It's strange how complementary exhibits often run at the same time or in quick succession. A few years ago, for instance, during the course of one season, it seemed like everyone was showcasing art made from recycled materials. Another time, installation was the medium of choice. This season, we've seen a few more exhibit clusters. There's been the mad craze for geometric abstraction and its progeny in neo- and post-minimalism and neo-color-field painting. And there's a big movement among young artists making monumental abstract sculptures, much of it with kinetic or high-tech features. The most apparent trend this season, though, has been a renewed interest in representational art, and the calendar has been jammed with shows highlighting the figure, the landscape and even the still life.
There was the big show at the Denver Art Museum devoted to the late Alice Neel, with a companion exhibit given over to Neel's work at Ron Judish Fine Art. Also at Judish was the marvelous John Hull solo. Two additional noteworthy solos were those of Wes Magyar, at Pirate, and Santiago Perez, at Carson-Masuoka. At the Center for the Visual Arts, a traveling exhibit from the Sheldon Memorial Gallery showcased figural art by national and international art stars of the 1940s to the present. Other exhibits on the theme included those at the Lakewood Cultural Center, the Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver, the Singer Gallery, the Foothills Art Center and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. The Karen Kitchel-Don Stinson duet and Sam Scott solo at Robischon reviewed last week also falls in line with this trend.
Now it's time to add two more: Of Place and Time..., at the William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, and Francis Johansen, at Ron Judish Fine Arts, located in what is now officially known as the Highland Arts District.
For Of Place and Time..., gallery director Bill Havu put together four artists in a sprawling show that fills his entire gallery. All four are seen in depth.
The first is Jeremy Hillhouse, who is represented by a group of landscape-based abstractions installed in the first couple of spaces. The well-known Denver artist has been doing this kind of work for the past several years. His paintings look like abstractions but are really landscapes inspired by imaginary aerial views of rivers and their tributaries -- or are they? In a statement that accompanies this series, Hillhouse writes that the paintings "started out to be about rivers" but wound up being "focused on abstraction" and thus about the "beauty of paint."
Hillhouse was born in Colorado Springs in 1940. He graduated from Colorado College in 1962 and earned a master's degree from the renowned art department at the University of California at Davis in 1968. Returning to Colorado in the early 1970s, he began an almost thirty-year relationship with the Denver Art Museum, where he worked as an exhibition designer from 1972 until his retirement in 2000. During this time, he exhibited consistently if not frequently -- typically once every two years or so. Though his work has been seen in shows throughout the West, especially in California, New Mexico and Arizona, he's mostly displayed his pieces in Colorado venues.
In many of his paintings at Havu, the colors that define the river's course are almost garish; they've been arranged in a spectral or rainbow array, though the color field is a modulated light brown, which remains well within the earth-tone range. The four-part, monumental "prairie stream," an acrylic on canvas, is the most significant piece in the show. In it, the river line runs from one canvas to the next while changing color from blue to yellow to orange to red and back again.
Installed in the two spaces adjoining the Hillhouse section are several recent paintings by James McElhinney, a contemporary representational painter who moved here a few years ago from North Carolina to teach painting at the University of Colorado's Denver campus. A native of Philadelphia, McElhinney is a 1974 graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and has a 1976 MFA from the Yale University School of Art. He's shown in the area only a few times, but this is the second time a body of his work has been seen at Havu.
The McElhinney paintings fall into two clearly distinguishable types -- a sketchy and expressive style and a stilted, retro-nineteenth-century style. The former is made up of views of battlefields and massacre sites, with superimposed elements such as cursive writing and arrows used to explain them. The latter is a set of three pieces illustrating a painter in a landscape who is painting the landscape. (A third type of McElhinney painting, idiosyncratic realistic figure studies of the nude, fall stylistically between the other two. These aren't included in the show, but they're displayed on the storage racks under the loft and may be seen on request.)
The largest and most important of the battlefield paintings is "Summit Springs Battleground: Dog Soldiers' Last Stand," an oil on canvas depicting a present-day view of the now-bucolic landscape that was the site of an Indian massacre. The landscape has been fleshed out with a quick gestural stroke. Although the paint has been thinned out, the approach is painterly, and scumbled passages, in which various tones are blended and juxtaposed, are used in the hills and rocks, and especially in the sky. The modulated blues that make up the sky are accented by white and black writing that stands in for the non-existent clouds.
The three "painter" paintings are completely different. Whereas the battlefield scenes are loosely painted with coats of translucent pigment, resulting in an atmospheric quality corresponding to the exterior world itself, the painter paintings are done with thick pigments in small repeated strokes. The perspective has been shortened, creating an awkward spatial relationship in the compositions. It's almost as though McElhinney is creating the unseen painting in his painting. The setting is France, and it's possible that McElhinney is using this awkward approach to three-dimensional imagery -- the figure of the painter, for instance, is positively wooden -- to refer back, if only ironically, to classic French salon painting from before the rise of impressionism.
In the more intimate spaces under the mezzanine of the gallery are the small, easel-sized hyperrealist paintings by Rick Dula, who moved here from Oakland just last year. Dula's paintings concern the urban environment, and most are set in his former stamping grounds on the West Coast. There is at least one Denver landmark among the paintings, however: "Factory," an acrylic on board, is a perfectly executed view of the Gates Rubber Company plant on South Broadway.
Upstairs on the mezzanine are more than a dozen landscapes, both paintings and strange dioramas, by Texas artist Lloyd Brown. All are very conservative in style -- virtually impressionistic --but since they're just this side of neo-traditionalism, they're worth seeing.
Yet another representational style is being illustrated at Ron Judish Fine Arts, where Francis Johansen: New Works is being shown in the gallery just beyond the entry space.
Johansen moved to Denver in the late 1990s from Minneapolis, where he graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1993. He first exhibited at the CORE artists' cooperative, but was soon picked up by Judish, which has exhibited his work since 1999. His pieces involve the depiction of buildings in monumental, meticulously rendered charcoal drawings. In spite of the fact that the charcoal is faintly applied, as are the colored shades, there's a remarkable sense of verisimilitude, and the drawings are strikingly detailed and realistic. Well, sort of, given that he's concerned with creating a surrealistic world.
Several concern charming Victorian houses, including "The Thin Path" and "One More Time," which loom like transparent apparitions in the distance; Johansen uses this effect in all of these charcoal and mixed-media drawings.
In some he has painted ghostly double images so that one apparition appears to be in front of the other. This is seen in "Horizon," in which two figures sit on a porch that's superimposed onto the facade of another building. Even more elaborate and intriguing is "Untitled," the most breathtaking Johansen in the show. In it, a frontier-town street is combined with a looping railroad trestle; it could all be set in Georgetown. The piece is the largest and most colorful one in the show, with areas of green and orange subtly arrayed across its nearly four-by-six-foot paper surface.
The shows at Judish and Havu, as well as the ones at Robischon, all come down on June 1. Together, these four exhibits offer gallery-goers the chance to view an ad hoc "blockbuster" exploring contemporary takes on the physical environment.
And since all four are clearly part of the representational trend seen all season, they are essential viewing, no matter what.
The Johansen show is just one of a quartet of exhibits at Judish, and although the other three don't contain contemporary representational paintings or drawings, they are still notable.
In the gallery parallel to the Johansen show is Ron Katz-Carnevale Di Venezia. For his color Fuji crystal archival prints, Katz has taken candid close-ups of the masked revelers at Carnevale in Venice, which is a 1,000-year-old-plus version of Mardi Gras (in Italian, it's called Martedì Grosso). The photos have a documentary quality, but the outrageous and sumptuous outfits people are wearing make the photos look otherworldly.
The second solo is Christopher James: Photographs, which consists of images of the region that the artist has captured in sumptuous gelatin silver prints. In a sense, he's acting as a modern-day William Henry Jackson, memorializing the changes that are taking place -- though Jackson mostly recorded the city being built up, and James is fascinated by its coming down. For instance, the heartbreaking "Currigan" zeroes in on one of those incredible space-frame columns exposed during the recent demolition of Currigan Exhibition Hall. Also distinct from Jackson, James seems to be out shooting only after sundown.
The James photos are quite dramatic in terms of the rhythm of lights and darks and the imaginatively cropped compositions. Both features are seen in "Palace," a shot looking down on the roof of the Brown Palace Hotel, and "Storm," which shows a series of lightning strikes set against the downtown skyline.
Lastly is Group Exhibition, an enormous and compelling show with work by more than two dozen artists from Judish's stable, including Gail Wagner, Roland Bernier and John Morrison. It's amazing and worthy of a museum show. But there's no room to talk about it here, so go and see it for yourself.
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