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Patterns That Connect

Anyone even remotely interested in tracing the course of contemporary art in Colorado over the past few decades will want to take in a pair of marvelous shows that focus on major, established local artists. But move fast--they're closing soon. The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art is feting venerable painter and photographer George Woodman with Sensuality in a World of Reason, a retrospective of the last thirty years of his work. At LoDo's Robischon Gallery, Stan Meyer, New Work brings together some of the latest creations by this renowned Denver artist.

The Woodman show occupies the entire first floor of the BMoCA, but it represents only an abbreviated survey of Woodman's work. Woodman is among the most influential contemporary artists in Colorado and has produced a remarkable variety of work. In addition to the well-known pattern paintings he became famous for in the 1960s and '70s, he's done abstracted landscapes, geometric abstractions, figure-shaped canvases, still-life paintings of flowers, and his most recent passion, vaguely erotic black-and-white photographs of sculpture and architecture. This wild assortment of styles didn't necessarily follow any logical progression, however, and as a result, it can be difficult to understand how Woodman made the artistic leaps that he did.

Sadly, the Boulder display doesn't help much on that score. The incredible diversity of material clearly presented exhibit organizer Cydney Payton, BMoCA's innovative director, with a formidable challenge. But instead of picking the obvious chronological course--in which these changes of style could at least have been plainly documented--Payton unfortunately followed the current trend of mixing things up. Her intention was to underscore the basic connections between the different periods of Woodman's accomplishments--for instance, how the same simple shapes have occupied Woodman regardless of the style or medium in which he was working. Payton's point is well taken, but some of the links between Woodman's different phases are so thin that her subtle observations are hard to pick up on. The unfortunate result is that this retrospective devoted to a single artist at times winds up reading like a group show.

Sensuality in a World of Reason is part of a BMoCA series devoted to under-recognized local artists. Though Woodman has now retired to New York, his more than forty years in Boulder amply qualify him for "local artist" status. And since his work is rarely exhibited, he also seems to fit the "under-recognized" category, though in this regard it might be useful to note that Woodman has attained a certain level of recognition, his work having been included in several important collections, including those of the Denver Art Museum, New York's Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum.

Woodman was born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1932 and began painting as a child. After graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he studied painting with Glen Krause, he entered Harvard in 1950, graduating in 1954 with a degree in philosophy. Woodman took art classes in college, and in one freshman course met his future wife, Elizabeth Abrahams, now better known as Betty Woodman, one of the world's great contemporary ceramic artists. In 1956, after receiving a master's degree from the University of New Mexico, Woodman joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder. He taught painting and art criticism at CU for the next forty years until his retirement from teaching in 1996.

Sensuality picks up Woodman's story with a painting from 1959-1960 that the artist believes was pivotal to his development as a mature painter. This brushy, expressionist oil on canvas, inspired by a year Woodman spent painting in Italy, is titled, appropriately enough, "Italian Landscape." Woodman went on to paint several landscapes of this type, but "Italian Landscape" is the only example included in the BMoCA exhibit. Though the painting features creamy lyrical smears of ocher, yellow, light blue and green in the foreground, its overall composition is geometric, with the plowed fields forming the predominant horizontal and the cypress trees the vertical.

The next phase of Woodman's work is represented by four magnificent abstracts. In these paintings, Woodman reworks his geometric approach, taking the horizontal and the vertical elements of the landscape, stripping them of their meanings, and then freely rearranging them. This is seen clearly in "Love Nest at Lake Lemon," an oil on canvas from 1962. Using blue for the lake and green for the woods, Woodman lays across the composition's surface thick lines and painted squares that seem to deny the meaning implied by the colors. In a related but untitled oil on canvas from 1963, even the meaning of the colors has been eliminated as a component, and the painting is essentially abstract-expressionist, with no references except to the paint itself. Divided into three roughly horizontal areas, the painting features metallic gold set against large areas of black and white, a color combination that is breathtaking.  

Woodman's two other abstract oils from the early 1960s are also knockouts. "April Cool," from 1963, and an untitled composition from 1964 have been hung on the diagonal to form a diamond shape (at the time, Woodman was experimenting, as were others, with the shape of his canvas). The compositions of these two paintings are overwhelmingly geometric, made up almost entirely of wide bands and stripes carried out in a dense palette.

A few years after completing these paintings, Woodman made another radical break. Where before he had employed lines and bars whose irregular margins were filled in with heavy, painterly brush strokes, in the newer paintings the paint was applied thinly and evenly, and the margins were crisp and hard-edged. It was 1964, and Woodman was about to become a stylistic pioneer with paintings such as the untitled grid of polka dots that launched his successful foray into pattern painting. This was several years before nearly anyone else on earth had embraced the style, and it kicked off Woodman's greatest period of artistic creativity, which was to last a good twenty years. Many pattern paintings are sprinkled throughout Sensuality, and every one is a stunning display of Woodman's taste and spectacular technical skill.

The oldest pattern painting at BMoCA is a simple grid. But later efforts, such as the gorgeous pastel-toned "Wooster Diptych," an acrylic on canvas from 1978, showcase elaborate combinations of peculiar shapes. This complicated, mathematical approach inspired Boulder's famous Criss-Cross movement. Though never formally a member of Criss-Cross, Woodman was the group's mentor. He taught many of the practitioners while they were at CU, including Clark Richert, Richard Kollweit and Charles Di Julio.

By the early 1980s, Woodman had grown tired of pattern paintings and launched a second career as a photographer. His photographs pay an indirect homage to the work of his late daughter, Francesca. Though she died in 1981 at the tender age of 21, Francesca was already a full-blown artist in her own right and left behind a large volume of poetic if melancholy staged photographs that were a decade ahead of their time.

Woodman has continued to paint up to the present, but photography has remained his principal occupation. The Boulder show includes many photographs, typically set in his beloved Italy. They're most often double or triple exposures in which images of figures have been laid over those of buildings and sculptures. A good example is "Corridor at Calci With Figure," a 1992 silver print that places a dark shot of an arcaded hallway beneath an even darker shot of a young woman's nude torso. These Italian photos, which equate flesh and stone, are chillingly elegant.

Despite the distracting way in which the works in Sensuality have been displayed, there are many rewards in store for the visitor. That's also the case with Stan Meyer, New Work at Robischon. Like Woodman, Meyer has been around for a while, though his presence on the local art scene goes back "only" eighteen years. Born in Geneva, Illinois, in 1949, Meyer attended the University of Wisconsin and Southern Illinois University, where he earned his MFA. He got his first solo show in Denver in 1980 at Bev Rosen's St. Charles on the Wazee, the first art gallery to open in LoDo. Since that time, he has made a name for himself with his signature woven paintings--or should that be painted weavings?

Meyer has been with Robischon since 1986 and over the years has had five solo shows there. For this exhibit, the versatile artist has created two different kinds of work: geometric abstractions and more organically formed compositions. No matter the approach, his pieces always use repeated grids, an inevitable by-product of his practice of weaving strips of roofing tar paper to form his wall hangings. The tar-paper strips are stained with dry pigment both before and after being woven, and the resultant effect suggests everything from quilts and tapestries to architectural elements like screens or grills. This multiplicity of interpretations may help to explain Meyer's considerable prowess in the realm of corporate commissions; his work is frequently sought out to enliven public spaces such as lobbies of office buildings.

Each piece in the Robischon show has been given its own wall, and that's a good thing, not only because Meyer typically works large, but also because his pieces are irregularly shaped. This is the case even when he's using only straight lines, as in "Drape," which is made up of a short vertical rectangle hanging below a larger horizontal one. In both "Drape" and the closely related "A Construct," which is smaller and more tightly composed, Meyer arranges rectangles flatly in layers against the wall. But in other pieces, three-dimensional elements more obviously relate to sculpture. In "Over Under," planes created by Meyer's weaving dive in and out of the center of the piece, with his shadow-enhancing dry pigments heightening the effect. "Wave," which comes out from the wall a considerable distance, pushes the 3-D effect still further.  

Meyer's woven paintings have little to do with Woodman's riot of stylistic approaches. But these artists do have two things in common: Both have played key roles in the development of local contemporary art, and neither exhibits his work very often. That makes two good reasons these exhibits shouldn't be missed.

Sensuality in a World of Reason, through May 3 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 443-2122.

Stan Meyer, New Work, through May 2 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.


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