The New Math
Simon Zalkind, the director of the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Arts Center, has some obvious strengths as an exhibit organizer -- he has a good eye, he's an expert when it comes to hanging a show and, most of all, he's relentlessly creative. Zalkind shows off all three talents in Lauri Lynnxe Murphy: Baroque Minimalist and Gridlock, a pair of shows that are both midway through their runs at Singer.
The starting point for Zalkind was Denver artist Murphy. "I'd wanted to do something with Lauri for a while," he says. "I was interested in her use of multiple panels arranged in grids."
But, artists being artists, Murphy took issue with Zalkind, despite the exhibition opportunity he was offering her. "For me, the grid is simply a compositional device," she says, "and that's why I came up with the show's subtitle, Baroque Minimalist." By dismissing the grid as so much decoration, Murphy separates her work from the post- and neo-minimalist crowd whose mathematical musings are shown in spades in the accompanying Gridlock.
Murphy says her multiple-panel format isn't paying homage to the repetitive compositions of the 1960s minimalists (as the work of the post- and neo-minimalists does), but is the outgrowth of her childhood interest in comix, the often outrageous and edgy alternative to traditional comics. "I started out as a cartoonist," she says. "I was a member of the Hector Group [an underground comix cooperative] even before I joined Edge [a local art co-op]. I'm so glad that Tom Motley's Hector cartoons are in the Gridlock show; he was an important early influence for me."
While still a student at Metropolitan State College of Denver in 1993, Murphy, a women's studies major, began to pursue her interest in the fine arts. It was then that she created her first paintings in multi-panel formats. Her aim was to bring to painting the idea of sequential narration found in cartooning. "In that sense," Murphy says, "my work is more related to film or music than to other kinds of fine art."
But despite her interest in narrative content, Murphy doesn't have an exact idea about how the multiple panels should be arranged. So, they're not meant to be "read" in any specific order. "It's really collaborative, because I force the curators to contextualize their own takes on the painting."
A case in point is demonstrated by the recently completed "Giddy-Up-Go," in which one panel was accidentally left out in the Singer show. "I inadvertently left one panel behind in the studio," Murphy says, "and by the time I got it to the gallery, Simon had already hung the show. But I loved the way it looked, the way he hung it, so I decided to just leave the missing panel out." In its current configuration, "Giddy-Up-Go" is made up of eight panels hung in two vertical stacks of four. The eight panels are each done in a different style, and each has a different subject. As she frequently does, Murphy has attached or embedded found objects, including, in this piece, red plastic reflectors, a baby moon hubcap, a Christmas tree deodorizer and a Peterbilt sticker.
Murphy compares her paintings to diary entries; "Giddy-Up-Go," she says, is about a childhood ambition -- she wanted to be a trucker. "Remember that trucker craze in the '80s?" she asks with a giggle. "I was just totally into that. 'Giddy-Up-Go' is subtitled 'Red Sovine,' the name of a country-and-Western singer who did a song called 'Talk to Teddy Bear' about truckers on CBs talking to an abused kid whose handle is 'Teddy Bear.' It's so kitsch and awful I just had to do a piece about it." A direct reference to the Sovine song is the panel on which a teddy bear covered with, in Murphy's words, "tar and goo," has been affixed.
Another new piece is "Carcinoma," a nine-panel square, mostly red, including red glitter, that concerns a more serious detail of Murphy's biography, her mother's repeated bouts of cancer. "I often do pieces about cancer," Murphy says. "I think of them as talismans used to exorcise the demons -- that doing the paintings is going to protect me. I don't really believe it, but it gives me the emotional release."
"Factory," a mostly silver piece, is about Murphy's art as opposed to her life. It was inspired by Andy Warhol's studio, called "the Factory," which the artist lined with aluminum foil. "There's no artist in my generation who hasn't been influenced by Warhol," Murphy notes. "It goes without saying." She lists other mentors from the annals of art history, notably Jean-Michel Basquiat. But most of the others are so obscure as to be entirely unknown.
The show is filled out by older pieces. There's 1999's "Conjugation," a sixteen-panel exploration of the "hopes and fears" of marriage, and "Stupidstar," done the same year, about the trials and tribulations of being a local art star.
The Murphy solo is hung on the diagonal center walls at Singer and is thus a show within a show, because the accompanying exhibit, Gridlock, has been installed on the perimeter walls around it.
Zalkind used Murphy's show as a springboard into a wide-ranging exploration of the use of the grid. The selections he made for Gridlock are almost free associations, in which the accidental Dada- and pop-inspired grids are juxtaposed with those that have been carefully and mathematically derived according to well-laid-out aesthetic formulas.
In addition, famous artists have been put together with recent art-school graduates and even some students. Perhaps as a result of this diversity, it's is a very interesting show.
In selecting the artists, Zalkind asked several people for suggestions, including Clark Richert, a well-known Denver painter and a master of geometric abstraction; he is represented here by "1,1,1,: -1,-1,-1," an acrylic on canvas from 1998. The painting represents an illustration of an abstract volume described by lines. In a couple of places, the painting sits right at the front of the picture plane. In the upper left is a square serving as a legend that abstractly conveys the meaning of the painting, and across the entire surface are a pair of crossed lines and a diagonal line. These elements define the painting's surface with the illusion of space falling away behind them.
In addition to being one of the state's most important artists, with nearly forty years of work under his belt, Richert is also a teacher at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Among the artists he suggested to Zalkind were a number of his former and current students. But this isn't an example of nepotism -- well, not exclusively anyway -- because quite a few of Richert's students have made names for themselves on their own. In fact, recent shows at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art and at Raven's Nest highlighted the work of many of his protegés. Several of these emerging artists, including Kathy Knauss, Colin Livingston, Jim Morgan and Jeremy Zilar, have been included at Singer. Barbara Groh, a colleague of Richert's at RMCAD -- and a former student -- has also been included.
Surprisingly, most of the artists in Richert's circle don't deal, as he does, with mathematically derived compositions (Morgan and Groh are exceptions). Rather, most combine grids with Dada- and pop-inspired subjects, as Murphy does.
That's surely where local appropriationist Phil Bender's coming from. In "Checker Board," from 2000, he assembles a square grid of nine found checkerboards. The boards are identical, cheaply made of Masonite printed with oil paint. The repetition of the boards and the repetition of the checker squares refers directly to minimalism, but the fact that they are pre-painted, found ones, brings in a whole new set of references.
Other Bender pieces, hung in the separate gallery-cum-daycare center down the hall from the Singer, are also striking. The artist takes common nylon strapping, ordinarily used for the seats and backs of lawn chairs, and weaves it into five "paintings," each titled according to the limited palette of green, brown and yellow he employs. It's amazing that Bender has gotten twenty years' worth of interesting work out of his simple idea -- why make art when you can find it? (More evidence of Bender's boundless creativity may be found in his annual solo, which is now on display at Pirate.)
That's the same concept taken up by David Brady, who uses Lego panels to create the new and very cool "Lego Street Sex," and Evan Colbert, who affixed 98 color copies of one-dollar bills to a Masonite board for his 1996 piece, "$98." Another, more ambitious Colbert, "31 Flavors (Plus Super Deluxe Flavor)," from 2000, is seen in the playroom gallery. It's a series of particle-board tondos done last year that have been arranged like polka dots. The tondos have been painted with house paint in various creamy pastel shades.
Zalkind supplements the local artists with a handful who are nationally famous. The first of these is Chuck Close from New York. The three 1970s self-portraits by Close, each a different-sized rendition of the same view of the artist's face, are characteristic of his distinctive style: He uses a grid to create a photographically accurate picture. This is the same method used by his contemporaries among the photorealists, but they hide their grids, whereas Close makes the grids an emphatic part of his compositions.
Taos artist Agnes Martin's four screen prints, named "On a Clear Day," from 1973, are signature pieces, though they're in miniature. Martin uses repeated straight lines, often arranged in grids, to create all-over geometric abstractions. To all appearances, they seem to exemplify, in their pictorial restraint, minimalism, though it should be pointed out that Martin doesn't consider herself part of that movement.
With these two shows, Zalkind has proved -- especially by having started with Murphy -- that the grid, a central current in contemporary art since the '60s or '70s, is still alive and well in current-day Denver and across the country. And he's also shown that an interest in grids goes way beyond the post- and neo-minimalists.
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