The Sandra Phillips Gallery (744 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-5969) has stumbled on a niche in the art market: featuring the work of well-known Colorado artists from yesteryear. Last month it was Ruth Todd, who is in her nineties, and now it's Mel Strawn, who's quite a bit younger. He's in his seventies.
Strawn moved to Denver in 1969 to head the art school at the University of Denver, becoming Vance Kirkland's immediate successor. Strawn held the DU post until 1984. He now lives in Salida.
The show at Phillips, Mel Strawn: Coins & Medals +, is not a retrospective of the artist's work, and neither was his show there last year. For the current offering, Strawn includes some early abstracts and several newer works. Unfortunately, nothing is dated, which would have been nice in an exhibition that includes work from several different decades. (A proper, historical Strawn retrospective is being planned for the Denver Central Library.)
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The star attraction is "Garrigue Walls" (above), an all-over abstraction done in acrylic on paper that's almost entirely created out of bars and blobs of color. Also very good is "Walpurgis Night," an oil on canvas that is vaguely cubistic. In addition to these mostly abstract-expressionist compositions are several paintings that include elements based on the shapes of coins and medals, as indicated by the title of the show. In "Goyesca," another oil on canvas, the coin or medal shapes (or perhaps they're crushed bottle caps) are arrayed around the long, thin horizontal rectangle of the canvas.
More thoroughly fulfilling the promise of the show's title are the large mixed-media constructions based on commemorative medals -- the kind of thing a general would wear, except much, much larger. Strawn takes large circular forms suspended from huge brackets hung with enormous ribbons. The overall shape, which directly refers to the real commemoratives, adds an overriding pop, or even funk, flavor to them.
Mel Strawn: Coins & Medals + runs through May 18 at Sandra Phillips Gallery.