After seeing the stunning Martha Daniels, Amy Metier, Betty Woodman installed on its first floor, I'm tempted to say that the William Havu Gallery has never looked better.
This is hardly surprising, and it's obvious why: All three artists are stylistically linked to one another in a variety of ways. But even more essential to the construction of this very coherent show is the way the related palettes of the artists interact. Daniels's strong reds and greens look great with Metier's oranges and greens, which in turn are terrific with Woodman's pinks and greens. The strong hues light up the gallery, making this tremendous exhibit the perfect visual antidote to the gray-white days of winter.
The emphatic effect of color is seen as soon as viewers enter the gallery. Just inside the front door is a ceramic sculpture by Daniels titled "Red Nike" -- and the title's no lie. The electric lipstick red is as red as red can be. The piece is a perfect expression of classic Daniels style, in which Mediterranean influences are mixed with Oriental ones, a combination she shares with her stylistic mentor and co-exhibitor in this show, Betty Woodman. Daniels, a transplanted New Yorker, discovered Woodman's work more than thirty years ago when she first moved to Colorado. Already an accomplished artist at the time, Daniels had studied at the prestigious Cooper Union in her hometown of New York City.
But in truth, Daniels's approach to ceramics is very different from Woodman's. The vessel, the ultimate archetypal ceramic form, remains a central concern for Woodman, even when she makes prints and drawings. For Daniels, it's the figure, which is, of course, the ultimate archetype for sculpture. In this particular sense, Daniels's work is less a part of the tradition of ceramics than it is within that of sculpture, and a piece like "Red Nike" could actually have been made of bronze or some other material than fired and painted clay.
The "Nike" of the title refers to the "Nike of Samothrace," or, as it is better known, "The Winged Victory." This famous ancient Greek sculpture of a goddess was decapitated by the ravages of time, but it is still so nice that it effectively anchors the grand staircase in the Louvre in Paris. Like the original, the Daniels figure is headless.
"Red Nike" is expressionistic, and the elements of the figure -- legs, torso, arms and wings -- are roughly made from bent and twisted sheets of clay. The forms are brought together in a kind of crescendo of shapes that flare out at the wings (which are at the top of the figure rather than the back). This composition gives the sculpture more monumentality than could be expected from a piece that stands merely five feet tall.
Just ahead is another Daniels figure, "Red & Green Reclining Nude," in which the same red is used on the torso. In this case, however, the effect of the color is modulated by the verdigris boughs that surround the figure. Again, the piece could just as easily be a painted bronze as a ceramic.
Some of the Daniels pieces could be nothing other than ceramics, though, since their surfaces are the product of glazing in a kiln. Notable in this regard are two works that were included in the artist's solo show at the Denver Art Museum a couple of years ago, "Autumn Plant Form" and "Summer Plant Form." The glazes, a monochrome orange-ish red for the autumn piece and a complex set including white, pink and blue for the summer one, both recall modern Italian ceramics, an acknowledged source for Daniels.
The dozen or more paintings by Metier are interspersed among the Daniels sculptures. Since they were created in the last eight months, Metier must have practically chained herself to the easel. Making the accomplishment all the more astounding is the fact that her typical technique is to layer the paint on each piece, beginning with a sketch and running through to the underpainting and finally to the glazed surface. It's hard to imagine how she found the time, considering that she commutes between her studio in Boulder and her job as a painting teacher at the Community College of Denver.
Metier's influences are broad and clearly include Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn -- not to mention Woodman, who was teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1979 when Metier got her MFA there.
For many years, Metier has been creating abstract-expressionist paintings based on still-life compositions. Using sketchy and gestural lines evocative of fruit, flowers, bowls and other typical tabletop accessories, she paints them over and over in thinned-out pigments. Typically, she depicts these objects simultaneously from different points of view, with one vantage laid over another. As a result, the paintings are not representational versions of still-life compositions, but seem almost abstract, being essentially unrecognizable.
But there are clues, like the banana shape -- or is that a slice of melon? -- that is repeated in "Palimpsest," a mid-sized, mostly white oil on canvas. The title is of Greek origin and refers to something that has been erased, and, come to think of it, the surface of the painting does look as if it's been scraped off. Particularly nice are the daubs of blue and orangey rust that have been used sparingly on the left-hand side of the panel, creating a great asymmetrical tension when juxtaposed with the predominant white.
Another standout is "Fifth Season," in which a pear shape set against a brushy oatmeal-colored field first catches the eye and provides a stepping stone to the still life underneath. There is a great but tenuous asymmetry in this piece, as the elements created from drawn lines and wide bars of blue, green, orange and red lead the eye around the edges of the painting, beginning at that pear shape in the center left and ending at the scribbled vertical loops at the bottom right.
The effect of the largest of the Metier oil paintings, "Haywire," is different, as the colors -- a severe acid green, a cheerful sunny yellow and a brooding deep red -- encourage the eye to dart from here to there, willy-nilly. The colors also lend "Haywire" a decidedly '60s retro quality, reinforced by the abstract organic shapes that cover the two panels.
One quality of Metier's work is its highly decorative character, which makes it somewhat controversial. You see, until recently, being "decorative" was the worst thing you could say about a contemporary painter. There are many in the art world who still think of the term as a pejorative, but I don't. Times have changed since formalist modernism was the prevailing doctrine, and right now, being decorative doesn't seem so bad after all.
It's possible to say the same thing about Woodman's pieces, especially since her pottery, a small selection of which is on display, is technically part of the decorative arts. But it's equally true of the prints she did in a series of sessions with Shark's Inc. in the 1990s; these prints are Woodman's main attraction at Havu.
Woodman no longer lives in Colorado, having retired from teaching a few years ago with her husband, George Woodman, who also taught art at CU. The Woodmans now divide their time between Italy and New York. But since Betty spent forty years here -- coinciding with most of her creative period -- it seems right to extend her emeritus status as a Colorado artist.
Among the pots are several interesting things that Havu borrowed from ceramic dealers. The "Pillow Vase," a raku, is an early example of Woodman's most famous shape, the pillow pot. The piece has been vaguely dated to the late '60s or early '70s, which would make it an early example of the type; this attribution is borne out by the fact that Woodman had not fully resolved the formal problems of such a shape, as she would later do. Just as the name implies, "Pillow Vase" puffs out in the center.
Another interesting ceramic piece is "Challis," dated to the same period. It is a salt-glazed footed bowl with flat ribbon handles made of straps of clay. Like the pillow form, the use of strap handles is associated with Woodman.
Woodman's prints are concerned with the same issues as her pots; in fact, the prints include images of pots that are posed as if they were figures standing in front of tightly organized backgrounds, some of which recall classical settings such as balconies and ceremonial halls. Woodman often leaves a lot of raw paper and uses it as an important feature of the composition. For instance, in "Boardwalk Vase," a color woodcut with chine collé, and in "Oribe Tray/Classical Pitchers," a color monotype with collage, the shapes of the vases are defined by areas of minimally decorated white paper.
Upstairs on Havu's mezzanine, a very different mood is conjured up by James McElhinney, which is billed as an introduction to the artist. Not only is McElhinney new to Havu, but this is his first solo show in Denver. This is strange, since he's been in town for a few years, and he's taught at the University of Colorado in Denver since 1998. But McElhinney apparently doesn't have anything against exhibiting his work: He frequently shows in his hometown of Philadelphia and in Virginia and North Carolina, where he taught before moving to Denver.
McElhinney creates in a contemporary representational style, and in the works at Havu, the landscape is the subject (though I've also seen nudes and portraits by him). All of the paintings depict American battlefields, and instead of the sunny palettes seen downstairs, McElhinney prefers a dark one, with rich browns, deep greens and purplish grays.
He began this series in Virginia in 1991 with the Civil War battlefields of the Southeast, where he lived. But more recently, he has begun to paint battlefields out West associated with the Indian wars. The series depicts the state of the battlefields as they exist now; for example, one is a tacky strip mall. Some are straightforward landscapes, but in others, McElhinney has combined the details of the landscape with battlefield maps and cursive script or printed words. Written across the sky of a painting titled "Sand Creek" (which refers to more of a massacre site than a battlefield) is the word "shame."
One of the most fascinating features of McElhinney's paintings is his fluid and expressive brushwork, which gives his fairly conservative style a more contemporary edge. Because of all the big, sloppy brushstrokes, the paintings look as though they were done rapidly and almost effortlessly.
These two very different shows at Havu, both of which run into January, showcase the distinctive work of four noteworthy artists, and I recommend them enthusiastically.
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