If you're like me, you're getting pretty tired of all the brown grass, bare trees and snow that's wearing out its welcome around here. Spring officially starts next week, but the signatures of winter are sure to be around for at least another month.
Perhaps it was wishful thinking, then, but as I walked into the William Havu Gallery the other day, it already felt like spring.
That can only be explained by the wildly colored abstract paintings in John Himmelfarb, an engaging show installed in the first couple of spaces at Havu and the first of three exhibits at the gallery right now.
Himmelfarb lives in Chicago, where he was born in 1946, and although he's been exhibiting for nearly thirty years, this is his Denver debut. The paintings at Havu include some from the mid- to late 1990s, as well as others that were only recently done, and there's an obvious transition in the work. The older ones are more dense, with layered compositions, while the newer ones are looser and airier. Despite the differences, all of the paintings employ a meandering or trailing line that is Himmelfarb's chief painterly device. In town for the opening, the artist indicated that the use of the line was inspired by streets and rail lines and that the paintings are about Chicago.
A good example of the earlier style is "Passage Blue Island," an acrylic on canvas from 1994. Using a generous amount of red and blue, Himmelfarb laid down a background with short and repetitive brush strokes; a complicated network of white lines was then applied. Finally, yellow and green were used to fill in certain areas. Gallery director Bill Havu points out that the three layers of painting correspond to the traditional relationship between foreground, mid-ground and background, something that isn't often seen in abstracts.
In the newer paintings, Himmelfarb has condensed the number of layers from three to two: foreground and background. He's also reduced the background, using only the unadorned gessoed surface of the canvas. This provides an off-white ground for the linear decorations done in blue, red, ecru and brown. The newer work is less texturally rich than the older pieces, but it's more lyrical.
"Lyrical" is also a good word to describe the multi-panel paintings in Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, the second of the three shows at Havu -- along with "political," "funky," and on and on. The multiplicity of descriptive attributes associated with Murphy's work is no accident, since she crams as many meanings and art techniques into a single piece as she possibly can. Looking at the dozen-plus pieces in the show -- all done in the last year -- you can imagine that Murphy's been in a kind of creative overdrive.
Well known in the area, Murphy has exhibited her work for the last ten years in the city's alternative spaces, galleries and art centers. Typically, she creates mixed-media paintings done in multi-part formats, often nine panels in a grid. Some of the panels are upholstered, others have collages on them, and still others are painted. Murphy hunts far and wide, going to thrift stores and garage sales, for the materials she incorporates into her work.
Nothing indicates her manic approach better than a comparison of "Lunar" and "Gyro," a pair of glittering works that hark back to the golden age of the go-go boot. Both nine-panel pieces are arranged in three-by-three grids. Each of the eighteen panels has a unique appearance, made with individual materials and custom-fitted techniques. Some of the materials include fabric, tape and balls of different sizes. Both works sport multiple shades of silver and silvery gold. According to Murphy, "Gyro" is composed entirely of the rejected ideas she had for "Lunar."
Neither piece has a perceivable narrative content, something that, while not unprecedented for Murphy, has been rare. More expected are works that are political in nature, specifically of the feminist stripe. There are several examples of these characteristic works at Havu, including "Fleshy," which concerns the constructed images society foists on women. There's a blond ponytail, a Band-Aid and a set of false nails. These found materials are supplemented by magazine images of women's hair. The resulting piece is lighthearted, though Murphy uses the humor to indict the cult of feminine beauty.
More subtle is "Elegy," the largest Murphy here. The meaning of the predominantly beige piece is unclear, but the topic is obviously the role of women. There's a found image of an anatomical drawing of a female, as well as garter-belt snaps embedded in wax. The center panel is redolent with meaning. Murphy uses 1920s-era cartoons, including pictures of pretty, smiling girls and ugly, frowning ones, plus graceful, dancing girls and their clumsy counterparts. The cartoons are from some sort of old test in which the pretty or graceful constituted the correct answers. It's clear what Murphy's getting at.
Although Murphy acknowledges the feminist aspects of "Elegy," she also sees it as a deeply personal homage to September 11. There are no literal references to the World Trade Center, no flags, no flames. Nonetheless, she says the events of that terrible day were in her mind when she made the piece, the first one she did when she went back to work in the studio a couple of months after the disaster. There's a decidedly melancholy quality to "Elegy," and its yellowed paper and old found images suggest a sense of past loss.
It's a breakthrough piece for Murphy, one that could indicate a future direction in which subtlety and a quiet palette play an increasingly important role. However, I predict she'll also continue to create the whimsical political works that have made her reputation.
Another artist who delves into whimsy is the featured attraction in the last of the Havu shows, Bernice Strawn. Strawn, who lives in Salida, has been exhibiting in Denver since the 1970s, so even though this show is billed as an introduction, she's hardly a stranger to town. She is best known for the canoe constructions that hang from the ceiling of the REI flagship store in the Platte Valley. The sculptures at Havu are related to that work, being room-sized versions of the same idea.
Several of Strawn's canoe sculptures hang from Havu's ceiling; others are attached to the walls. The artist joins together wood, boards and twigs, sometimes bending them in place and then luxuriously painting them in a balanced rhythm of alternately icy and fiery tones, like sea green against orange.
The pleasure of canoeing is the entire subject of these fun-loving sculptures, even if we might be tempted to tack on heavier content, such as the suggestion that the boat form refers to the voyage of life, or something similar.
There's really very little that connects these three shows at Havu except, as I pointed out earlier, the vibrant colors that might trick you into thinking winter is finally over.
An early thaw can also be seen in Beyond Equilibrium, an installation show at the Lakewood Cultural Center's Gallery South.
The LCC was completed only a couple of years ago, so it's really too bad that it doesn't have adequate gallery space. Although there's also a Gallery North, neither is very big. In fact, both are only the size of residential rooms. Apparently, when the center was being designed, there was no thought given to providing sufficient space for contemporary art, which is often pretty big. Because of this problem, shows sometimes spread out into the lobbies.
The enormous "Beyond Equilibrium" fills the South Gallery space to the maximum. The piece is a collaborative work by a Denver-based art collective called iMiNiMi. The word -- inspired by an idiomatic Italian word that roughly translates as "the least" -- came to be used for an order of monks, the Minimi, or, as it would be in Italian, I Minimi. The monks were patterned after the Franciscans -- hence the self-effacement of naming themselves Minimi, or "the least."
The iMiNiMi collective has four members: Kent Smith, Roger Rapp, Rick Visser, and an artist who goes by the pseudonym BUG. Their piece is a total environment. The gallery's lights have been dimmed to different levels, enhancing the feeling of an artificial, thoroughly created atmosphere.
There are four components to the installation, each a pile of debris. When I first saw it, I wondered how people in Lakewood would respond; I mean, it's just four piles of debris. But with this deceptively simple idea -- piling up junk -- the guys from iMiNiMi have created something of interest, even beautiful, at least in part.
The first thing visitors are confronted with as they enter the darkened gallery is a tall pile of twigs and broken furniture. To the left is a lower and wider pile made up of old books and plaster bones. This element is very nice, particularly the way the light catches the whiteness of the plaster bones. The largest pile is in the back of the gallery, though; it is made of straw, "X" shapes made of wood and concrete, and a full-sized filing cabinet. There's also a big backlit "X" mounted on the top. Even more striking is the last pile, which can be seen closer to the front. This one is made of movie film, rolled-up sheets of Mylar and scattered pages of reproductions of Russian photos. The plastic pile glimmers in the dark and at first glance looks like it's studded with sequins because of the way the light skips off the celluloid film and the shiny Mylar tubes. This last pile is the most successful one.
I'm not sure what iMiNiMi is trying to say here, but it has something to do with life, death and consciousness. And though the show may not be as redolent of springtime as is the trio over at Havu, with all that junk used to make it, I began to think about the approaching prospect of this year's spring cleaning. Come to think of it, it's the iMiNiMi members who will really have their cleaning work cut out for them when this messy show comes down in April.
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