From my point of view, solo shows, and retrospectives in particular, occupy the top place in the hierarchy of art exhibitions. But group shows organized around a theme are a close second, and they are a staple of the summer season. At the moment, there is an astounding array of thematically organized group shows around town. Some of these include the multi-part set of ceramic exhibits at the Denver Art Museum under the big-tent title of Marvelous Mud; MCA Denver's conceptual and new-media-dominated Another Victory Over the Sun; the self-explanatory Toy Stories at William Havu Gallery; Space Gallery's painting and sculpture show, Art of the Real; Masters of Clay at Sandra Phillips Gallery; and the similar A Ceramic Collaboration at Plinth Gallery.
Two swank venues in LoDo — the David B. Smith Gallery and Robischon Gallery — have standout group exhibits as well. Group Exhibition at Smith is focused on conceptual realism, while New Work at Robischon zeroes in on contemporary tendencies in abstraction. But the titles of both are so thoroughly stripped of any poetic or narrative content that they strike me as being positively monastic.
The stylistically diverse pieces in Group Exhibition are connected by the theme of the environment, but that aspect of the show is pretty subtle in some of the pieces, none more so than the meticulously done charcoal-on-paper full-figure nude portraits by Paul Jacobsen. These drawings were done by eschewing the use of digital photography for studies and are meant to refer to work made off the grid, the artist has said. Furthermore, the titles of the pieces are supposed to suggest that the world's current power grid will ultimately crash. Aside from this backstory, the works are fairly traditional in character.
It's interesting how effective artists can be at using traditional approaches like straightforward realism to come up with pieces that are clearly contemporary. This is true of the two Colorado artists in the show — one a standard-bearer, Don Stinson, and one a relatively recent transplant from the Northwest, Lanny DeVuono. The pieces by Stinson, which have been hung together in the Project Room, are scrupulously done graphite-and-charcoal drawings of junked gas pumps — part of a body of work by the artist that examines the modern ruins of the American West. The DeVuonos are multi-panel mixed-media paintings dominated by painstakingly done raking aerial views of the land, sea or sky. They come from her "After Empire" series, which apparently concerns an ambiguous future.
The final two artists here, Hong Seon Jang and Molly Dilworth, do work that's more abstract than that of their exhibition mates, but still makes reference to the natural world, sometimes simply by extension. Jang has done a small installation that looks something like pulled drapery by cutting up entire issues of National Geographic magazines and then connecting them to one another in horizontally organized rows. There are also a couple of oddball pieces done in transparent adhesive tape on small blackboards; at first glance, the tape looks like chalk. Dilworth is represented by a selection of small poured pieces in different shades of blue that served as studies for her huge painting on the surface of New York's Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets at Times Square. Titled "Cool Water, Hot Island," the work obliquely references the sea.
Over at Robischon, which took over the former Center for Visual Art space, there's New Work, along with a full-blown solo, Ted Larsen: Rejoinder. The Larsen show clearly set the tone for New Work and has, in that way, become an integral part of it.
Larsen, who works in New Mexico, is a modernist formalist with a twist. Though geometric abstraction clearly is a key part of his aesthetic, the results aren't minimal, but instead post-minimal. That's because he uses found materials — in particular, sheets of metal — and embraces the arte povera approach, which he labels in his artist's statement as "bricolage," or using whatever's available. Substituting metal sheets for color fields as he does is conceptually the same as arte povera pioneer Alberto Burri's use of burlap scraps for the same purpose. Among the many paradoxes that Larsen resolves in these pieces is that although almost everything resembles paintings — even the freestanding works (save for the parodies of stools) — they are in fact sculptures.
Despite all the issues Larsen's pieces raise, his work fits comfortably into the well-developed, hard-edged scenes in New Mexico and Colorado, and his show establishes the character of what's to come in New Work.
A teaser for New Work is in the viewing room in the back, with half a dozen paintings by Seattle's Blake Haygood, who creates awkward compositions using jagged and ungainly forms that are vaguely suggestive of objects.
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The main part of New Work begins with a small piece by Connecticut artist Jessica Stockholder, and although it is diminutive, it sports the artist's signature of using ready-made materials as elements in her expressionist-style installations. Next up are a pair of unusual wall-relief sculptures by well-known Colorado artist John McEnroe; they are made from polyurethane blobs attached to metal brackets. In spite of the materials used, these pieces have a lyrical quality, which is also true of the weird little sculpture "Foam" in which McEnroe has cast a sheet of foam rubber bundled up by plastic ties in bronze. It's very cool and relates well to the Stockholder.
Around the corner is a quartet of Jae Ko sculptures made of manipulated and dyed adding-machine tape rolls that come out as organically shaped abstracts. Opposite them, in the same space, are a half-dozen pieces by one of Denver's hottest up-and-coming artists, Derrick Velasquez. Four of the pieces display Velasquez's taste for vinyl strips left to hang from a central form, using the laws of gravity to define the way in which the material drapes. There are also two digital prints by Velasquez in which the artist has created floor sculptures by covering himself with large sheets of vinyl. Since the artist is integral to these works, being that he's underneath the vinyl, it's understandable that they're represented here by photos.
Other Colorado artists include Wendi Harford, showing her great drip paintings in which vertical lines of pigment form the images; Terry Maker, with wall sculptures in which sliced jawbreakers in resin are the principal pictorial devices; and Linda Fleming who works in pierced metal. These two Flemings resonate well with the abstract flowers by Seattle's Katy Stone. Flowers are also an important feature of the recent mixed-technique works on paper from the "Year of the Dog" series that combine printing and hand work by Judy Pfaff from New York. Her three pieces in the show are all enormous and are covered with a crowded array of images placed on top of one another, and though much of it is representational, the completed works come across as abstracts.
With its space expanded, Robischon reads as though it were a museum and not a commercial gallery. And with shows like Ted Larsen: Rejoinder and New Work, that impression is only underscored.