If you're from somewhere else — or if you aren't paying attention — you may have a misperception about the art scene in metro Denver. I was led to this observation by a conversation I had recently with San Francisco-based art-and-culture critic Glenn Helfand, who was in the area to give a lecture at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. Helfand wondered if there was enough going on locally to give me sufficient food for thought to fill my column every week. His implications were clear: Denver is a backwater with little if anything going on art-wise, and I am on a fool's errand attempting to chronicle it.
Ah, if that were only true. I could kick back a little, especially now that we're in the dog days of August. But no, instead of taking a breather, like I really want to, circumstances demand that I do more than usual, which is why I'm bundling up a bunch of shows this week.
The first and most significant of these is Fang Lijun's Heads, the intriguing summer exhibition at the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, officially nicknamed "The Lab." Curated by Tom Whitten, who is associated with the Asian art department at the Denver Art Museum, Heads is devoted to the recent work of Fang. The prominent contemporary artist is one of a generation of vanguard artists who emerged in China in the late '80s and early '90s, and his work has found its place in important collections around the world. His show at the Lab is Fang's first solo in the United States.
Heads gets rolling at The Lab
Fang Lijun, Heads\
\Through August 26, The Lab at Belmar, 404 South Upham Street, 303-934-1777, www.belmarlab.org.
Woosh, Unearthed and Sidebar Through August 18, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927, www.plusgallery.com.
To view a slide show of these exhibits, visit www.westword.com.
Fang is best known as a conceptual realist painter, and the show features a multipart painting made up of portraits of Cultural Revolution figures. The individual pieces are carried out in an illustration style, using different grays for monochromes that play off of a unifying black-and-white theme. The mural-like piece hangs in the first gallery at the top of the stairs at the Lab.
In a different stylistic vein — but still examples of conceptual realism — are 32 bronze portrait heads of actual people, in this case Fang's generation of fellow artists. The Lab has helpfully provided a guide to these portraits in a handout available at the gallery.
But this show is not about Fang's paintings; it's about his recent interest in sculpture. From my point of view, the most successful of his sculptures — though all are quite good — is the row of six cartoon heads installed across from the painting. The heads, which are made of heavy gilt-bronze, are held up by thin metal rods, which bend under the weight of the sculptures, causing them to look like the clowns that come out of jack-in-the-boxes. These whimsical heads are fabulous and reminded me of cartoon versions of Brancusi sculptures.
The tour de force is an installation made up of 15,000 tiny heads that, in their details, are not unlike the larger heads at the start of the show. This piece represents a lot of work on behalf of both Fang and Whitten, not to mention the more than twenty volunteers who spent several days assembling the individual components and arranging them in a tight grid.
All the sculptures in the show are gold-colored to express the idea that everyone is divine. In the gallery notes he points out that the traditional use of gold in Chinese art is in the depiction of the Buddha.
The Fang show is elegant, compelling, thoughtful and beautiful. With only a couple weeks left in its run, I urge you to take that twenty-minute drive out to Lakewood.
Closer to home at + Gallery, there are three shows I recommend. First and foremost is Woosh...Kaleidosplats: New Multi-Media Works by Doris Laughton. Long one of the area's most interesting artists, Laughton has been inspired by hydrostatics, specifically the forms that liquids take when they hit a surface, or what she refers to as "splats." The show starts off with "Raindrops," wall-mounted fiberglass sculptures that have a simple domed shape. They're a long way off from the complicated details of the archetypal "splat" shapes seen in "Multi Liquid Metal Splats" and "Multi Bronze Splats," where arms come out in all directions from the center, in the manner of a starfish. Also using the classic shape, along with some related ones, is the impressive "Creative Constellations," in which 120 separate nickel-plated copper "splats" are held in mid-air by nearly invisible nylon cables stretched between the ceiling and the floor. The effect is very cool.
Laughton has long been interested in working out the same ideas in widely different mediums. This show is no exception: In addition to the sculptures, she created digital prints on canvas as well as a DVD projection with a hard-driving soundtrack. But my favorite Laughtons are more old-fashioned. It's her carved-stone pieces, in particular the quirky, two-part "The Belly Dancers" in gray fossilized basalt and white Yule marble, that I'm drawn to. It's gorgeous and just weird enough to look thoroughly contemporary.
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That's also the combination of attributes that I'd use to describe the pieces that make up Unearthed: New Paintings by Andrew Long. Long, who lives in Texas, creates awkwardly unbalanced compositions of crudely painted colored shapes that sometimes seem to collide with one another and other times seem to be stacked up. In "Mountain," Long put together a goofy cluster of shapes on the surface of the painting with an atmospheric landscape-based abstraction in the background. Long has written that these paintings are based on the idea of digging into the earth, but that's hard to see in the pieces themselves.
I think Long's paintings are intriguing, especially in the way that they balance sophistication with primitiveness. It's this juxtaposition, as well as his fondness for carnival colors, that makes Long's work seem so fresh and new.
The last of the three shows at + is Sidebar: New Paintings by Naomi Cohn, a tiny show in the niche opposite the offices. Cohn, an emerging artist, works in acrylic on canvas, creating elaborate linear abstractions. In "Pink Drip," meandering lines are laid over a color field abstraction. Though similarly titled, "Drip City" is very different in character: It's organized by an all-over plaid on which Cohn scribbled. I really like her sense for color, and her dusty palette is extremely successful, especially her taste in blues.
All three shows at + are worth checking out, in particular Doris Laughton's. Ivar Zeile, owner and gallery director at +, now has six years experience in the art biz in Denver, and over that time he's gotten better and better at picking artists. And that's why it's always worth checking out what's happening at +, particularly right now, before all the attractions on view come down at the end of next week.