Prism Break

"Strider," by Mel Strawn, oil on canvas.

There's one thing you can always expect from the Singer Gallery in the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture: high-quality art exhibits with some kind of intellectual content. So it's no surprise that EUGENE YELCHIN: A Thousand Casualties, a solo featuring expressionist abstractions based on Old Master paintings, is one of the most compelling offerings on display so far this season.

Singer's reliable success rate can be attributed to gallery director Simon Zalkind, who has an unfailing eye for accomplished material, as well as an abiding interest in art about art. The Yelchin show meets both criteria handily, because while the paintings are odd and somewhat disturbing, they are also undeniably beautiful and filled with more than enough intellectual content to make them conceptually credible in a contemporary-art context.

To make this show happen, Zalkind turned to Mina Litinsky, the director of the Sloane Gallery in LoDo, a nationally significant center for art created by those who came of age in the former Soviet Union. He also enlisted the aid of David Thickman, who loaned some important Yelchin paintings.

Yelchin was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in 1956. His mother was a teacher at the Leningrad School of Choreography at the Kirov Theatre, where he spent a great deal of time as a child, and his father often took him to the Hermitage, where the budding artist got an early taste for the masterpieces of European art. Probably because of his mother's influence, Yelchin graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Theater Arts, specializing in set design.

Being Jewish, at least in a secular sense, Yelchin was confronted with official anti-Semitism, with the police monitoring those who entered synagogues and the state considering learning Hebrew to be a criminal activity. Like many Soviet Jewish artists, Yelchin responded to this repression by becoming more, not less, interested in Judaism. Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union began in the 1970s, and Yelchin elected to leave in 1983. He settled in California and earned a fine-arts degree at the University of Southern California. Zalkind first came across Yelchin's work through a tip from Litinsky, who was assisting him with an exhibit titled Russian Revolutions at the Singer in 2002.

The Yelchin exhibit is large and includes more than forty paintings, a number of which are major works from 1998 to 2004. The paintings are extremely consistent in several ways: They all have subtle, moody and almost antique-looking palettes dominated by ocher, umber and cream tones; the compositions all comprise surrealistic abstractions based on the human figure; and all exude an inexplicable edginess that's both disturbing and compelling.

At first glance, the paintings appear to be out-of-focus Rembrandts or Goyas or works by other Baroque masters, and Yelchin does reference various artists in some of the titles, including the remarkable roundel "Mirror After Rembrandt" and the mural-like "Donde va Mama? After Goya." But Zalkind also points out that the Yelchins appear to be a cross between the work of Francis Bacon and that of Chaim Soutine. His point is well taken: Similar to Bacon's, Yelchin's figures appear to be melting before our eyes, and in line with Soutine, his brushwork is aggressive, featuring slashes of color used to sketch out the subjects. Some of the most recent pieces here are a group of small portraits from the "Section Five" series in which the men's features were reduced to smears of dark color. Though the large paintings have a majestic character that recalls palace decorations, these small "Section Five" daubs just might be the best things included.

Zalkind told me that he thought EUGENE YELCHIN: A Thousand Casualties was the finest show he has ever organized at Singer. I don't think that's true, but I do think it's very fine.

In honor of the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building's opening, the Denver Central Library's Vida Ellison Gallery is hosting MEL STRAWN: All Together Now, 1940s-2000s, an important exhibit saluting one of the most important artists in Colorado. In content, this is a retrospective, but because of the way it was installed, it does not take that distinctive form.

One problem the library's seventh-floor gallery has in fulfilling a proper retrospective is the odd space itself, with a couple of arching hallways that lead to a big -- though barely functional -- gallery space. But as bad as the available rooms are, I still don't understand why the paintings are hung as though they'd been shuffled like a deck of cards. This prevents an easy reading of Strawn's stylistic development, unless you take the trouble, as I did, of going through a few times to figure it out. I wish I could convince show organizers that when they are trying to lay out an artist's retrospective, the pieces need to be lined up in date order to showcase the aesthetic biography. But even with that limitation, I still say that this Strawn exhibit is one of the most notable around right now.

Strawn was born in Idaho in 1929 and began painting when he was twelve. His family moved to California while he was in high school, and a piece he did at that time, "City Builder," was awarded a prize and indirectly led to a scholarship to the Chouinard School of Art in 1947, where he worked with Millard Sheets. In the next few years, Strawn also attended the Otis College of Art and Design and the Jepson Art Institute, where his teacher was Rico Lebrun. In 1951, Strawn was drafted into the U.S. Army, and he served in Korea until 1953. On his return, he enrolled in the California College of Arts and Crafts, earning a BFA in 1955 and an MFA in 1956. At CCAC, his graduate advisor was Richard Diebenkorn. The influences of Lebrun and Diebenkorn would be apparent in his work of the next decade or so.

After getting his graduate degree, Strawn began a teaching career that spanned more than thirty years. This vocation brought him to Colorado in 1969, when he was hired to replace the legendary Vance Kirkland, who was retiring, as head of the art department at the University of Denver. Strawn left DU in 1985, and after a three-year teaching stint at Western Michigan University, returned to Colorado. He currently lives in Salida.

The pieces of Strawn's juvenilia demonstrate his astounding talent when he was still a child; he continued to develop throughout his life, experiencing three major stylistic shifts as an adult. In the 1950s through the mid-1960s, he was part of the abstract-expressionist movement, as revealed by "Lunar Struggle," from 1956, and "Strider," completed a few years later. The lasting influence of Diebenkorn is easy to see in these first-phase paintings. By the mid-1960s, representational devices such as skulls and cars were appearing, referring back to Lebrun's style. But because the details of these subjects were handled expressionistically, the paintings represent a seamless continuation of the earlier non-objective work. In "Ghost Autos" and "Black Stacked Cars," both done in 1965, the shapes of a junkyard are employed as a starting point for abstract-expressionist compositions.

In the early '70s, Strawn became a pattern painter, a style he embraced into the mid-'80s. In these works, Strawn manipulated a closed set of four separate shapes, arranging and coloring them in various ways. This turn may have been partly inspired by his move to Colorado, where many contemporary artists were working in the style, including Bev Rosen, George Woodman and Clark Richert. In truth, Strawn's approach was markedly different from theirs, because his pigments rise off the surfaces instead of being flat. His approach to organization was distinct, too, with some of his works sporting loosely drawn shapes, as seen in "Cezanne's Band," from 1974, and others featuring tightly painted shapes, as in "Black Diamond," from 1983.

Around that time, Strawn became an early proponent of digital technology, as evidenced in "Geos," a hand-painted version of a computer program from 1981, or "Masquerade," a digital print done in 2005. The photographic aspects of digital technology are surely the reason Strawn began to paint versions of recognizable subjects -- in particular, bottle caps and commemorative medals, which are similar in form.

The Vida Ellison exhibit surveys all three of these permutations, and the paintings were selected by Strawn himself. The exhibition was organized by Kay Wisnia, from the library's Western History/ Genealogy Department. It's also noteworthy that Strawn donated a representative sample of his career -- more than a dozen pieces -- to the library. The Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art also has a selection of Strawn paintings.

As hectic as things are getting in the Denver art world, I'm really glad I made a point of getting over to the library to catch MEL STRAWN: All Together Now, 1940s-2000s before the DAM's grand-opening events. Oh, sure, I would have liked to see the paintings hung with a sense of chronology, and I was really disappointed that there wasn't a catalogue, but there's no question that this show must be seen by anyone interested in local art. After all, Strawn is undeniably one of the most significant players in the history of contemporary art in the region.

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