Review: Parallel Lines at Havu Gallery Is an Unseasonably Hot Show

Brad Ellis, "Old Man Repertoire."
Brad Ellis, "Old Man Repertoire."
Havu Gallery

You don’t expect to see important art shows unveiled at this time of year — but this spring has defied expectations. There are so many important exhibits in town right now, you’d think we were in the middle of the fall, long recognized as the high season for art not just in the Mile High City, but everywhere.

At Robischon Gallery's Declaration, you can walk through the pages of a real-life version of a modern-and-contemporary art-history book (“Women’s Issues,” May 19). The show is so strong that it’s hard to imagine another exhibit standing up to it — but Parallel Lines, at the William Havu Gallery, does. I loved Robischon’s Declaration when I first saw it, and even more when I saw it again, and that’s the same way I feel about Havu’s Parallel Lines. While the Havu show is smaller and much more modest, it’s every bit as worthy of attention as Declaration.

Parallel Lines is basically three solos masquerading as a group show. On the main floor are paintings and prints by Amy Metier, accented by Emmett Culligan’s sculptures; on the mezzanine is a selection of paintings by Brad Ellis. Interestingly, almost nothing in Parallel Lines features parallel lines — colliding ones, layered ones and perpendicular ones, yes, but parallel ones, no — except for a handful of small works by Ellis tucked into the edges of his section. But rather than describing a common characteristic, I think the show’s title is meant to express the way all three artists have had similar, parallel careers, each working over a long period of time to develop their respective signature styles.

Metier, who lives in Boulder but has long exhibited in Denver, is represented by a large selection of her recent paintings and works on paper; each type has its own distinctive characteristics partly determined by the mediums themselves. Although her two types of work can be linked with a few broad observations — both are colorful and abstract, for instance, and both are great — the paintings are very different from the paper pieces. The former have dense and layered compositions, with shapes dissolving into each other or being submerged beneath other forms, while the latter have more clearly articulated formal arrangements — even when the approach to line is similar — and therefore a graphic character. 

The Metier paintings are pretty much all of a piece, with each featuring the relentlessly sunny palettes she prefers, always bright even when she throws in a dark passage or two. As you look at the paintings, you may attempt to make out some recognizable subjects, since they seem to be responses to the landscape or still-life traditions — and based on the brushwork and colors, they are. But Metier has piled so many fluid marks on top of one another that whatever subject matter may have originally inspired her has long since been covered over. This subject-based abstraction indicates that her most obvious source — abstract expressionism — has been tweaked through references to earlier modernism. Years ago, Metier cited cubism and futurism as important to her development as a painter, but I’ve long thought that her aesthetic toolbox goes all the way back to post-impressionism.

The Metiers on the walls wrap around works by Culligan, a noted Denver sculptor. I first saw his work in the back room at Pirate in the 1990s. At the time, Culligan was still a young, emerging artist, but it was already obvious that he would rise to the top of the heap — and he has, with a number of major commissions for public art now under his belt. 

At Havu, Culligan is represented by a group of his recent sculptures, including a small selection of his tabletop pieces displayed on stands and a pair of gigantic sculptures that are so big they’re more suitable for a garden — unless you happen to have a lobby that needs furnishing. All of these sculptures sport the use of an odd material that could also be described as a technique: Culligan heats up rectangular galvanized steel tubes that are closed at the ends, and then, using compressed air, he partially inflates the rectilinear tubes while the super-heated steel is pliable. The air distorts the profiles of the heat-softened steel tubes, allowing the artist to create the formal effects he wants for his sculptures.

Several of the Culligans here are from his recent “Ligature” series. In “Ligature #1,” two enormous vertical elements made of inflated steel embrace each other; the two hold a pair of carved rhyolite shapes — one placed at the bottom on one side, the other positioned at the top on the opposite side. This gives the composition a yin-yang sense of balance, even though the two halves are not direct inversions of one another, as they would be in the pure expression of that archetypal formal dialectic. “Ligature #3” is very different, comprising two rectangular stone slabs set at a diagonal and held together by an inflated stainless-steel bracket that looks like a gigantic hinge.

Upstairs is the final leg of Parallel Lines: a choice group of large paintings by Dallas artist Brad Ellis, which makes for an elegant experience. Ellis has had a long career in Texas, exhibiting his abstract paintings there and elsewhere in the West since the 1990s, but he’s fairly new to Denver. This show is his first major appearance in the Mile High City, and Havu is billing it as an “introduction.” Ellis works in encaustics, a melted-wax-and-pigment method, and the surfaces of his paintings have the characteristic sheen and depth of color that’s associated with that process. He also uses oil stick and acrylics over the encaustic layers.

This introduction to Ellis’s work gives viewers just a taste of what he’s all about, but the paintings are so promising that they beg for a more complete presentation. I was especially struck by “Elegy to the Past” and the closely related “Old Man Repertoire.” In each, Ellis arranges freely drawn forms into a mosaic or puzzle pattern, an effect heightened by his use of collage. And he brilliantly juggles the colors he uses, setting lots of black against bright reds, burnt oranges and strong blues.

Parallel Lines is a stunning show and a great opportunity to catch up with a couple of longtime local favorites, Metier and Culligan, while also checking out a visiting newcomer. But we’re sure to see more of Ellis soon.

Parallel Lines at runs through June 18 at William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday; for more information, call 303-893-2360 or go to williamhavugallery.com.

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