It's hard to believe, but it was only about five years ago that Denver painter Bruce Price first made a splash with his distinctive post-minimalist paintings. In Painting in the Age of Transparency, one of three exhibits at Ron Judish Fine Arts, Price shows off his latest batch of elaborate, eye-popping works.
All of the compositions are the same size -- forty by forty-five inches -- but some are hung horizontally and others vertically. "Forty by forty-five is a root-five rectangle," Price says, explaining that the mathematically derived shape is "a part of the canon of Western civilization." In art, the use of the root-five rectangle goes back to the ancient Greeks; the shape has long been considered aesthetically pleasing.
If Price's interest in mathematics reminds you of Clark Richert, whose own solo is across town at the Rule Gallery, you're on the right track. Price is a former student of Richert's and is the best established of the elder artist's many protegés. But Price is quick to point out that his interest in math as it relates to art goes back to his childhood.
Price was born in Kansas in 1958 and raised in Indiana. As a teenager, he became seriously interested in classical music and studied at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Eventually he began playing the viola professionally in small, Midwestern orchestras. "Almost no one knows about this part of my past, but for a long time, music was the only thing I was interested in," Price says. "Even today it's an important source for me. Music is mathematical -- it's repetitive. Written music is a pattern, and I think my early interest in music relates directly to my work as a painter now."
In the 1980s and early '90s, Price, who was living in Dallas, lost interest in music and did what so many in the performing arts have done -- he worked as a waiter. In his early thirties, he decided to study painting, first at Richland College in Dallas and later at Denver's Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he met Richert.
And the rest, as they say, is art history.
The show at Judish begins in the back of the first gallery. The stunning and densely composed "Everything Happens All the Time" is the first thing people see. It's an acrylic on canvas hung vertically on the back wall. The piece is aptly named, because in spite of the rigid horizontals and verticals that Price uses exclusively, there's a lot going on. I suppose it's this attribute that makes Price a more-is-not-enough post-minimalist rather than a less-is-more neo-minimalist.
The painting is obviously based on a grid, but by putting rectangles one over another asymmetrically, Price denies the ordered regularity of an ordinary grid. Among the most remarkable features of "Everything Happens" is the bold color scheme. There's a lot of an earthy, orangey brown, which looks pretty edgy with the rich powder blue, the other principal tone. Used more sparingly is a fabulous black, and, as accents, a group of tasty Necco wafer pastel shades, including pink, yellow and chartreuse. They look mighty intense against the predominating brown and blue.
"I think that teaching has really helped me in regard to color," says Price, an art-theory-and-practice teacher at the Community College of Denver. "Teaching color theory has made me more and more interested in the relationship of colors to one another and the effects that can be achieved."
Although Price can point out places in "Everything Happens" where there are visible, yet transparent, layers of glaze laid over the pigments, it's in the other paintings that the transparency is more obvious. By alternating clear and opaque passages, Price constructs luscious surfaces -- perhaps his key difference from mentor Richert.
But the use of such techniques is only one of a number of meanings implied by the exhibit's title, Price says. "It has to do with the way people interact, with the way motives are revealed."
Both meanings are shown off in "Surface Sociology #1," which is very different from "Everything Happens." For one thing, it's hung horizontally and is organized by a series of horizontal bars. For another, it sports diagonal lines. There are also bona fide gestures in the form of scribbled lines done in colored pencil. Both things are unexpected from Price, whose signature is ruler-drawn hard, straight lines reinforced by his use of masking tape. But Price says "the scribbles form a kind of pattern, too -- it's just that the scribbles are arranged in a random pattern."
Another feature of "Surface" is the application of soil -- or "dirt" as Price characterizes it. The brown horizontal bars that cover the painting are done with a dark-brown earth mixed with medium and sealed with multiple coats of glaze. This particular substance comes from South Dakota and was brought to Price, at his request, by his parents. Other paintings in the show are partly colored with various powdered soils given to Price by other family members and friends. One batch even came from Price's own backyard. In a sense, the dirt adds not only a textural component to the paintings but a narrative element, because it was gathered by Price and those close to him.
Sometimes it seems as though Price sets up standards only to violate them. For instance, although his paintings have always been totally flat, Price violates this flatness with the use of the transparent layers that push parts of his paintings back into space. But even then, the planes of his creations remain in line with the planes of the walls.
An even greater violation of Price's ethos of flatness is found in two paintings where there's actually the illusion of three-dimensional space. This effect is seen in both "In the Full of the Bloom" and "Large Form on Slick Surface." In these pieces, single large rectangles obscure underlying patterns -- a green-and-white checkerboard in "Bloom" and red-and-yellow bars in "Slick Surface." The rectangles appear to recede into space, creating a tension in relation to the utterly flat underlying patterns.
The eight paintings in this show are connected to one another more conceptually than visually. It's ironic then that Price says he's not interested in conceptual art. "I'm an object maker, a painter," he insists, "and I have consciously chosen not to be a conceptual artist."
Post-minimalist painting, along with modern sculpture, is also seen in 32/26 at Andenken Gallery. The exhibit introduces two newcomers, painter Karen McClanahan and sculptor Jonathan Stiles. The show's odd title is a play on a lyric by the punk-rock group the Violent Femmes, but more particularly, it refers to the artists' ages: McClanahan is 32, and Stiles in 26. Both recently relocated to Denver -- McClanahan from Arizona and Stiles from California via Washington State.
McClanahan's paintings are all closely associated with one another, representing a unified body of work that's been created over the last year. In both the small oil studies and the larger acrylic canvases, McClanahan juxtaposes organic abstract forms with hard-edged, straight-lined compositions.
In "Systemic Division," the first painting in the series, done last December, McClanahan divides the large, vertical panel into three areas defined by lines. Across the bottom is a wide horizontal rectangle; across the top are two different-sized vertical rectangles. Partly within these sections and partly crossing them are color fields, red on the bottom, beige and blue-green on the top. These color fields have sinuous margins evocative of the human shape. This combination of geometry and the figure is McClanahan's great innovation in these paintings.
"I have notebooks full of figure studies," says McClanahan, "and that's where the forms in the paintings come from. A lot of them are based on parts of a figure, or even the shadows the figure casts."
McClanahan uses only a handful of colors for each painting, but her sense for balancing shades is nearly perfect. She employs red generously, but she also uses a lot of black, typically for the straight lines and only rarely for the color fields. An exception is "Shmo (for C.R.)," in which a luxuriant purple field is juxtaposed with an even more lavish black one. The C.R. is meant to pay homage to McClanahan's mentor and former teacher -- none other than Clark Richert.
An important attribute of these paintings is the pristine surface that's the result of the artist's scrupulous technique. The edges between the colors are as crisp and clean as possible. In some of the color fields, there's a monochrome effect, which on closer examination reveals that multiple colors, in nearly identical shades, have been used. McClanahan thinks of these understated elements as being secret passages in her paintings.
Sculptor Stiles is also interested in sublety and secrets. In "Fissure," for example, he points out that the all-but-invisible underside is painted blue. "You can't see it directly, but it creates a blue glow under the piece," he says.
"Fissure," which is very good, sort of looks like a flying shovel. Hung at a diagonal from the ceiling and floating just a couple of feet above the floor, it is constructed of carved wood, welded and repoussé steel and a big chunk of carved rhyolite. The steel and rhyolite are attached to the wooden members with a big hinge.
"Wally's Advice," the immediate predecessor of "Fissure," is very similar. Its title was inspired by the advice Stiles got from his Swedish uncle, Wally, who reminded the young man "not to drag my oar in the water." (I guess they're based on oars, not shovels.)
The best thing Stiles has done is "Hydrodynamic Polarity (in red)," an elegant floor sculpture of a red-painted carved-wood lever mounted on a handsomely cast and fabricated aluminum base. Some may notice the influence of Erick Johnson, which is no coincidence, since Stiles is the respected sculptor's former student and assistant.
Stiles is the latest to join a group of emerging young Denver sculptors that already includes Emmett Culligan, Andy Miller, Joe Riché, Zach Smith and Bryan Andrews.
The works of McClanahan and Stiles are wonderful together. Despite the fact that 32/26 is really a pair of single-artist shows that have been joined, it functions as a seamless and completely coherent exhibit and is one of the best things the newish Andenken has hosted thus far.
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