"The Sicilian," by Amy Metier, oil on canvas.
"The Sicilian," by Amy Metier, oil on canvas.

Smear Factor

I think it's easy to comprehend why artists have been so taken with the ethos of abstract expressionism. As the late philosopher king Andy Warhol once noted, it's easier to be sloppy than it is to be neat.

Well, that explains abstract expressionism's appeal to painters, but not why it's been so successful with viewers and collectors. However, I think the answer to that is equally simple: Abstract expressionism is painting about paint. It is a clearly stated yet open-ended program with an intellectual elegance that all but guarantees the success of the formula -- if the artist is up to the challenge of putting it into practice.

Generally speaking, all paintings are an arrangement of pigments on a two-dimensional surface. Abstract expressionism plays with this idea from a variety of angles with an almost limitless array of individual interpretations. This makes it not so much a style as a sensibility. Using that sensibility, hundreds of artists have gone to the aesthetic well and come up with a seemingly infinite supply of first-class creativity.


Amy Metier: Solo Exhibition and Alden Mason, Kimberlee Sullivan and Lorey Hobbs

Amy Metier: Solo Exhibition
Through June 18, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360

Alden Mason, Kimberlee Sullivan and Lorey Hobbs
Through July 6, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

The history of the movement goes back to the early twentieth century, when Wassily Kandinsky invented the method in Europe. It didn't really take hold of the art world's imagination though, until painters in New York and across the United States picked up the style in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Interest in abstract expressionism has hardly waned since then. In fact, just a few weeks ago, more than thirty drip paintings were discovered in a storage locker. The reason that find made international news is the possibility that these works could have been done by the patron saint of abstract expressionism, Jackson Pollock.

The movement has been going strong for the more than fifty years since its golden age, and it's strange to consider that this kind of work still passes for contemporary. Not only that, but abstract expressionism is going through somewhat of a renaissance right now, being picked up by many younger artists. I'm sure the present interest in new painting coming out of old modern is simply part and parcel of our culture's broadly felt reflective mood. Everything, not only paintings, is an updated reinterpretation of something from the past. Think of the new Mustang -- or the new urbanism, for that matter. Hey, what are you going to do? The circumstance is immutable. So I guess we're all just going to have to accept the fact that revivalism has completely replaced innovation in contemporary art -- even in the over-the-top realm of conceptual art, which looks so 1970s.

Don't get me wrong -- it's not all bad. The classic modern period was really something, and artists could do worse in choosing to respond to something. One good thing about the revivalist mood is how great -- and nostalgia-free -- a lot of the neo-modern stuff looks. That is good news because a descent into sentimentality would completely rob the neo-modern urge of its credibility, the same way it did with new versions of traditional art, à la Thomas Kinkade.

There's still a lot of tread left on abstract expressionism, as is evidenced by several great exhibits in town.

There's been tons of positive buzz surrounding Amy Metier: Solo Exhibition, which takes over the entire first floor at William Havu Gallery. It's a gorgeous show that fits in well with this discussion about the continuing appeal of abstract expressionism. Metier is no Janie-come-lately to the sensibility; she's been doing paintings related to abstract expressionism since she was a student in the '70s.

Metier graduated from Colorado State University in 1975 and got her MFA at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1979. When she entered graduate school, she moved to Boulder, where she still lives. In the 1980s, she taught art at a variety of institutions, including Regis University and Metropolitan State College of Denver. In 1990, she was hired as a professor at the Community College of Denver, and she's remained there ever since.

Well known in the area, Metier has exhibited in top Denver galleries since the early 1980s. She was represented by Sullivan Bisenius Gallery, and later by Inkfish Gallery, both of which were important venues in their day. For the past five years or so, her work has been displayed at Havu.

I first saw Metier's work fifteen years ago, and she was already doing pieces with a whiff of abstract expressionism to them. But there were other abstract influences there, too, notably those of cubism and futurism. Adding structural elements to her compositions is in line with these modern styles but defies the flatness inherent in abstract expressionism.

This relationship to early modernism is still in her work; it's best seen in the preliminary studies displayed under the mezzanine, some of which look absolutely Picassoid. These drawings, like "Spring Series 8," a medley of blocky smears in red and ochre, come up at the end of the show, but I'm mentioning them first because they are the first thing Metier does when addressing a new painting. I especially liked the way she drew linear frames around the edges of the paper in these drawings. The casually drawn lines become part of the formal arrangements of the drawings, but they don't appear in the final works because they are simply meant to convey the margins of the paintings.

Even without these drawn frames, the paintings have plenty of linear elements, in some cases suggesting architectural views, as in "The Sicilian," which may be a view of a village in Sicily. Then again, maybe not, as the picture also has an automatist, non-objective quality. All of the Metier paintings in the show have the suggestion of recognizable subjects underneath -- a still life, a landscape, something -- yet it's impossible to make out what they are.

Among Metier's many strengths is her spot-on sense of color. Each painting features a lyrically compatible palette, usually in sunny tones of yellow, orange, blue and pink. There are a couple of instances in this show where the artist does dark, moody paintings. First among them is "Mouse Trap," in creamy grays and rich blacks that have been accented by white and umber.

Metier is apparently one of the top abstract painters in Colorado and has been for a long time. And not only has there been great word of mouth about this show, there's been a lot of market interest: Most of the paintings sold in the first two weeks. Metier is proof that a little abstract expressionism can go a long way.

Paintings that relate in one way or another to abstract expressionism have also taken over the Sandy Carson Gallery, where there are three worthwhile solos: Alden Mason, Kimberlee Sullivan and Lorey Hobbs.

Alden Mason is one of the most famous living artists in the Northwest. At 86 years, he's old enough to have been an original abstract expressionist. As it turns out, he first became famous with stained color-field abstractions, sometimes called second-generation abstract expressionism.

The Mason work at Sandy Carson, which is installed in the back gallery, is not of this stained type, but instead represents two more recent phases of his oeuvre. First are paintings, such as "Shuttlecock," that are done with acrylic applied with squeeze bottles -- like the ones ketchup comes in at a diner. The painting, which is gorgeous, is covered in thousands of shiny spurts of paint. Second are his most recent pieces, done earlier this year, in oil sticks and watercolors on paper. In these paintings, such as, "Elephant Song," Mason creates a dark and crowded scene of people and animals, featuring, in particular, the elephant mentioned in the title.

In the space beyond the information desk is the Kimberlee Sullivan solo, which comprises small untitled paintings on wood from the Denver artist's "The Green Cell Series." Sullivan translates the simple shape of cells seen under a microscope into decorative patterns that have an abstract-surrealist quality, and that style is the immediate ancestor of abstract expressionism. The patterns are all done in various complementary shades of green, lending the show a marvelous sense of unity.

Up front is the solo dedicated to emerging artist Lorey Hobbs. I call Hobbs an emerging artist because she only recently graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver and entered CU's graduate program in Boulder. But she's not a twenty-something, as might be expected; she's a middle-aged woman.

The paintings at Sandy Carson are so thick with paint that Hobbs must have put it on with a trowel. The pieces, such as "California Dreamin'," appear to be completely non-objective exercises in abstract expressionism, with heavy blobs of red, brown and black paint laid on everywhere, but believe it or not, the two paintings -- and all of the paintings by Hobbs -- are actually landscapes.

Taking trips to the countryside, Hobbs sketches scenes of grasses, trees and other natural features. The drawings are then divided into grids, and the imagery in each square is carried over to the paintings, one square at a time -- though surely with lots of over-painting at the end. The details of the landscapes determine the specific composition of the paintings. In one case, the drawing "Study for Guardians" was hung next to the piece that came out of it, "Guardians." But even with the advantage of this pairing, it's impossible to see the landscape. Sure, you can do a point-by-point comparison of the specific compositional components, but you still can't see the forest for the paint. And that's just fine by me.

Hobbs has been exhibiting for the past few years, and I'd seen her work before at funky venues like Pirate, but it wasn't until this wonderful show that I realized how very good she is. It might be too soon to call her one of the region's top abstract painters, but I routinely throw caution to the wind, so that's exactly what I'm going to do.


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