Moving On Up
Last week, Jeanie Nuanes King unveiled her long-awaited Fresh Art with the inaugural exhibit Momentum, a contemporary group show of painters and sculptors. It's hard to believe that just over two years ago, King opened her first gallery in a tiny storefront on South Broadway -- especially considering how far she's come since then. That original gallery, now known as Fresh Art 208, remains open; given over to artist-made furniture and accessories, it complements the new place at Ninth Avenue and Santa Fe Drive, which specializes in fine art.
A few days before the January 17 grand opening, I was coming up the too-fast, too-narrow Santa Fe Drive, trying to find the Fresh Art gallery. As I passed a large and very plain-looking stucco-covered building, I spotted a flash of blue in a window out of the corner of my eye. 'That blue blur looks like art to me,' I said to myself, zipping into a parking space just up the block. Sure enough, it was the place.
As I expected, the blue streak turned out to be a work of art, specifically a blue-painted sculpture by Bryan Andrews. Because it's easily viewed from the sidewalk -- and even from the vantage point of speeding cars -- the piece, "Have You Ever Seen the Heart of a Giant's Leg?" is, intentionally or not, the opening shot of the show.
The sculpture is a signature Andrews, in which primitive references are given a minimalist twist. The piece was previously exhibited, but it's been slightly reworked by adding a rough-cut timber-fragment base for its Fresh appearance. The timber, which definitely improves the piece, is attached to a larger vertical timber fragment that he's covered with coat after coat of eye-catching cobalt-blue paint. Surmounting the blue-painted timber is a basswood finial left unfinished to preserve its natural white color and clear -- thus invisible -- graining.
"Giant's Leg" is suggestive of a stripped totem pole, even though the sculpture is not all that tall -- maybe six feet or so. It appears much larger and has a definite strength of presence. This monumentality is wholly based on Andrews's gift for aesthetic understatement. He explores simple concepts in form with a limited vocabulary of shapes and colors, favoring mostly natural wood tones and that incredible blue.
As marvelous as it was to see the Andrews in Fresh's window, it was also quite a surprise, since he's represented by the Cordell Taylor gallery. When I asked King why he was showing in Momentum (after I'd finally found my way into the main entrance around the corner on Ninth Avenue), she explained that she'd invited several other galleries to participate in the show -- a highly unusual move for a commercial gallery. "I wanted to present the best young artists around, and I didn't think I could do it all by myself, so I asked other galleries to make suggestions of whom to include," she says. King invited the directors of Andenken, Space, Carson-Masuoka and Cordell Taylor to be part of Momentum. "I love doing community-oriented projects. I think if I do things like this, everyone will benefit, and it will definitely come back around to benefit me."
The resulting show is mammoth, which is perfect for the gigantic gallery. The building, a former 7UP bottling plant, includes not only the generously scaled exhibition space, but also a big conference room and six good-sized artists' studios. The roof of the building is a barrel vault open to the rafters, which means high walls and even higher ceilings. King and her husband, Bill, spent more than half a million on the purchase and rehab of the building. They have sensibly and lightly remodeled it, adding new windows and doors on the exterior along with an elegant custom-made steel sign and a broken-arch canopy, both created by sculptor Joe Riché.
As I looked around, I was definitely impressed but wondered, considering the faltering economy, if it was the right time for a major gallery expansion in Denver. "I hear these discouraging words," King says, "but they don't seem to affect me. Maybe I'm naïve. I've only been in the business two years, so it might be that I don't know what the good times were like."
The couple got help swinging the deal with a low-interest loan from the city's Office of Economic Development because the Santa Fe corridor has been identified as an underdeveloped area in which property owners can qualify for loans, grants and tax set-asides. "The economic development office has been great," King says. "They've helped us with so much. In the spring, the city is providing urban streetscape beautification money to create a sculpture garden in the right-of-way along Ninth in front of the gallery." The plan is to pull up the existing blacktop and replace it with paving and concrete sculpture stands. "We know we'll have to deal with vandalism," she adds, "but we're ready for it, and we'll be putting out only the most durable pieces."
Sculpture is a special interest for King, and the vast clearances inside Fresh allow her to exhibit tall ones such as "P-Factor (Dr. Tom's Bow)," by Jonathan Stiles, which is situated off to the left of the main entrance. Stiles definitely fits King's category as one of the city's most exciting up-and-coming young artists, and "P-Factor" is a knockout.
On a pink stone base, Stiles positioned a fabricated metal sleeve that encases a carved and painted laminated wood beam. The carving resulted in a board with a delicate arching shape that evokes the bow of the title. Another arching shape, made of carved and painted wood, is attached at the base and top by found and fabricated hardware. The whole thing hangs in midair from steel cables. "P-Factor" is part of a body of work that Stiles has been doing for a couple of years, in which stone, wood and metal hardware assemblages are suspended from the ceiling.
More down-to-earth -- literally, but not figuratively -- is the multi-part wall piece by Lauri Lynnxe Murphy that is hanging opposite the Stiles. To my mind, Murphy does not fit King's young-artist category -- not because she's too old, but because she's way too established, having exhibited her work for at least the past ten years. This new piece, "Galapagos," is related to her earlier and familiar grid compositions, but it is also distinctly different.
As before, Murphy combines painting and collage with upholstery, artificial leaves and found objects, decorating many of the panels with both printed and hand-painted patterns. But in "Galapagos," the panels are of varying sizes rather than being uniform, and they've been hung in a free-form scatter pattern rather than arranged in a precise line or grid.
In the main part of the show, King has hung a large, neo-abstract-expressionist painting by Mark Brasuell, who, like Murphy, hardly qualifies as a neophyte. (At this point, I dismissed once and for all the idea that the show is made up exclusively of newcomers.) Brasuell's painting, "Sunset," an oil on canvas, is automatist, with gold smears laid over a field of brushy red with a little purple.
Although a variety of styles are included in the show, abstraction soon emerges as the pattern that connects just about everything, from the Andrews to the Stiles to the Murphy to the Brasuell -- even though each takes an entirely different path.
Don Quade employs yet another distinct approach to abstraction in a pair of major paintings displayed as a diptych and hung to the right of the Brasuell. The surface is divided into geometric patterns in which Quade creates individual compositions that are heavily painted in spontaneous gestures and scribbles carried out in very dark colors. Both of the paintings, "Spanish Rain" and "Solaris," are done on rigid boards. In places, Quade has inserted small, flat rectangles of metal held down by tiny brass tacks. In a witty, fool-the-eye trick, Quade also uses the tacks to outline painted rectangles, making them look like metal.
Post-minimalist Karen McClanahan employs straight lines in her painting ("Systematic Division"), too, but her style is much simpler. Where Quade daubs and manipulates the paint into a frothy mass, McClanahan applies it in flat even coats, the colors standing out sharp and hard against each other. What makes McClanahan post-minimalist is her use of figural or representational shapes reduced to their essence and combined with the straight lines of minimalism. The sinuous shapes evoke the female nude, but the artist says they're based on shadows made by architectural moldings.
Beyond the McClanahan, toward the end of the show, is an installation by Gwen Laine that incorporates photos of an arm. In this piece, one of the few in Momentum with recognizable as opposed to abstract imagery, Laine has taken scores of gelatin silver prints, mounted them in wooden frames and then hung the frames on steel rods held to the wall with brackets. The piece, "Assumption #1," fills a corner at the far end of the gallery from floor to ceiling. Laine is one of the city's best experimental photographers, and her work has been widely seen in town over the last few years.
This show ends the way I thought it started, with Andrews's "Giant's Leg" standing just beyond the Laine installation, with the windows behind it. But first or last, the bold, abstract Andrews winds up being the perfect symbol for Momentum.
Taking into account that the exhibit was put together by a committee that included King, Hyland Mather from Andenken, Michael Burnett from Space, Mark Masuoka from Carson-Masuoka and Ivar Zeile from Cordell Taylor, it's amazing how smoothly it flows. Usually, too many cooks, as you know, spoil the broth. Maybe King had more to say about it than she's admitting?
As for future offerings, she isn't saying anything about that, either, because believe it or not, there's nothing planned. We'll just have to wait and see. But one thing is already apparent: Denver has an important new contemporary-art venue -- and I'd call that something worth noting.
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