You'd think that by now artists would have tired of recording the sights of the world in the tried-and-true mediums of painting and drawing. For heaven's sake, representational art has been done for the past 15,000 years. Just thinking about it makes me drowsy. But, no. Despite the rise of photography -- which is a better, more accurate and easier way to record exterior reality -- and the triumph of modernist abstraction, which zeroes in on the un-photographable realm of interior reality, artists persist in rendering the world around them on canvas or paper.
The interminable appeal of representational imagery has led to an art world that's an alternative to the contemporary scene, filled with neo-traditional versions of the landscape, the still life and the figure study. The styles of these works hark back to the art of yore, reminiscent, at least, of the nineteenth-century academics, if not the Old Masters. This kind of stuff is irrelevant to the course of contemporary art, which is why I never review such exhibitions. However, just a step or two in the right direction, and you find artists who are enamored of the landscape, still life and figure study, but who impart something new into the standard formulas instead of just recalling a heroic past. By doing this, they're creating genuinely contemporary work.
Colorado is home to many contemporary representational painters, and there are a number of shows currently on display highlighting their various achievements. Collectively, they work like a thoughtful group show; you'll just have to drive around central Denver to catch all the different parts.
Recent pieces by a young Denver artist who is surely one of the up-and-comers in the realm of contemporary representational art are being showcased in Lui Ferreyra: Paintings, in the front space at Sandy Carson Gallery. Ferreyra has exhibited in Denver over the past several years; during that time, he's arrived at a signature style.
Ferreyra shatters the surfaces of his works by breaking them up into hard-edged shards of color. The images are thus made up of flat areas of colors that are meticulously assembled to convey the topics of the pictures. The effect recalls paint-by-numbers paintings, digitized reductions from computer animation and, of course, cubism. But this final comparison is the most superficial of the lot: Although Ferreyra does cut his pictures into puzzle pieces, as the cubists did, he doesn't do it to annihilate the forms he's depicting, but to reinforce the formal components. In this way, he's able to arrive at fairly credible renditions of his worldly subjects, which, at Sandy Carson, are mostly people rendered as portrait heads and busts.
The crazed surfaces have a lot of decorative potential, but the paintings Ferreyra has done for the "Bardos" series are pointedly serious and non-decorative. The title of the series refers to the state of semi-consciousness in which a person is somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. Thus all the subjects have closed eyes and impassive expressions on their faces.
"Bardos 6" is a powerful painting of a powerfully built middle-aged man, who, it turns out, is Ferreyra's stepfather. The beefy figure of the nude man is seen from the waist up, with his head coming close to the top of the composition. His pose is unnerving, and though he appears to be standing up, he must be actually lying down, as he's completely limp. This kind of ambiguity, and the disorientation it fosters, is one of the things that separate Ferreyra's oeuvre from the work of many other representational artists and places it firmly in the contemporary camp.
Also in the show is the first of the "Bardos" paintings, "Bardos 1," a self-portrait that's clearly a companion work to that of his stepfather. The poses are essentially the same, and Ferreyra is also depicted in the nude and from the waist up. But what really makes these paintings a pair is the way they are similar yet opposite, like comedy and tragedy masks. While both are stylistically consistent and share the same creamy approach to the palette, Ferreyra conveys his stepfather as bulky and solid, and himself as thin and lithe.
In the small space beyond the information desk is a small selection of studies for the larger "Bardos" paintings, as well as a group of what appear to be abstractions but are actually enlarged details of the human body. These pieces, from the "Li" series, are studies for larger works and are much more conventionally beautiful than the somewhat disquieting "Bardos" paintings. I'll bet they're indicative of a future trend in Ferreyra's style, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a show made up of big paintings based on these tiny ones at some point. I hope so, anyway.
There's only a little more than a week left before the very strong -- if somewhat difficult -- Lui Ferreyra closes at Sandy Carson Gallery. It's worth a look, especially because Ferreyra is definitely a young talent worth watching.
Over at + Gallery is The Barest Trace, a solo of monumental portraits by Wes Magyar that makes the perfect followup to Lui Ferreyra. In fact, the shows look like two halves of the same exhibit. There are a number of reasons for the similarities between Magyar's work and Ferreyra's, including the fact that the two are good friends and obviously respond to one another's style. This is something that often happens with artists, and it's almost always a good thing
Magyar's methods are traditional, and as a result, there's a naturalism and crispness in his depictions. Though he's still quite young, Magyar's been exhibiting his work for a while, and there are certain things that viewers can expect from him. One regular feature is psychological and narrative content, though the meanings of these story lines are always indecipherable.
In "Cast," one of the first paintings in the show, there's a colossal head of an older man seen in profile. His facial expression is somewhat disquieting, because he's either really pissed or has the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Faade," an enormous close-up of a wild-haired, wild-eyed young man, also includes added emotional content -- by which I mean the guy in the picture looks crazy.
In the second space at + is Introverted, a solo of new paintings by young artist Robin Schaefer. The oddball paintings, many of them concerning a potato drenched in dramatic light, reveal that Schaefer is an expert technically. The potatoes (and an orange) have been rendered skillfully, with an excruciatingly careful degree of accuracy. And Schaefer is great at orchestrating the whole light/dark dialectic and producing a luminous effect that makes the sprouts on the potatoes seem to glow. I'm not sure she's yet arrived at the ideal subject to showcase her considerable talents -- potatoes have limited appeal -- but the idea of an edgy still life really does have some potential.
Gallery director Ivar Zeile often goes for jarring or unlikely comparisons when putting together multiple shows, but The Barest Trace and Introverted work seamlessly together.
Bill Havu, owner of the William Havu Gallery, also has a taste for weird combos, but he, too, came up with a compatible duo this time. In the main space of the gallery is Jeff Aeling, a solo of super-realistic photo-inspired landscapes and seascapes. There are abstracted Western landscapes in the intimate back space, in Joellyn Duesberry: Hidden Treasures, and on the mezzanine, in New Monotypes by Joellyn Duesberry.
Aeling lives in St. Louis for most of the year, but makes summer trips out West. This is part of a long tradition for Midwestern artists, who often come out here for inspiration when their own surroundings are scenery-deprived.
These heroically scaled paintings are mostly about the sky rising above the high plains. Aeling's technical proficiency is breathtaking, and the paintings almost look like blown-up color photos. Clearly, they're based on photos, but Aeling doesn't use projections or any other high-tech shortcuts to get these results. He simply refers to the photos, as he would to sketches.
Duesberry is one of Colorado's most famous contemporary representational artists; her split-level shows feature recent Cézannesque Western landscapes, mostly done on paper. These landscapes are highly abstracted, with smears and swirls of color standing in for the rocks and trees. In the triptych "Chama Cliffs," in Hidden Treasures, Duesberry scribbled in the rock face that runs across the back of all three sheets; the trees in the foreground were done just as loosely. Even more abstract and expressionistic are monotypes such as "Pool & Quarry II" and "Ice Breaks at Chatfield," both in New Monotypes.
The shared palette of all of these pieces is creamy and powdery, and it relies heavily on sunny and earthy tones such as ocher, umber and sienna. In some of the monotypes, Duesberry inserted transparent papers to give the scenes an added sense of depth and a misty, atmospheric quality.
Even with two shows, this is a surprisingly small outing for a big artist such as Duesberry, but it's merely a teaser for a major exhibit of her paintings that's set for this fall at Havu.
Jeff Aeling and Hidden Treasures/New Monotypes have generated brisk sales -- every Duesberry on the mezzanine has sold! -- and there's no mystery why. Though the work at Havu differs little stylistically from the pieces at Sandy Carson and +, the uncluttered subject matter of the landscape is more commercial than people or potatoes. The landscapes at Havu have all the appeal of traditional art, but with the additional glamour of being contemporary. I'm sure that makes for an easy sales pitch.
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