For a slide show of these exhibits, go to slideshow.westword.com.
Nationally known San Francisco artist Rex Ray has had a long relationship with Colorado, where he spent part of his youth, and he still has many friends here. I've known him since I was in graduate school and have always marveled at his tremendous talent and his capacity to endlessly draw on his formidable creativity. In addition to fine art, however, Ray has worked as a graphic designer, and his rock posters are legendary. (Not surprisingly, Denver Art Museum graphics curator Darrin Alfred has been talking with the artist about acquiring some for the DAM's permanent collection.) But it's Ray's fine art that is the subject of two shows that opened last month in Denver.
One of those is at MCA Denver, where a Ray mural has been hung on a wall covered in compatible artist-designed wallpaper. This installation is on view in the Promenade Space on the second floor. Too bad it will eventually come down, because it looks absolutely perfect there. The other show, Rex Ray, at T gallery, comprises a wide assortment of his signature mixed-media paintings on board. For this beautiful show, Ray has created pieces in an array of sizes, from intimate — even tiny — to impressively large, all of which are closely associated stylistically and in terms of technique to his enormous MCA mural.
The exhibit is in the handsome south room, and as visitors enter the gallery, they are confronted with three large paintings hanging to their right. Each one measures over six feet tall and reveals the many visual sources that Ray assembles — often decorative items, from vases to clocks — all having a mid-century-modern feeling.
The first is "Erioderma," in oil, acrylic and mixed media on linen. Though the title may sound made up, it is actually a kind of endangered lichen. Ray has constructed a complicated acidy-yellow-green ground on top of which are a series of forms that rise from the bottom to the top in the manner of a still life; the abstract shapes are evocative of flowers and of hourglasses. Ray is a brilliant colorist, and these forms are done in carefully orchestrated tones. Especially nice are the inverted-teardrop shapes in orange, yellow, violet and purple against an airy cluster of yellow circles and partial circles.
Pushing the floral references even further is "Lasalia," in which Ray has stacked circular forms that recall blooms, some of which are partially transparent and rendered only as outlines, thus revealing the shapes behind them. Some of those shapes have linear structures like Ferris wheels, with inverted hyperbolic arches that recall necklaces or chains attached to the center. It's dazzlingly complicated and vividly hued, with the largest of the circular shapes in red set against a luxuriously dark ground that's not quite black.
The last of the three in this group, "Alectoria," is also the most complicated, from a compositional standpoint. This painting refers more to the still-life tradition than the others and really conveys the impression of a group of art-glass vases with flowers in them arrayed across a surface.
The show at T includes two other large paintings: "Lentoria," hung near the gallery's entrance, and "Thelidium," back in the office. As vibrantly colored as the other three are, these two are quietly shaded, mostly with soft blues and greens.
Finishing off the show are dozens of smaller, easel-sized works hung in an installation on the wall opposite the trio of big paintings. These smaller pieces tend to take single, specific effects seen in the larger works for their compositions. This makes them technically simpler, but since they are smaller, they wind up being as filled with visual interest as the major pieces.
Paired with Rex Ray is another solo, Matt O'Neill, which is devoted to recent paintings by another artist I've known for many years. O'Neill has never established a signature style, because he has relentlessly embraced one manner after another. The show at T clearly illustrates this by including two different bodies of work that are seemingly antithetical to one another. Displayed in the center space is a group of linear abstractions that recall classic '50s abstract expressionism; opposite them is a group of crisply painted female nudes that have a photo-realist quality.
The abstracts, in mixed media on linen, are formally complicated but stripped down in terms of color, dominated by quiet earth-tone shades. The surfaces are rough and scabrous, paying homage to their sources in abstract expressionism. In "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves (Girl With Guitar)," O'Neill has created a ground formed of large angular shapes in brown, ivory and cream, on top of which he has laid in a maze of dark lines. If you look closely enough, you can see the vaguely cubist outline of the guitar of the subtitle, but the girl herself is harder to see. Even though this sort of abstraction is thoroughly highbrow, the title — a reference to one of Cher's hit singles — brings in O'Neill's beloved lowbrow sensibility. The other abstracts, "Little Wire Connectors" and "Nude on a Bicycle," are closely associated with "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," having similar compositions and almost identical palettes.
The realistic nudes couldn't be more different, and if I weren't so familiar with O'Neill's all-over-the-field approach, I wouldn't have believed they'd been done by the same artist. These paintings do not have any kind of high-culture pretensions, having been inspired by cheesy 1970s girly-magazine pictures. The voluptuous women, depicted with their breasts exposed, have been expertly rendered and look like the photos on which they are based. In "The Music Lover," a buxom young woman wears theatrical makeup and holds a guitar. The most intriguing of the group, "The Art Lover," attempts to reconcile the two distinct types of work by placing the woman in the foreground, with a facsimile of one of the abstracts in the background.
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T gallery director Judish told me he was surprised at how much interest there has been in O'Neill's abstracts versus the figure studies. This is simply the current turn of events in the art world, as revealed by the national magazines: It's clear the pendulum has swung so that abstraction is back on the front burner in contemporary art.
Down a couple of blocks from T is van Straaten Gallery, where there's Misch Kohn: Historic Prints, a compelling show that reconciles abstraction and figuration. Kohn, who was active from the 1930s until 2003, when he died, came of artistic age in Chicago but spent a good deal of his career in California. He was chiefly known for his gorgeous prints. This may lead some to believe — as I initially did — that he was associated with Riverhouse Editions, a fine-printmaking facility in Steamboat Springs, which is run by Bill and Jan van Straaten, who also own this gallery. But these prints were not pulled at Riverhouse; they came to the gallery through the personal connections forged by its director, William Biety.
Kohn's style is very mid-century and involves elegant spontaneous scribbles that form impressions of animals or people. In the gorgeous "Lion," from 1957, Kohn lays in a densely composed collection of fine lines that look as though they were done instinctually and very quickly. They convey the king of beasts in mid-roar. Kohn's more-is-more method is really effective; at times, as in 1961's "Processional," the subject matter is overwhelmed by the riot of lines that he uses and it reads as a pure abstraction — as opposed to a representational image, which underneath it all, it actually is.
Santa Fe Drive is the city's prime art district, with T gallery and van Straaten being the two most important spots. With abstractions and figural paintings at T and hybrids of the two poles at van Straaten, there's something to intrigue everyone.