It truly is fall in Denver, and the trees themselves are coming down along with the leaves. Given this loss to our visual environment, it's some solace that another, more expected feature of autumn also has arrived: the start of high season for the art world. This year in Denver, it's begun with a bang--or, more accurately, a barrage.
Among the new, thoroughly on target shows are three single-artist exhibits that take different approaches to contemporary abstraction. At the Inkfish Gallery, it's Janet Lippincott; at Auraria's Emmanuel Gallery, Harmony Hammond: A Pleasured Disturbance; and at the Arvada Center, Trine Bumiller: Paintings From the Wilderness Cycle.
The Inkfish show marks a reintroduction to some, but a first greeting to most, of the abstract paintings and monotypes of well-established New Mexico modernist Janet Lippincott. This is the first time in nearly fifteen years that Lippincott has been afforded a single-artist show in town, though in the 1950s and up through the early '70s, she was widely known and avidly collected in Denver.
Lippincott, born in 1918, is part of a generation of abstract artists still working throughout the American West who, beginning in the 1940s and '50s, embraced a constructivist approach to abstract painting and printmaking. This constructivism, often broadly based on the Western landscape, is clearly distinct from (though not entirely unrelated to) the predominant style of that time back East, abstract expressionism.
Lippincott's work in the Inkfish show falls into two distinct categories. There are the older signature paintings, some dating back to the early 1960s, which are wonderful, and some very recent monotypes that suggest that the seventy-something Lippincott is still in full possession of her artistic powers.
In spite of its title, the 1963 acrylic on canvas "Red Landscape" doesn't depict the outdoors as much as it seems to illustrate Lippincott's formalism. Repeated shapes on the painting's surface are set against a receding and indefinite ground. In "Untitled," another of the 1960s acrylic paintings, Lippincott goes further, reducing the picture to a few hard-edged linear forms that stand out against a white, wall-like color field. The cold geometry of the composition is mediated by the handmade warmth conveyed through Lippincott's wavering and gestural green and blue bands.
A softer treatment of geometric form also runs through the untitled monotypes Lippincott has produced during the last two years. All incorporate chine colle, a process whereby paper (and in Lippincott's case, foil) has been pressed into the print. Several of the monotypes display drawn elements, executed in graphite and crayon and added after printing. Thus, like so many monotypes, Lippincott's works have as much in common with mixed media or collages as they do with prints.
Harmony Hammond is another New Mexico-based abstract artist whose work appears to fall through the cracks between clearly defined categories. Hammond became known for her sculptures and installations while living in New York in the 1970s; over the years she's also gained renown (and notoriety) for her views on feminism and lesbian rights--beliefs she expresses through both her journal writings and her art.
Those political concerns are still central to Hammond's work, but instead of sculpture and installation, she's turned exclusively to painting since coming to New Mexico in 1984. Some of her most recent paintings make up the show at Emmanuel Gallery. A sensitive viewer might find Hammond's attempt to simulate human skin upsetting, but discomfort is one of the artist's chief interests, as the title A Pleasured Disturbance indicates. Her quietly unnerving "Flesh Journals" are translucent latex rubber slabs that have been scratched and painted with acrylic and ink and displayed in pairs or sets of four. The corporeal slabs are obviously meant to convey the pages of a book, since they incorporate the written word. Further underscoring the literary theme is the fact that the slabs are displayed on low-hanging podiums attached to the gallery walls.
Posing an even greater risk to squeamish sensibilities are Hammond's watercolors concerning menstruation. The very red "Untitled" bears the scrawled motto "Braid of Blood"; more X-rated, at least conceptually, are 1994's "Blood Journals," ten panels of handmade paper that have been painted with water colors and Hammond's own menstrual blood.
Given the edginess inherent in Hammond's political scheme and artistic program, it's interesting to notice how quiet and contemplative the resulting mood is in the Emmanuel Gallery, a quality enhanced by the fact that the gallery was once a synagogue and, before that, a church. Flesh and blood, of course, are no strangers to a house of worship--they're just usually not the product of an artist working out feminist and lesbian parables.
For something completely different (and compared to Hammond, what isn't?), try the exhibition of oil paintings by respected Denver painter Trine Bumiller now approaching the end of a three-month stay at the Arvada Center. These wood-panel paintings weave closely related variations on a clearly defined theme--the wilderness. All have a magisterial quality that's in part the product of Bumiller's dark palette; just like the old masters, the artist most often uses earth (and sky) tones, especially umber and sienna.
Bumiller's choice of traditional oil tints is the most obvious evidence of the time she spent studying painterly technique in Rome. Her use of clear glazes, between layers of which her pigments float, is another example of her embrace of historic Italian techniques. These glazes leave the surfaces of her paintings looking wet, which some of them still might be--oil paint and glazes dry slowly, and all but a few of the pieces were completed during the first half of this year.
Though made the old-fashioned way, Bumiller's paintings have a thoroughly contemporary effect. This is the result of her elaborate compositions, her frequent use of the multipanel format, and the organic lines she uses as a vehicle to explore the contrast between light and dark--features all easily seen in the gleaming and beautiful diptych "Open Book."
Bumiller's output is prolific: The Arvada Center show features fifteen paintings, nearly all of them major works. Her brushwork is precise and confident, which helps to display the expert color development she achieves by allowing several different colors to come together in a single tone. And she innately understands how to construct a successful composition, always retaining a sense of clarity no matter how densely she populates her pictures with formal elements.
These three compelling shows help to demonstrate the considerable breadth of current abstract art out here in the West. And though it's easy to see how Lippincott, Hammond and Bumiller may relate to one another (they're all painters, after all), the real moral of these shows is how each artist has taken her own unique and personal--in Hammond's case, perhaps too personal--route to success.
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