Well, it's that time of year again--late summer, when the art world, which is centered in New York, essentially shuts down, with many galleries actually closing for the entire month of August. This hiatus is a response to the stifling heat and high humidity that engulfs the East Coast this time of year. In fact, the exhibition season back East coincides with the academic year, beginning in the fall and ending in the spring, which leaves summer open for vacations. Everyone's off to the Hamptons, or even to wilds of the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
But in Denver, with its summertime tourists (among them vacationing New Yorkers) and its more temperate weather, the city's galleries keep those track lights glowing all through the month. And rather than representing a break in the exhibition schedule, August is often a time for shows that are some of the season's most notable.
A summer standard among the ever-changing roster of Denver's commercial galleries over the past twenty years has been the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink type of group show. These displays are typically made up of works pulled from on-site storage by artists in a gallery's stable. The results are often unwieldy. But because the exhibits include many different artists working in a wide array of styles under one big tent, viewers are often provided with more than just a glimpse of a chosen gallery's aesthetic philosophy.
Surely it's this type of insight that may be garnered from a pair of group shows now at two of Denver's top galleries. At the William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, there's Landscape x 7 + 2 Upstairs & 3 Outside. At LoDo's Ron Judish Fine Arts, it's Summer Stock.
The title of the Havu show is descriptive. Bill Havu, director of his namesake gallery, has organized Landscape as three shows in one. On the main floor, seven landscape painters are featured; on the mezzanine, there are the works of two still-life painters; outside, in the nascent sculpture garden behind the gallery, three sculptors are shown.
The neat and tidy organization of the exhibit is violated at the entrance, however, where Havu has unfortunately placed a teaser for the upstairs still-life section just to the right of the front door. Ignore this for the time being and proceed to the left, where there are a handful of vibrant landscapes by Boulder painter David Foley.
Like many regional contemporary artists, Foley looks to Colorado's unique and majestic landscape for inspiration and subject matter. But unlike any of his peers, Foley creates credible and easy-to-recognize representational images by the controlled flinging of paint at the canvas à la Jackson Pollock. This imaginative combination of traditional and modern elements is as visually successful as it is thought-provoking.
"Winter's Emanation," an acrylic on canvas, is a close-up look at an aspen grove covered in a light dusting of snow. The expressively painted scene, a riotous field of paint drips and dollops, seems to be a perfect metaphor for the real experience of a carpet of leaves showing through the carpet of snow. Interestingly, Foley uses unexpected colors to play tricks with our optic nerves. To create the overall tones recorded by our eyes, Foley adds specks of unexpected shades that we somehow barely notice. The most striking of these is fire-engine red, a color that wouldn't be seen in nature's palette. Up close, the use of red as a fool-the-eye device is clearly visible in "Autumn Altitude," but just a few feet away, the red disappears and does its duty by sharpening the contrast of the chiefly white and yellow color scheme. Like "Winter's Emanation," "Autumn Altitude" depicts an aspen grove--in this case, in its golden glory in the fall.
Another artist in this show, Californian Peter Holbrook, also creates paintings that look markedly different close up than they do from a short distance. Under intimate examination, Holbrook's surfaces in oil on canvas, such as "Into Bridge Canyon-Bryce" or "Road to Grosvenor Ranch," are lively with smears, squiggles and scribbles. But from a few steps back, his Western mountain scenes fall into view in a kind of hyper-realism, with an almost photographic attention to the particulars of the pictures.
Greg Navratil, a Denver-area artist, also combines a painterly attitude with an interest in conveying a realistic subject. In the back, under the mezzanine, is a wonderful Navratil, an acrylic on canvas called "Rim at Dawn," whose subject is a Colorado cliff at sunrise. The red sandstone walls of the cliff are rendered with thick applications of pigment that look as though they had been done with a knife or a stick instead of a brush. And his palette! Navratil's paintings almost appear to be plugged in and backlighted, they're so luminous.
Bruce Cody, who used to live in the area but now lives in New Mexico, is another standout. His oil paintings, done while Cody was still in Colorado, are charming photo-realistic cityscapes. "West Side Sunday" records the deserted sidewalk in front of the old Oriental Theater on 38th Avenue. "Lodo Ghost" shows a LoDo grain-storage building that burned down shortly after Cody painted it. Originally, the title referred to the fact that the building was abandoned, but it's even more apt now that the place is gone.
Upstairs is the second portion of the show, still-life paintings by Jennifer Azadmanesh and Roberto Azank. Azadmanesh takes a neo-expressionist approach to loosely painted and brightly colored tabletop scenes of fruit and vegetables. Azank's paintings, of bottles, glasses and flowers, couldn't be more different. The New York artist, who was born in Argentina, meticulously renders spare lineups of objects set against two color fields that define the illusionary space. Azank is brand-new to the gallery and to Denver audiences.
Back downstairs, Havu has scattered abstract sculptures throughout the landscape section of the show. These pieces are related to those on display in the sculpture garden, which may be entered through the gallery's back door. These two groups make up the final section of the exhibit.
Respected Colorado Springs-based sculptor Bill Burgess is represented by a handful of pieces both inside and out. "Untitled" is basically a hoop of solid steel set on a simple steel T-bar and adorned with abstract steel decorations. The whole thing, which is displayed on a stand, is finished in a handsome, rich brown patina, the result of induced rusting. Outside in the courtyard is another circular rusted-steel Burgess sculpture, "Opus 1." Using thick square tubes of metal, Burgess creates a curlicue set on a pyramidal base.
A revelation of the Havu show is Vernon Gross, a modernist sculptor from St. Louis who is new to the gallery. Like Burgess, Gross is seen both in the gallery and al fresco. Outside, along the garage wall of the Grand Cherokee Lofts building--and greatly relieving its monolithic quality--are two Gross sculptures made of a composite called silicon bronze, both finished in a delicious icy-green patina. These abstract spikes from the "Fasces" series are vaguely figural in character--or at least totemic.
There are also a few sculptures in the courtyard by Boulder's Jerry Wingren. "Window Rock," made of black Virginia soapstone, is the best of the lot. Havu's sculpture garden, a great amenity for the Grand Cherokee Lofts, is just now coming along, but it's already apparent that it needs more and larger pieces to pleasingly fill up the ample space.
Though Havu has basically laid out a catalogue of the gallery's holdings, he has also attempted to work with themes. That's not what Ron Judish does with his group show. In Summer Stock, at Ron Judish Fine Arts, director Judish lays out the wide parameters of the gallery's artistic program; there are sculptors, painters and photographers working on a variety of unrelated topics in a range of unrelated contemporary styles. As usual, Judish has looked at every detail, including show tunes on the sound system, just what we'd expect at a show called Summer Stock.
The exhibit kicks off with a ceramic sculpture displayed in the window. Barbara Sorensen's "Pinnacles," from 1998, is a large pair of stoneware cones encrusted with gravel. The cones look both like mountaintops and like a woman's breasts. Sorensen spends part of the year in Snowmass and has been associated with the famous Anderson Ranch Art Center located there.
Dominating our view as we enter the gallery is Steve Batura's "Flutterer," a casein-on-panel painting from 1996. "Flutterer" is a portrait of an antique European jacket and is mostly a monochrome in shades of blue. It dates from a period during which Batura found inspiration in old book illustrations of costumes. Across from the Batura and just to the left of the front door are four tiny acrylic-on-paper paintings done by Bill Stockman in 1999, showing small figures in cryptic scenarios. For "Egg," Stockman assembles a nude, an egg and an umbilical cord. In "Ramp," it's a dog and a skeletal tower that has fallen. Stockman's idiosyncratic work may be superficially linked to Batura's, at least by the fact that both artists are former members of the Pirate co-op.
Very different from the nominally representational styles of Batura and Stockman is the abstraction of Louisville artist Michael Criswell. Criswell's "Icarus" is an oil-on-canvas diptych; across the middle of both panels is a pair of oval shapes in a vibrant red, evocative of Icarus's wax wings. Connected to one another by an inverted figure--Icarus himself--the red forms are set in front of a flaming yellow field, suggestive of the sun, where the mythological Icarus tried to fly.
In the center room is a gorgeous photo by the late and infamous Robert Mapplethorpe. As he has before, Judish catches Mapplethorpe, who is best remembered for his in-your-face male nudes, in a more lyrical mood. "Poppy," a 1988 gelatin silver print, is a portrait of a white flower against a rich black background. Hung next to the Mapplethorpe are two pieces that pay homage to the master: Kevin O'Connell's pair of platinum/palladium prints of blossoms, "Dying Hibiscus #2" and "Dying Hibiscus #3." O'Connell lives in Denver.
Across the room are a pair of David Sharpe's signature photo manipulations, in which he creates unique images in black-and-white silver prints using primitive cameras. The Denver photographer's subject is the landscape, but as a result of assembling multiple shots, the pieces are nearly abstract.
In the center of the back gallery is a floor sculpture by Denver's energetic Emmett Culligan. The untitled piece is made of steel, pine and river rock. The beautifully finished steel rod, which is mounted on a square base, holds a pine ice-cream cone topped by the river rock, which looks like a scoop of ice cream.
Behind the Culligan are a pair of spectacular John Hull acrylic-on-canvas paintings. Hull, who lives south of Denver after many years back East, is interested in capturing the psychological tension of dangerous interactions. In this year's "Anvil of Despair," a shirtless man, his back to us, is being confronted by a cop with his gun drawn. The setting is a backcountry gas station at night, with the figure of a lonely stray dog in the foreground adding a particularly poignant touch. In "Where the Sidewalk Ends," a young woman is about to be assaulted. Hull's meticulous technique, reminiscent of the old masters', is a striking counterpoint to the criminal elements that are his chief subjects.
Judish has pushed the show to the limits of his gallery, extending it into a conference room and the office. In these elegant, if tight, spaces are several interesting things, including a dozen of Evan Colbert's paint-chip compositions titled "12 Colors." The Denver artist uses acrylic and ink on wood to create small panels that pair a color field with a printed name for each shade. Also found here is a 1996 oil painting encrusted with Austrian crystals by Boulder artist Kay Miller; Judish has just signed Miller as one of the gallery's regulars.
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Surely there are some who will think that the two exhibits are copouts because they've been put together out of each gallery's closets and back rooms. But it hardly matters where the stuff came from when the strength of both shows is that they expose us to the varied work of so many different contemporary artists.
Landscape x 7 + 2 Upstairs & 3 Outside, through August 21 at the William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360.
Summer Stock, through September 4 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5556.