Ricki Klages, "Moving Day," oil on canvas.

Sex in the City

Here at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems strange that so many artists persist in their attempts to render external reality with paint and brushes. Didn't abstraction (on the one hand) and photography (on the other) vanquish the old warhorse of representational painting over a hundred years ago?

No, apparently. Not only is there a big national scene devoted to artists re-creating traditional styles of painting -- something that's of little interest to fans of contemporary art like myself -- but genuinely contemporary artists are now exploring realistic imagery. And that is interesting to me.

Whether the art is traditional or contemporary, the painterly techniques being used have changed little in the over 150 years since Manet was working; some contemporary artists rely on even older methods that date as far back as the Renaissance. So the way many realists keep their work fresh is not through technical advances, but choice of subjects. The edgier the subject, the more contemporary the painting -- even though the methods used to create it are time-tested. Proximity, a show of Peter Illig's latest figural paintings in Pirate's front gallery, makes the point that realism combined with the unexpected keeps contemporary representational painting relevant.


Proximity, Indefinite Locations, Ricki Klages and Group Show

Proximity and Indefinite Locations
Both through August 18
Pirate: a contemporary art oasis
3659 Navajo Street

Ricki Klages and Group Show
Both through August 30
Carson Masuoka Gallery
760 Santa Fe Drive

Over the past five years, Illig has exhibited his neo-pop narrative work in a variety of venues. Typically, he's shown paintings in which disparate images are juxtaposed à la James Rosenquist and his artistic heirs, such as David Salle; for example, he's painted women's faces inserted in an airplane-assembly-plant scene. Although a few paintings in this older style are included, for the most part his pieces at Pirate link separate, single-image paintings together in multipart assemblages, creating an effect similar to what he'd been doing before. Each of these new paintings features straightforward images in an easy-to-read representational style, even if the individual panels are sometimes done in different palettes, or in half-tones; he then hangs two or three works together in a tight cluster.

One such pairing, "Zip Me" and "Moving Target," is given the most prominent place in the show -- the east wall immediately inside the door -- so that the paintings are the first things viewers see after entering Pirate. They're hung so close together that they almost touch one another. "Zip Me," which hangs to the left, captures a scene right off the cover of a detective novel. On a lurid yellow ground, two figures -- a man zipping up a woman's dress -- are seen, with both posed so that they turn away from the viewer. Illig adds a mystery-novel punch to this mundane scene by including a single disturbing detail: The woman is brandishing a pistol. "Moving Target" depicts a different woman, one who's walking toward the viewer. The expression of concern on her face, her clipped gait captured midstride, and the black-and-white half-tone Illig uses all add to the sense of anxiety introduced by the gun-toting "Zip Me" woman.

In another set of paintings hung on the big south wall, Illig puts "Poet," a black-and-white half-tone painting of a man surrounded by hanging light bulbs, next to "Cubist Dream," a Technicolor shot of a woman pulling her blouse over her head, and "Oblique Reference," another black and white of a woman lying on her back. The ad hoc ménage a trois is charged with sexual energy.

Illig's paintings are redolent with a multiplicity of interpretations. But the myriad of meanings notwithstanding, there's little doubt as to his actual topic: men's sexual attraction to women.

Sex is also the subject of Irene Delka McCray's accomplished representational paintings in Indefinite Locations, installed in the associates' space at Pirate. McCray, whose artistic profile has risen in the last year or so, has a longtime connection to Colorado. She studied studio art at Colorado College and completed her BFA at Colorado State University; in the 1980s, she exhibited her paintings in prestigious venues across the state, including the Denver Art Museum. McCray left the area in the early '90s and spent most of the decade in Santa Fe, teaching at various art schools in that arty town. During that time, the Denver art world changed considerably and, until a couple of years ago, her work was almost never seen here.

In 2000, McCray returned to Colorado. She's subsequently taught painting and drawing at the University of Colorado at Denver and Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, and, as she did in the 1980s, she's frequently exhibited her work -- paintings that juxtapose life and death or age and youth.

McCray's realistic style, which seems almost an updated version of Spanish baroque, is pretty creepy. So is her subject matter. The paintings in Indefinite Locations, which constitute a series, present her heart-wrenching view of the intersection of love and death. This heavy-duty topic helps to make the paintings relentlessly difficult aesthetically, and thus utterly non-decorative -- a characteristic reinforced by the strong, dark colors she chooses and the unflattering way she renders her models. At times, it's hard to actually look at these paintings -- they're so darned disturbing.

The title of "Holding Our Dead Selves" says it all -- almost. In this painting, a past-middle-aged couple are posed sitting upright in what could be called a bed, holding their own inverted corpses. Behind the four figures is an eye-catching red cloth that's draped across a stone cliff; the red organizes and unifies the composition. "Hold On Dear Life," a similar oil, also features a red cloth in the background. This painting shows the same woman, but this time's she's hanging onto the inverted, lifeless body of her mate. Beneath him are depictions of primitive carved stiles.

Although "Holding Our Dead Selves" and "Hold On Dear Life" are large, vertical paintings with a monumental quality, McCray also shows smaller paintings that appear to be studies. These pieces feature single nude figures, either the man or the woman seen in "Holding Our Dead Selves," sometimes paired with the image of a leopard.

The Illig and McCray shows work beautifully together, with one flowing seamlessly into the next -- a rare occurrence at Pirate.

The conference room of the Carson Masuoka Gallery features the work of another contemporary representational artist in Ricki Klages: Room with a View. Klages has bounced around the West over the last twenty years. She started out studying art at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the '80s, did graduate work at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque in the early '90s and, since 1996, has taught painting at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. For the past couple of years, she's also exhibited her work in Denver.

Klages, too, is interested in sexuality, and she delves into the subject with a sense for the erotic. One of her oil paintings, "Planting," is practically soft-core porn. In the vertical composition, a seated nude woman twists into a contrapasto pose, her soft and voluptuous flesh seen hard against a brown field of crop stubble. The field and a cherry she's holding by the stem -- a cherry! -- refer back to the title.

Although "Planting" is a contemporary realist-style painting, other works by Klages, while similar in technique and even style, are clearly surrealist. These pieces are more complicated in their composition, as well as much bigger, even mural-sized. One of the larger paintings, "Moving Day," reveals a nude woman walking across an enigmatic scene that combines a Front Range landscape with interior details such as vases, curtains, a chair and a mirror. With her back turned toward the viewer, the woman pours water from a porcelain pitcher. Another woman's stern-looking, bespectacled face is reflected in the mirror. Is the severe woman Klages herself? I think so.

In "The Shining Man," another big, surrealist painting, Klages stages a strange scenario on a beach. In the foreground is a creature with the body of a nude woman and the head of a red fox, holding a white swan by the neck. In the mid-ground stands a nude man, his head aflame -- or glowing, at the very least. In both "Moving Day" and "The Shining Man," Klages manipulates the viewer by posing the figures in dynamic tableaux, creating lots of diagonal lines that have the eyes zigzagging across the surface.

It's difficult to determine what Klages's large paintings depict; at times, they seem like references to obscure myths, or even Biblical passages. But regardless of their ambiguity, many have the power to leave a lasting impression.

Klages also contributes nine small paintings, and they're exquisitely done. One set of four, including the lovely and sadly relevant "Mesa Verde Smoke Plume," depicts the landscape. The other five are gorgeous renderings of mundane household items, like a bathtub in "Clawfoot" and a door, of all things, in "Front Door." The use of thick oil glazes for these small paintings gives them the character of ceramic tiles.

Like Illig and McCray, Klages creates work that's simultaneously distinct and intensely connected. All three artists use similar traditional painting techniques to explore sexuality through the representation of the figure, whether nude or semi-clothed. Still, each has a distinct, signature style. Believe me, you could never confuse the work of one for another.

While Klages occupies the conference room, Group Show fills the main front galleries at Carson Masuoka. Nothing in this exhibit is realistic, not even the photographs. Instead, abstract and conceptual art has the floor -- and, of course, the walls.

Mark Masuoka, the gallery's director, has put together a summer show that demonstrates his ability to attract new talent. Some of the newcomers are from local campuses, including Quintín González, a UCD art professor. Gonzàlez uses digital, computer-altered images to create non-objective pattern pieces executed in light-jet prints. Up close, it's possible to see that Gonzàlez employs a wide variety of colors, but from a distance the handsome prints appear sepia in tone: a witty, if unintentional, reference to early photography.

Masuoka is always checking out the alternative spaces, and that's where he found two more artists working in photo-based mediums, the marvelous Gwen Laine and the consistently good Kelly Shroads. Group Show features a pair of Shroads's beautiful blue-dye coupler prints from the same series as those in the Force Future 2002 show at the Andenken Gallery (see Artbeat, page 64).

Also included in Group Show are pointedly decorative paintings by Amy Sloan Kirchoff, who first exhibited her work in this area last year. Taken together, these pieces record her transition from the dense, circle-covered abstracts of a few months ago into the loose, circle-covered abstracts of today. Both types are fabulous.

Sculptor and installation artist Virginia Folkestad is no newcomer to the Denver art scene, but she's fairly new to Carson Masuoka. Her pieces here are small steel sculptures formally based on seesaws. In each, a metal cylinder is topped by a metal plank resting on one of its edges; on top of that are vegetable-based forms in wire, paper pulp and wax.

After seeing all the steamy nudes in the adjacent Klages show (not to mention those unnerving ones by Illig and McCray at Pirate), the abstract photos, paintings and sculptures that dominate Group Show make for an exhibit that's very cool, indeed.


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