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Plaids and Solids

"Cage," by Bruce Price, acrylic on canvas.

I was really worried about contemporary art at the end of the twentieth century. Things were looking bleak, as public support was clearly on the wane. The art magazines and the art establishment were no help, either, since both were filled with the novel, the outlandish and the absurd, but, sadly, rarely the good. Not only that, but a lot of the art being made and promoted didn't make sense in the big picture of things. Easy-to-appreciate and easily displayed traditional art forms were on the outs, while harder-to-like and difficult-to-display types of art were in the forefront. It was no way to build an audience, and it didn't.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, a revitalized contemporary art is becoming established around the country, and, interestingly, it's old-fashioned art forms that appear to be leading the way out of the doldrums and snaring new audiences. That's right: Video and digital are increasingly becoming old hat, while painting and sculpture are on the comeback trail, big time. But getting through these past ten years was not as monumental an achievement as the New York-based art writers would have it, since both mediums have already transcended the ages.

What turned things around was the proliferation of the posts and the neos that rolled into the new century and injected new ideas into historical ones. Some of this manifested itself in interesting revivals of the originals -- the neos -- while others went an even more interesting route by critiquing the originals -- the posts.

Now, here's the curveball: Many of the posts may be neatly categorized as being part and parcel of neo-modernism, the greatest neo of them all. This post-post-modern style is a reflexive form of modernism and is clearly the latest choice in Western art, architecture and design. Neo-modern has firmly vanquished its predecessor, post-modern, but in truth, post-modern simply forfeited the match when it disintegrated into historicism. This is a paradox, of course: While looking back is central to neo-modern's success, it was also key to the failure of post-modern.

Being paradoxical is very contemporary, and the show in the front space at + Zeile/Judish, Bruce Price: Fill: The New York Paintings, is all about reconciling opposites. The most serious of the internal contradictions in this series of acrylic-on-canvas paintings is that they are based on theories about the nature of ornament, yet according to Price, the works are wholly and pointedly non-decorative. The fact is, his home-baked distinction is hard to understand; easier to comprehend is the visual appeal of the paintings, regardless of their conceptual underpinnings.

The word "fill" in the show's title refers to a concept Price has taken from nineteenth-century theories about ornamentation. An ornamental program would include "frame" and "fill," the "frame" being the painted or sculpted borders that surround the "fill," or the painted or sculpted decorations that are framed. This abiding interest in ornamental theories has led Price to name some of the pieces in honor of early thinkers on the topic, such as Owen Jones, for whom the painting "Owen" is named, and John Ruskin, who is honored by the painting "John." But some others, such as "Cage," are named after composers -- in this case, John Cage. It turns out that Price was a serious musician in a previous life.

All of the paintings except one were exhibited in 2003 at the now-closed Cornell DeWitt Gallery in Manhattan, but this is the first time they've been shown in Denver. Price's signature paintings are post-minimalist works, so although they're based in minimalism, they're done in a way that pointedly violates that movement's tenets. A good example is Price's use of a "more is more" approach to the subject matter, resulting in hundreds of elements being crammed into his pictures; another is his taste for flamboyant surface treatments. Both attributes are antithetical to classic minimalism, which favors simple, austere compositions and flat surface effects.

In a relatively short period of time -- a little over five years -- Price has used his accomplished work to establish himself as one of the area's preeminent abstract painters. Born in 1958 in Topeka, Kansas, Price bounced around the country before coming to Denver in 1994 to attend the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. As a student at RMCAD, he distinguished himself as a consummate painter and began exhibiting his work in the area's galleries, museums and art centers immediately after graduating in 1997. While in school, his mentor was Clark Richert, the state's premier pattern painter.

The seven Price paintings that make up the show at + Zeile/Judish are densely composed. The square-diamond shapes are covered in all-over patterns with rigid horizontal and vertical orientations, so that all of the linear elements meet at ninety-degree angles, while the frames are at 45-degree angles. "In painting these, I discovered that when the pattern goes contrary to the orientation of the canvas, it makes the paintings more like fields, and the space really opens up," Price says.  

These pieces will remind some of similarly conceived Mondrians from the early twentieth century, which Price studied. But the patterns on Price's paintings resemble plaids more than Mondrian's do. The patterns also, not surprisingly, resemble Richert's geometric work. That association with Richert is another paradox, according to Price. "I decided I wanted to paint outside the conceptual gibberish, so I referenced work I was doing prior to meeting Clark, work that was based on patterns. These paintings are more 'me' than ever, yet they look more like Clark's work than anything I've ever done."

Price is right: There is a clear relationship between these paintings and Richert's, but not so much so that the two artists would be confused for one another. The similarities are obvious -- straight lines, all-over compositions and a fanatical attention to detail. But the differences are even more clearly indicated, especially Price's use of painterly flourishes -- in particular, his clear glazes that create actual illusionist space, with parts of the paintings embedded below the surface. This means that different pictorial elements exist on separate levels.

This tension between actual and illusionary is what Price calls "spectacle," in reference to a retinal surprise. "The paintings present themselves in one way -- a flat pattern -- but they're really not. It's kind of a little minimalist joke on my part," he says. The varying depths of the paintings create a very neat visual effect that's perceivable only when the work is seen in person, and completely disappears when the pieces are photographed.

These Fill paintings are captivating, and they're remarkable for the obvious effort they took. And in spite of all the thinking Price did in preparation, they succeed in the simplest way possible for a work of art: They look so darned good.

Also looking good are the painted sculptures installed in the back gallery at + Zeile/Judish, in a show enigmatically called Michael Whiting: Dilated Pixels and Other Abstractions. The enigma arises from the mention of digital technology; used only for the preparatory studies, it's impossible to perceive in the finished work, which is very hand-wrought in appearance.

Whiting currently lives in Utah, but he has spent time in New York attending the legendary Pratt Institute, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in 2002. He's also been spending time in California, and + Zeile/Judish became aware of him when the twenty-something artist stopped by the gallery while passing through town on one of his frequent coast-to-coast trips. Michael Whiting represents his first solo outing in Denver.

The exhibit is a knockout, and though the more than a dozen pieces in it are distinctly different from the Prices, there's still an undeniably sublime compatibility between the two. Oh, sure, Price's paintings are complicated and cerebral where Whiting's are simple and emotive -- but there's no question that Whiting, like Price, is exploring post-minimalism, and that's why the two sets of works go together so well.

The pieces in the Whiting display refer to more than one medium, which is something that's been in the air during the past several years. In his written statement, the young artist, his arguments reflecting the heady stuff of graduate school, expresses the view that his pieces are paintings -- not sculpture -- because of the gorgeous automotive-paint finishes he applies. I guess being creative is essential to an artist, but technically speaking, these painted-steel constructions are obviously sculptures, as they are first and foremost three-dimensional objects. That's the case whether Whiting painted them or not -- and whether or not he agrees with me.

This is not to downplay the role of the paint, because it is essential to the success of these pieces. The fabricated-steel geometric shapes have each been finished in a monochrome, ranging from strong, saturated tones to powdery pastels. After the paint is applied, the finish is distressed to reveal the raw metal underneath. One of the more dramatic ways in which Whiting does this is by dragging the pieces behind his vehicle. As unorthodox as this method may seem, the results are marvelous.

A few of the Whitings are singular forms, but others, such as "Almost Square," done in a juicy orange, are compound. The shape is a square, with a rectangle notched out at the bottom. Nearly all of these works are strikingly beautiful and elegant in their simplicity, but none more so than the two floor pieces. One of them, "Purple Bomber," an inverted set of steps painted lavender, is a real showstopper, having caught my eye as soon as I walked in the back space. Together with the other floor sculpture, "Thirteen," "Purple Bomber" provides exactly the right counterpoint to the more numerous, though closely related, wall pieces.  

Bruce Price: Fill: The New York Paintings and Michael Whiting: Dilated Pixels and Other Abstractions are wonderful individually and even better together. The two first-rate exhibits, organized collaboratively by + Zeile/Judish owner Ivar Zeile, partner Ron Judish and gallery director Gilbert I. Barrera, provide the latest evidence that this downtown art venue may now be considered -- just a few months after opening -- one of the top galleries around.


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