The Colorado Rockies have had a miserable season so far this year. How is that relevant to the art world? Well, you don't need to consult the game schedule before you head out to the LoDo galleries — like the two I visited this week — since parking is so much easier than when the team is on a winning streak. This point was made when I essentially pulled up, on game day, to the front door of Plus Gallery on Larimer Street, where owner Ivar Zeile has used his eclectic sensibility to come up with the show Merge.
This strange little show brings together small works by three disparate artists, Matt O'Neill, Eric Shumake and Shannon Novak. To say that the work of each is completely different from that of the others would be something of an understatement. But it wasn't this that had piqued my interest; rather, it was the chance to catch up with what O'Neill has been up to lately and to check out whether or not Shumake — known as a former gallery administrator at Rule, and not as an artist — is any good. By the way, he is.
I initially checked out the overall look of the complicated salon-style hanging, in which the works of the three artists are mixed up like a shuffled deck of cards. But to make sense of the show, I had to look at each artist's work separately. That means I made three laps around the gallery's walls.
See also: Summer shows at Robischon and Plus galleries knock it out of the park
Merge Through August 17, Plus Gallery, 2501 Larimer Street, 303-296-0927, www.plusgallery.com.
The Surface BeneathThrough September 1, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, www.robischongallery.com.
I started with O'Neill's charming ink-on-paper drawings, which are retro-surrealist and either sophisticated or anti-sophisticated, depending on your perspective. They feature recognizable objects, such as the wine bottle in "Uncle Jimmy," but the overall impression is one of abstracts. Like O'Neill's well-known Picassoid yearbook portraits from the '90s, these recent drawings blend the sensibilities of the modern masters, especially Picasso, and cross them with a high-school doodle reference. It's O'Neill's classic high-culture/low-culture combo, a formula that he's worked successfully for more than twenty years.
Then I went through looking at Shumake's ash-and-acrylic-on-board paintings from his "Charnival" series. The subjects of these informal sketches are amusement parks and carnivals on fire. Shumake has developed an interesting expressionist style, which he relates to folk-art posters. Especially well orchestrated is his use of a limited palette of dark grays and browns for the backgrounds, juxtaposed with the oranges and yellows of the flames.
The last of the trio, Novak, from New Zealand, is a geometric abstractionist who works in hard-edged forms in simple shapes such as triangles and stars. Many of the pieces in the show are taken from a series that attempted to convey sounds through colors.
Merge at Plus really doesn't make much sense as a whole, but splitting it into three separate parts — in particular, O'Neill's drawings — makes it worth a visit.
The Surface Beneath, at Robischon, meanwhile, absolutely should not be missed. What is it with Robischon lately? This is the third show in a row where owners Jim Robischon and Jennifer Doran have knocked it out of the park (unlike the Rockies). Back in the spring, it was four artists who do contemporary art with Western content; then, in the early summer, the gallery mounted a survey of recent conceptual abstraction. And now we have this diverse offering. It truly is hard to differentiate Robischon from a really good small museum — except that everything is for sale.
Truth be told, the four artists in The Surface Beneath — Dirk De Bruycker, Brandon Bultman, Ian Fisher and Gary Emrich — also create disparate works, just like the trio at Plus. The difference is that each one is given his own space, which works a lot better, because it allows visitors to take in the individual artist's particular vision all by itself without the visual noise of the others getting in the way.
The Surface Beneath begins with a full-blown solo given over to De Bruycker, a Belgian-born artist with a studio in Santa Fe and one in Granada, Nicaragua. He has written that the sights of the tropics, with their insect, bird and animal life, provided inspiration for these visually rich paintings. De Bruycker works in the color-field realm, in which color, as much as anything else, is the actual subject of the paintings. The artist pours vibrant pigments onto the canvases. The oil paints he uses have been cut somehow with solvents so they produce veils of color that only partly block out what's beneath them. In the case of these paintings, it's drawn-in elements that serve to create structure in the otherwise freeform compositions. The results are eye-popping.
Speaking of eyes, you may not believe your own when you turn the corner and catch a glimpse of "Bufalo Blanco," by Brandon Bultman. An emerging Colorado conceptualist, Bultman is interested in translating his personal experiences — especially his childhood growing up in Kansas — into works of art. I recall having seen a two-part Lego-green plastic sculpture by him that consisted of separate halves of a house; the piece was about his parents splitting up. In the case of "Bufalo Blanco," the subject is the old family farm on the high plains.
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The installation is made up of found elements, the most remarkable of which is the 1959 Buick station wagon that's been flipped onto its roof. Before it was abandoned in a field on Bultman's family farm, it had been a very sharp-looking car, with all that chrome and those spectacular fins. On the bottom of the car — which is the top of the piece — Bultman has mounded up piles of prairie soil and planted it with an array of native plants. This natural element was created on-site, as the car itself needed to be tilted at a diagonal through the use of an air bladder in order to get it in the door. I couldn't be more emphatic when I say that you've got to see it to believe it.
Shifting gears considerably (pun not intended) is the nearby section devoted to some of Fisher's signature cloud paintings. Fisher, a contemporary realist, precisely records the look of the passing clouds, but with no reference to the land underneath. This gives the paintings an abstract quality; then again, clouds themselves take on abstract forms. Also noteworthy in these paintings is Fisher's incredible skill as a colorist; he perfectly captures the whites, blues and pinks that dominate the daytime skies around here.
The last of the four, Emrich, is represented by his multi-channel video installation, "Contact," which comprises a circular screen on which a found film of the moon has been projected, paired with color images of stacked videos done on miniature robot cameras depicting bees landing on flowers. The connection is clear: The bees hover and land on the plants the same way that men landed on the moon. This video installation anchored Emrich's show in the Fuse Box at the Denver Art Museum earlier this year.
I can't say enough good things about The Surface Beneath, but believe me when I point out that you won't forgive yourself if you miss seeing that bucolic Buick by Bultman. It sure beats a Rockies game.