"Trinidad," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.
"Trinidad," by Emilio Lobato, collage and oil on canvas.

Meet Me in San Luis

Since the first of the year, Denver has seen a number of heavy-duty exhibits devoted to abstraction: There was the gorgeous Jeff Wenzel show at Ron Judish, the sublime Jeffrey Keith solo at Rule and the historic Robert Motherwell and Richard Serra exhibits seen together at Robischon. Now it's time to add Emilio Lobato: dando vueltas, currently at the William Havu Gallery, to this impressive list.

Lobato, who has maintained a studio in downtown Denver for a decade or so, is one of the region's most important abstract artists. His signature work combines collage and paint to produce pieces that sport gestural geometric compositions. While these elegant abstractions seem very non-objective, they are actually subjective, at least according to Lobato. They are narratives, loosely speaking, that illustrate the artist's own life story.

Lobato was born in 1959 in San Pablo -- a town close to the New Mexico border in the San Luis Valley. "It's so small, it's not even on the maps," he says. He remembers his early life as one of solitude.


Emilio Lobato: dando vueltas

William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street

Through April 14, 303-893-2360

"I have a love-hate relationship with the San Luis Valley," he says. "It afforded me all the space and time I needed just to imagine, but then there was the loneliness and isolation."

From an early age, though, he had an outlet in creativity. "The arts were encouraged in our home," he says. "My father, who raises cattle, was an amateur painter, and both my mother and father had weavers in their backgrounds." In this way, Lobato feels connected to the centuries-old artistic traditions of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

The character of his childhood has influenced his work. Lobato sees, for example, the dark palette in some of the pieces in this show as being related to the influence of the Penitentes, secret sects outlawed centuries ago by the Catholic Church that thrive even today in the isolated towns of the region. The Penitentes are known for their use of self-torture, which is carried out in emulation of the passions of Christ, and with their obsession with the death of Christ, as opposed to his resurrection. Black is one of their preferred colors -- along with blood red, of course. Lobato has relatives, though not in his immediate family, who were involved with the Penitentes.

"I'm the sixteenth generation of my father's family to have been born in the San Luis Valley," Lobato says. "My family came from Spain in the 1500s and settled in what is now Colorado but was then Mexico. Most people are descendants of people who came to the United States, but in the case of my ancestors, the United States came to them."

Lobato was raised in a Spanish-speaking home, but his school in San Luis, a town that had been founded by Spanish colonists like the Lobatos, had, ironically, an English-only policy. "You would have to sit in the corner if you spoke Spanish; it was considered bad or wrong," recalls Lobato with a shudder.

But he's gotten even with the school, at least in his own way. The collage pieces in this show, like Lobato's work of the last several years, include text-covered pages that have been torn out of books. English is not among the languages printed on these pages; Spanish, Italian, French and even Portuguese are.

The severe desert environment of the San Luis Valley also made a lasting impression on Lobato and has influenced his work and given him an eye for subtlety. "In such a stark place, little details become important, and I would notice things like a fallen twig, or leaves floating in the river," he says. "I am so grateful that I was raised there."

Eventually, Lobato left the San Luis area to enroll at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "I didn't know when I started what a good decision it was," he says. "CC is fantastic, and though the art department was small, there were two stars on the faculty, Mary Chenoweth and Carl Reed. My work was influenced by both of them.

"Collage is something I caught from Mary Chenoweth," he continues. "She showed me that you could take something as common as the newspaper and, by pulling it out of context, create art with it. She had a tremendous collection of printed and non-printed papers that she used in her work, and now so do I."

Interestingly, Lobato evaluates printed paper according to its aesthetic properties, as opposed to its content -- just as the late Chenoweth did. "The text I choose is selected purely for its pattern," Lobato says. "I like the way laying pages in sequence looks, but the pages are not meant to be read and you couldn't read them if you wanted to."

There are, however, specific connections between the words and the images that appear together in some of the pieces in dando vueltas, but Lobato feels these were done subconsciously or instinctually.

This isn't surprising, because Lobato became interested in the subconscious and the spiritually charged when he was studying philosophy, in addition to art, at CC. Oriental philosophy and religion, notably Zen Buddhism, especially piqued his interest. "I saw the connection of my childhood to the Zen concept of 'filling the void,'" he says.

The show at Havu includes three related but different kinds of work, all of them perfectly conceived and executed. Gallery director Bill Havu has installed the show in a series of spaces just inside the front door, but the exhibit is somewhat different now than when it opened last month. That's because the gallery has sold more than a dozen pieces, and some of the buyers insisted on taking them home immediately. (This is a new and unwanted trend in art shows. Traditionally, important exhibits were kept intact until they closed. It's hard to blame the dealers, though, because all of them are hungry for sales, and then there's that pesky dictum about the customer always being right.)

In the entry and in the space beyond are large canvases combining black color fields, ecru fields made from collaged book pages, painted circles and, in some cases, painted lines and bars. These large paintings seem to combine a number of related abstract currents, from minimalism to geometric abstraction.

In "Trinidad," Lobato divides the canvas into two clearly distinguishable parts. Across the top is a field of black that is rich and varied, the result of many coats of black oil glazes. Across the bottom, he has lined up rows of book pages. On top of the pages are three painted circles that relate to the painting's title, which in English translates as "Trinity." In addition, Lobato used three rows of pages made up of eleven sheets each. This adds up to 33, which happened to be Christ's age when he was crucified. (Wow, these minimalist expressions really are about Lobato's background.)

Most of the large paintings are almost entirely black, set off by the yellowed book pages, themselves covered with black type. But a few of the most recently completed paintings also include a dark red. "My work used to be very colorful, but for the last several years I've mostly used black," Lobato says. "Lately, though, I've been introducing color again, in particular red and green."

This renewed interest in color is easy to see in the second and third kinds of work in the show, the many exquisite small oils with collage and the fabulous monotypes with chine colle. They have been hung on the north wall of the front space and in the separate space at the bottom of the staircase.

These works, on panel and paper, are considerably more complicated than the larger pieces in both palette and composition. For example, "En el Medio," one of several strong oil-and-collage panels, is dense with compositional elements. Pieces like this may be predictors of some future directions for Lobato's more monumental works on canvas.

Despite the dense formal arrangements, Lobato still limits himself to simple elements like rectangles, circles and lines -- and, of course, found text. For these more intimate pieces, Lobato doesn't use full pages, but cut-up or torn-up fragments. And the predominating color fields are created not from black glazes or the ecru book pages, but from the off-white ivory color of the paper or panel on which the paintings or prints have been done.

Lobato's debt to Chenoweth is clearly apparent in this show. Like her, he has successfully blurred the distinctions between various abstract styles. And, like his former teacher, Lobato's well of creativity is apparently bottomless.

The Lobato show is one of five solos now crowding the William Havu Gallery. Lobato shares the main floor with a display devoted to paintings by Gregory Gioiosa and a show dedicated to prints by Mark Lunning. And scattered about is a fourth solo made up of stone sculptures by Jerry Wingren. As if that weren't enough, upstairs are multimedia pieces by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy (see Artbeat).


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