"Air in Sea," by Homare Ikeda, acrylic, wax and oil on canvas.

Homare Ikeda

Surely Homare Ikeda is on just about everyone's list of the most interesting and important contemporary painters in the area. His work is in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum, and he's had pieces included in shows at any number of venues, particularly the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver. But it's been five years since his last solo in town, making Homare Ikeda, at Sandy Carson Gallery, definitely something rare and special. And, I might add, a knockout.

Ikeda was born on Yoron Island, off the coast of Japan, in 1953, and moved to United States in the late 1970s. In the '80s he came to Boulder to study at the University of Colorado, where he earned both his BFA and his MFA. In 1988, while living in Los Angeles, he had his Denver premiere at the now-long-defunct Art Department, one of the true pioneers in establishing the art district on Santa Fe Drive.

The Art Department was beyond funky, a combination hair salon and gallery, but that hardly kept serious people away. In fact, at Ikeda's debut, Dianne Vanderlip, founder and former head curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum, purchased one of his paintings for the museum and got a couple for herself. Cydney Payton and Robin Rule, then partners in the Payton-Rule Gallery, were also there, and they urged Ikeda to move to Denver, since the cost of living was so much lower than in Los Angeles. Ikeda took the bait and relocated here permanently in 1990.

Ikeda's work being snagged by the DAM's Vanderlip indicates how easy it was for him to join the art world here. "What artists are doing in Denver is pretty exciting," says Ikeda, "but people don't seem to appreciate it as much as they should." Not only is the community of fellow artists a significant positive feature of the city for the artist, but so, too, are the nearby mountains. "We have the mountains, and they inspire me," Ikeda notes. "I stay in Colorado because I really like hiking and being close to nature."

Given these sentiments, it's not surprising to find obvious references to nature in Ikeda's idiosyncratic abstract style. "I see my paintings as vertical landscapes," he explains, pointing out that he always refers to the ocean, the land and the sky at the top. The result is dense and complicated compositions filled to the brim with awkward shapes and painterly flourishes that seem very un-Japanese, though the concept of stacking the elements in a vertical ladder is not unlike the approach taken in traditional Japanese scroll painting. Another reference to his birthplace is Ikeda's use of the four symbolic elements of Japanese aesthetics: flowers, birds, the wind and the moon.

The show at Sandy Carson, which is very large and spreads out through most of the multi-space gallery, is completely made up of work Ikeda did this past winter, when he held an artist residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. A number of Denver artists have taken advantage of the Bemis over the past few years through director Mark Masuoka's former connection to the city. During the few years that he was here, Masuoka ran the Emmanuel Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver and briefly formed a partnership with Sandy Carson that resulted in the short-lived Carson-Masuoka Gallery, where Ikeda's last solo was presented in 2002.

Now, there's nothing amazing about an artist creating a large body of work during a several-month gig at an art retreat, but there is something unusual when it's Ikeda who's doing it. Traditionally he's worked slowly and methodically, sometimes dealing with the same painting over a period of five years. So how'd he complete more than a hundred pieces, including sketches and prints, in such a short time? He just decided to.

"Before I went I knew what I wanted to do," says Ikeda. "I wanted to see how much I could produce while I was there, and to make it more like play than work. It was a monastic experience, it was in winter, and I had the time and space to focus on my art. In the morning I would try to do quick sketches — at least four of five of them — and then move to watercolors and prints, and then to paintings. When I got tired or stuck with the paintings, I went back to the watercolors. Bemis was amazing. Every artist should have that kind of experience to refocus and to not have the daily chores to do."

Despite the breakneck speed with which the pieces were created, the resulting paintings are signature Ikeda. There are the shapes he has always used, which are odd and sometimes clunky, as are his arrangements of them. And to heighten the strangeness of his pictures, he places the objects unnervingly off-balance, which perfectly compliments his uneven application of pigments, with some being laid on in thin coats while others are piled on so thick they rise off the panels.

In "Air in Sea," an acrylic, wax and oil on canvas, Ikeda inserted a naturalistic shape carried out in a bold red at the bottom center of the painting, dividing it in half from side to side and providing an anchor for the eye. The form, which is constrained and tight, is placed on a brushy ground that suggests the idea of water. Above to the right is a silhouette of a vessel, also in red, and above that and across the middle are scabrous passages with organic imagery within them. Completing the scene are a series of light-colored egg shapes floating in the top half. The many elements that make up "Air and Sea" — I've just mentioned a few of them — create an unusual if not downright strange visual experience. It is somewhat goofy pictorially, and yet also undeniably elegant. It's lyrical, but dark. Naive-looking and hyper-sophisticated. In other words, there's a lot going on in it, as with all of the other pieces in the show, notably "White Breath," "Mt. Be," "Play" and the monumental "Telescope," which is five feet high and eight feet long.

Since returning from Bemis in March, Ikeda's continued to produce prolifically, and still begins his day by making drawings. In fact, in July he will be the subject of another solo, slated for the Dairy Center in Boulder, featuring only pieces done in the past couple of months.

William Biety, the gallery's director, says that several people have asked him why he would schedule such a significant outing in the summer instead of in the fall or winter, and he explains that "during the summer we get a lot of people from California and the East Coast coming in, and so I wanted to do a show of this quality." Biety also notes that prices for Denver art are ridiculously low by national standards, and this factor, along with the high quality of the offerings, encourages art sales. "They'll say, 'Five thousand dollars for that?'" he says with a laugh. "And they can hardly believe it."

Well, the tourist art dollars might be what Biety had in mind when booking the Ikeda show now, but it's those of us who are the regular hometown exhibition-hounds who are the true beneficiaries. Take my advice and definitely check out Homare Ikeda at Sandy Carson Gallery.


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