In spite of a century of modern art jam-packed with things like abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism, the venerable tradition of depicting the human figure in art has held on admirably. As the modernist twentieth century comes to a close, artists working with the human body as their subject seem to be everywhere. And not just in the traditional scene, where the figure has been held up for much of the century, but in the contemporary art world, too.
Among the several shows around town right now that illustrate the continuing power of the figure are two that close this weekend--so you've got to hurry. The first is a painting show, while the second one focuses on sculpture.
At LoDo's 1/1 Gallery, Denver household name Patti Cramer presents a large and impressive solo show entitled, not surprisingly, Patti Cramer. Cramer is well-known both because of her fifteen-year run in the exhibition schedules of a number of the city's best galleries and because from 1982 to 1987, her charming and wry "Overheard Conversations" cartoons appeared in Westword. These cartoons put forward Cramer's signature approach to her compositions, which is still seen in her most recent work at 1/1. Many of these recent paintings, such as the large and vibrant acrylic on canvas "Spring Fling," are densely populated with figures enriched by her detailed approach to backgrounds.
Cramer's subjects, typically stylish, upscale types, are most often seen at leisure. They chat over lunch in a restaurant or run into each other on the street or in a shop. They are thus caught by the artist in a state of social interaction. Cramer explains that her interest in documenting the activities of small groups of people stems from her favorite hobby--observing them. "When I'm traveling, all I do is watch people," she says. But the style also reflects her lifelong interest in Italian Renaissance art, which made this kind of picture a standard of that era.
Like so many others in the last few centuries, Cramer has traveled to Italy to further her art studies. And she has made the history of Italian art a scholarly pursuit. According to Cramer, the work of the fifteenth-century Renaissance master Masaccio has been particularly important to her.
At first this may seem odd, especially given Cramer's unabashedly expressionist brushwork and the conventionalized, simplified and abstract approach she takes to her model's faces. Neither attribute, after all, would seem to have much to do with the art of the Italian Renaissance. But notice Cramer's hieratic and linear picture design in the acrylic on canvas "Gams and Gamberetti" and her reliance in the same painting on bold, pure colors--both of which are just like Masaccio. Even easier to see is the influence of mid-century modern artists, especially those who continued to express an interest in the figure during the abstract tidal wave of the postwar period. Cramer points to Italian modernist Marino Marini and American master Milton Avery.
In addition to Cramer's social-scene paintings, the 1/1 solo show presents other traditions she has long worked in. There are, for instance, the portraits that take an even more simplified and conventional approach to the subject's faces than do the society paintings. In "Violet," a diminutive acrylic on canvas, the apparently chic woman's face has been reduced by Cramer to just a few daubs of paint. Even more abstract are Cramer landscapes such as "County Kerry #3" and her horses, in particular the large and moody acrylic on canvas "Best Foot Forward" (one of the most obvious nods to the neo-expressionist movement with which the artist has had a peripheral association).
A short ride west of town to Golden reveals another fine show in which artists are attempting to use the figure and at the same time create contemporary work: the eighteenth annual North American Sculpture Exhibition at the always worthwhile Foothills Art Center. Since this show has been juried, it really shouldn't be thematically unified at all. But it is. What happened? World-renowned San Francisco-based sculptor Manuel Neri, who was the single juror, chose, with a few token exceptions, only those pieces that supported his point of view about sculpture. Neri's exquisite work derives from the figure, and so does nearly everything in this show. (This sort of self-absorption is inevitable, and it's what makes all artists bad judges of the work of others.) As Foothills director Carol Dickenson points out, this year's version of the sculpture exhibition is "a show made up of statues instead of sculptures."
None of this is to say that the exhibition isn't worth the ride to Golden. Fully half of the 69 pieces Neri accepted are very good, and only a handful of the other half are genuinely awful, like Tom Decker's lamebrain ceramic "Deerman" or Robert Deurloo's pedestrian bronze of a stag "Mountain Monarch" (both of which were cash prize winners, no less). But it's quite easy to sidestep the fallout from these atomic Bambis and focus instead on the abundance of fine material the show encompasses.
Los Angeles artist Georgina Rothenberg is represented by the exquisitely crafted bronze "Untitled Female Torso," which reveals only the vaguest of anatomical details. The brown and green patina she employs is itself a great accomplishment. Also combining keen aesthetic judgment with accomplished technique is San Francisco artist Dennis Gallagher, whose adrogynous ceramic figure "Untitled (9-91-I)" stands on a small platform like a life-sized totem. John Barlow Hudson of Yellow Springs, Ohio, shows a reclining nude that looks like an unfinished classical sculpture; the figure in "Gaia Torso" seems to be emerging from the black-veined white marble.
Real standouts among the many abstract figures in the show are two pieces by Roy Patterson from Gray, Maine. In the gray granite "Head of a Sculptor," Patterson has taken an almost cubist approach to the details of the subject's face. The simply carved face surmounts a wood-and-granite assemblage, an unusual approach for a bust. Even better and more abstract is Patterson's gorgeous "Friends" (one of Neri's favorites), a pink-granite sculpture that includes two seated figures conceived as separate elements. The figures sit on a granite slab that in turn rests on a pair of wooden four-by-fours.
Non-objective sculptures are rare in this show, but they represent some of the finest entries. Don Rich, from Oak, California, displays "Hunter's View," a beautifully made bas-relief of carefully finished bronze that incorporates a thick sheet of glass. Ann Christenson from Pullman, Washington, is represented by three pieces from her wall-hung clay, steel and aluminum "Corsage Series." Colorado's own Randall Sinner, working in Fort Collins, combines repousse in metal with wood carving to create "Fanti" and "Shango," which both look like the instruments of some ancient and unknown ceremony.
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This exhibition is expensive to put together, and it may be changed from an annual to a biennial event. So it may be 1998 before the show is presented again. Don't wait that long.
Another local show in which the figure prominently figures--and which also is coming to a close this weekend--is Jock Sturges, at the Camera Obscura Gallery (1309 Bannock Street, 623-4059). This exhibit marks the third time gallery director Hal Gould has organized a solo show for Sturges, a San Francisco photographer. Almost as widely respected as he is controversial, Sturges has gotten into trouble with the FBI owing to his chosen subject matter--demure shots of nude children and adolescents. Although so far the feds have taken little notice of the current show, someone else was really taken by it: One of the Sturges photos has been reported stolen. But don't worry--there are still plenty of them left.
Patti Cramer, through June 8 at the 1/1 Gallery, 1715 Wazee Street, 298-9284.
The North American Sculpture Exhibition, through June 9at the Foothills Art Center, 15th and Washington streets, Golden, 279-3922.