"Malfunction Junction (detail)," by Susan Meyer, 
"Malfunction Junction (detail)," by Susan Meyer, installation.

Serious Fun

Rule Gallery director Robin Rule has a taste for art with a less-is-more aesthetic, and she has made her place on Broadway Denver's "minimalist central." Over the years, she's showcased first-generation minimalists from New York, including Carl Andre and Mary Obering, as well as local practitioners, notably Clark Richert, the dean of geometric painters in the region. Sometimes -- though only rarely -- Rule takes a risk with an emerging local artist who is doing a contemporary take on minimalism. That's exactly what she's doing right now, with the handsome exhibit Pard Morrison: Recent Paintings and Sculptures.

The marvelous Morrison show, installed in the entry and in the main gallery, is filled with stark color-field works that blur the distinction between painting and sculpture. But even though some pieces look like paintings, they are sculptures first and foremost, because they are three-dimensional objects.

Morrison graduated from Colorado State University in 1997 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a focus in sculpture. The Rule show is Morrison's first solo in Denver, but his work has been included in a few local group shows as well as being exhibited in galleries in Chicago, New Orleans and Santa Fe. He currently lives in Colorado Springs, where he grew up.


Pard Morrison: Recent Sculpture and Paintings and James Westwater: Narrative Works and Silent Sounds and Malfunction Junction

Pard Morrison: Recent Sculpture and Paintings and James Westwater: Narrative Works
Through March 20, Rule Gallery, 111 Broadway, 303-777-9473

Silent Sounds and Malfunction Junction
Through April 3, + Zeile/Judish Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927

Morrison has written that these pieces are meant to express an imaginary conversation between minimalist masters Donald Judd and Agnes Martin. Deceased sculptor Judd was known for the use of archetypal rectilinear forms, while still-active painter Martin almost always works with the decorative possibilities of the grid. In the case of Morrison's pieces at Rule, Judd apparently has much more to say than does Martin. Morrison mounted rectangular boxes to the walls, creating graphic compositions that function visually as paintings -- something Judd famously did. But there isn't a grid in sight.

The show begins immediately inside the entrance to the gallery. Hung on the wall facing the street is a triptych, "BGB (R.11.0.4)," made of patinated aluminum. (The pseudo-scientific title is something Morrison often does.) "BGB" is very beautiful and fully lays out Morrison's program; it exemplifies everything else he displays in this show.

For this piece, Morrison lined up three identical flat, oblong, box-like shapes, which he fabricated from aluminum and patinated by repeatedly baking the finishes. He colored the boxes in monochromes -- the end two are a gorgeous blue and the center box is green -- and hung them vertically with a little bit of wall showing through to create a horizontal rectangle. The colors are uneven and make the surfaces look painterly, which creates a successful visual tension, because this poetic quality is seemingly at odds with the more prosaic industrial appearance of the boxes themselves.

Morrison's idea of assembling boxes is a simple one, but he gives it a workout by creating a variety of different expressions within this limited framework. For example, on the opposite side of the wall from "BGB" is "LR (R.5.0.4)," one of the most experimental of the variations on his theme. For this piece, Morrison leaned five tall, thin boxes against the wall at a slight diagonal, creating space behind them. The diagonal orientation effortlessly breaks the mold of the rigidly horizontal-versus-vertical orientation of everything else. Although this piece is one of the most clearly sculptural in the show, it's also the one with the most painterly surfaces. The handling of the patination on "LR" is distinct -- the centers of the boxes are done in red, surrounded by an expressive border of black along the edges.

Another piece that is clearly sculptural is "LP (R.4.04)." In fact, it's the most sculptural because it's the only Morrison here that is freestanding. "LP" is made up of five tall, narrow vertical boxes placed up on end so that they look like nothing other than a row of fence posts -- and I mean that as a compliment.

I loved Pard Morrison: Recent Sculpture and Paintings. Morrison's obvious skill and aesthetic consistency are remarkable. But you know what the neatest part is? Until Rule gave him this opportunity, almost no one had ever heard of him. I know I hadn't.

Paired with Morrison is James Westwater: Narrative Works, a small, informal show in the small, informal back Viewing Room. Westwater is an English-born New Mexico artist who has shown his work widely in this country during the past decade, especially in the West. He came to the attention of Colorado art audiences through his inclusion in an exhibit at the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Unlike Morrison, Westwater is not a neo-minimalist; rather, his intriguing, intelligent and sometimes funny paintings are post-minimal, critiquing minimalism through an extension into conceptualism and into virtual parody.

The tamest of the pieces in this show has the bawdy-sounding title of "Jack in the Bathtub." It is a triptych composed of three wood-grain laminate panels, each adorned with painted oval shapes, which Westwater views as being suggestive of pills. The flat ovals of paint against the richness of the faux depth of the faux graining gives "Jack" a superficially minimalist appearance. But appearances are deceiving. Since Westwater annexed the pictorial value of the fake wood, the composition and the conceptual content is baroque and not as austere as it first appears.

The same kind of added value via found imagery is pushed to the forefront in the other Westwaters. For these, the artist has used found thrift-shop paintings and prints as the ground on which he applies his signature "pill" shapes. In "Plaid Lady," Westwater attached a piece of plaid fabric cut into his characteristic shape to the center of a found painting of a woman. In "Pollen Count," Westwater took a 1950s paint-by-numbers oil painting, covered it with a three-by-three grid of the "pills" painted in acrylics, and then hung it sideways.

The small James Westwater: Narrative Works gives just a little taste of what this artist must be all about. Here's hoping a proper solo dedicated to his clever blend of antithetical pictorial concerns will soon be in the offing.

Minimalism isn't the only mid-twentieth-century art style to get a second wind in the early 21st. Others include abstract expressionism, figural abstraction and, as is illustrated by the two shows now at + Zeile/Judish Gallery, pop art. Silent Sounds, an exhibit of image-based abstract paintings, is very neo-pop; Malfunction Junction, a conceptual installation based on pop culture, is pretty post-pop.

Silent Sounds, in the front of the gallery, is a group of mixed-media paintings by Stefan Knorr that were done with offset lithographs, acrylic and pigment laid down on canvas. Knorr is a Seattle artist who has been exhibiting his work nationally since the late 1980s. His paintings are crowded with recognizable images of figures and objects rendered with photographic accuracy. That the imagery has been partly painted out only heightens this photographic quality, which makes me think of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, a pioneer of the American pop-art movement. But Knorr's taste for bucolic subjects also lends his paintings a touch of 1930s-style regionalism.

In the large gallery in the center is Malfunction Junction, by Susan Meyer, who's been showing her work in Denver since she got here in the mid-1990s. Before that, she earned her undergraduate degree at New York's Skidmore College and her Master of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston. Meyer is best known for her installations, and she's exhibited work of this type in art venues from coast to coast.

Malfunction Junction fully occupies the space it's in and completely generates its own total atmosphere and all-enveloping mood. In the middle of the room is a model of a roller-coaster trestle fragment. It's made of wood that has been painted a semi-gloss silver color reminiscent of aluminum. It's a lot smaller than a real roller coaster, but it's still pretty big, as sculptures go. The roller coaster doesn't have a track, but it does have lightbulbs where the track would be found. These lights flash in sequence, suggesting the movement ordinarily associated with the ride. The trestle fragment terminates in a wall covered with shattered shapes in black depicting a traffic accident, and on top of this pattern are more working bulbs.

As viewers enter the gallery, an electric eye triggers both the lights and a soundtrack of rock music and random noises. The hard-driving music and incessant noise are perfect aural corollaries to the visual and narrative intensity of something like a roller coaster. The rock music is also right on, considering that the installation is named for a now-closed legendary Denver club that was called, of all things, Malfunction Junction.

Meyer has put together a very poetic artist's statement that is as dead serious as the piece is whimsical. According to Meyer, the installation is based on the fact that we now live in "fissured social, political and aesthetic times," and the roller-coaster analogy is used to suggest the inevitability of "uncertainty and potential calamity" in such a situation. Furthermore, Meyer views the piece as being representative of what she calls "a carnival for the dispossessed." It all sounds kind of depressing, doesn't it?

Meyer does not see the piece as being about her personal life, but about our society in general. However, it's impossible to deny that her vision of human existence as a roller-coaster ride is a highly personal take on the matter. For example, my own life has been more like a merry-go-round. The roller coaster metaphorically represents the extreme ups and downs of certain life experiences. It symbolizes everyone's highs and lows, but it must also be referring to Meyer's own life, or she wouldn't have come up with the analogy in the first place.

Malfunction Junction is the best installation show I've seen in Denver in years. Bravo to + Zeile/Judish Gallery for giving this kind of difficult work -- which has no chance of being sold -- the space and time it deserves.


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