieratically, stacked in vertical rows with the edges essentially lined up to create a rectilinear form. There are a few exceptions, as in "Inclusion," where one part is bumped out from the others, violating the overall rectilinear order. From my point of view, these are less effective than the more strictly organized ones.

Silici, who was long associated with the now-closed ILK co-op, has been using concrete as an ad hoc art material to great success for the past several years. Click is sensational, and as a result, it's nearly sold out, which, I don't need to tell you, is a rare event. Here's the bad news: There are only a couple of days left to catch Click and its perfect companion, The Edge of Recognition, since both close on Saturday, May 14.


There's more time left to get over to see Dialog at Studio Aiello, which is not all that far from + Gallery. Though a group show, Dialog has been installed as a series of solos -- and I'm talking about enormous solos the size of museum offerings. Each of the four abstract painters included is given a discrete space, with the single sculptor taking over floor space throughout the gallery.

The Front Bay belongs to abstract paintings by Denver artist Mark Brasuell. I haven't seen every show Brasuell has done, but I've seen enough of them to recognize one from forty feet away -- a vantage allowed by Aiello's gigantic spaces.

Dialog includes some new versions of Brasuell's classic neo-abstract-expressionist approach. For example, the intimate "Biff," in acrylic on canvas, is reminiscent of a landscape, at least in its palette. Also included are Brasuell paintings that incorporate experimental elements, such as the photographic imagery in "FU" and the use of stenciled letters in the mural-sized "Son of a Biscuit Eater" (which otherwise resembles his signature work).

The Middle Bay is taken over by Craig Marshall Smith, who also lives around here. Smith taught at Metropolitan State College of Denver for more than twenty years and was formerly known for his representational painting. Then, about five years ago, according to his artist's statement, "Franz Kline's phantasm" visited him and told him to pick up where Kline had left off. A dean of the New York School, Kline was known for his use of thick dark lines that slash across lighter colored grounds. With more than two dozen Smith paintings, many of them monumental, this section of Dialog constitutes the grandest presentation for the artist in many years.

In the first Smith section, which takes up about half the bay, the Kline influence is easy to see, as the paintings have the limited color scheme of red, black, white and gray. In the second section, Smith opened up his palette to encompass toned-up bright colors, including orange, red and yellow. If the first group of Smiths reveals his debt to Kline, this more recent batch is reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn's California abstract expressionism. Smith must be channeling his student days of the late '60s and early '70s, when he was earning his BA and MFA degrees at the University of California at Los Angeles. Either that, or Diebenkorn's ghost visited him, too.

The Back Bay is divided between two artists -- Haze Diedrich from Lakewood and Kimberly MacArthur Graham of Denver.

The Diedrichs fall into several categories, the most prominent being pattern paintings that look like quilts -- best exemplified in this show by "New Found Me," in oil and wax on canvas. In it, Diedrich arranges bars of colors into squares, like the spaces on a checkerboard. The layer of wax on top softens the mostly earth-toned colors. Some newer pieces have serpentine lines, as in "About the Water," or curved ones, as in "Of Trust." Both represent a great progression from the earlier quilt-like compositions.

Graham does mixed-media works that are installed in the final half of the Back Bay. These are essentially collages with an Asian character. Artist Morgan Barnes made the sandblasted wooden forms on which Graham created her paintings, but this is not his main claim to fame in Dialog. No, that would be his talent as a sculptor, as evidenced by the three-dimensional pieces displayed in all three bays.

Barnes is one of the top young artists in the city. His recent work is ambitious, aesthetically solid and conceptually elegant. In his artist's statement, he writes that his foremost goal is making work that is easy to understand for both aficionados of contemporary art and the public at large. This is a laudable goal, because obscurity has played far too large a role in art over the past several years. I believe obscurantism is a big reason that so much contemporary art arouses so much antipathy on the part of so many.

Don't get me wrong: Barnes's pieces are not simplistic the way a neo-traditional sculpture of an elk would be. They are formally and intellectually complex, but since they also move and make noise, the uninitiated are able to enjoy them on those grounds alone. Making sculptures that function as credible contemporary art and are also broadly appealing to just about anyone is a serious accomplishment.

All of Barnes's constructions are from his "Evolution of Concept and Form" series, and all are based on the same idea. There's a skeletal armature, and mounted on it is a moveable axle attached to hollow metal forms, which are filled with various materials to produce different sounds, from high-pitched tinkling to deep, thunderous roars.

Barnes has been doing this kind of thing for a while now, and all along, he's paid attention to the surface treatments, creating patterns with patinas, rust and rivets. It's hard to pick a favorite among these, because every one is great. However, "Evolution of Concept and Form #7' is distinctive because Barnes pushed the decorative element to the max, adorning the moving part with a row of elaborately finished square panels that are handled as if they were considerably more than just structural components.

Among the artists in Dialog, only rising star Barnes is doing what could be called cutting-edge work. But that takes nothing away from most of the others -- in particular Smith, whose recent turn to abstraction is one of the show's chief revelations.


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