The Shock of the Now

As we near the end of the 1900s, it's interesting to notice that the world of the visual arts is wide open, with a staggering profusion of artistic visions. Quite literally, anything goes. There are so many competing styles, ranging from straight traditionalism to the wildest fringes of conceptual art, it's enough to make your head spin.

There's representation and abstraction. Hand-done flourishes and mechanical reproductions. Old-fashioned craft and high-tech methods. All in all, absolutely no clear direction for the next century is evident, and that's surely a case of our being unable to see the tree for the forest. It's not unlike the crazy world of a hundred years ago, when the twentieth century loomed on the horizon and a joyous glut of artworks abounded.

The present state of affairs, which is both interesting and unnerving, is clearly illustrated by a trio of offerings at the prestigious Robischon Gallery. In the front space is Fay Jones, a solo show of expressionist representational paintings and prints. In the north gallery is another single artist presentation, Tom Nussbaum, which is made up of miniature simplified figural sculpture. Finally, in the back, there is Natural Order, a two-artist presentation of abstract paintings, prints and sculptures. "People must think I've got the broadest taste in town," says gallery director Jim Robischon. You know what? He does.

Fay Jones is a look at some recent works by this well-recognized Seattle artist. The pieces, which typify her approach, are bizarre compositions of recognizable subjects, awkwardly painted in an idiosyncratic style. There's a hip edge to these works, with the flatness of the color and the crudeness of the depiction, so it's a surprise to discover that Jones is not some upstart kid but rather a woman in her sixties, born in Boston in 1936.

Jones set out to be an artist early on, and she earned a BFA at the venerable Rhode Island School of Design in 1957. Her career plans were waylaid by marriage and a family, but in the early 1970s, with her children in high school, she began to work in earnest again. Her figural style recalls many sources, from twentieth-century American cartoons to eighteenth-century Japanese prints, but her blend is truly unique.

In this show, her paintings and prints all take on the same topic, a recent trip to Egypt. As enigmatic as these pieces are, viewers are clued in by elements such as camels, palm trees and glimpses of Pharaonic antiquities. In "Now and Then," a large triptych in acrylic on unmounted Japanese paper, Jones places a village peasant with a cat on her head on the left and a modern city dweller in proper Western dress on the right. In between is a prostrate slave from ancient Egypt. The mood is further enhanced by Middle Eastern accents like a hookah and a plague of locusts. Jones's compositions are characterized by her use of chalky, washed out colors, which lend a surprising lyrical quality to these hard-to-understand pieces.

If Fay Jones is strange, Tom Nussbaum is perhaps even stranger. Whereas the Jones pieces are individual and distinctive--although they may still be seen as part and parcel of the expressionism that has enjoyed a revival over the last twenty years or so--Nussbaum's statuettes are more linked to toys, from folk art dolls to action figures, than to the tradition of figural sculpture. They are conventionalized and they are polychromed--oh, and they are made of plastic. And this is Nussbaum's genius. Two-dimensional artists have long drawn from America's popular culture, and Nussbaum's work makes the claim that now it's sculpture's turn to do the same.

Each piece comes complete with a wall-mounted stand. At Robischon the stands are arranged at different heights and in theatrical arrays. The pieces, most of which are twelve inches tall or smaller, are made in a several-step process. Nussbaum first carves models in clay, which he kiln-fires. Then he creates molds in rubber and plaster. The molds are filled with a new cold casting material called Aqua Resin, a polymer made from resin, gypsum and powdered stone. The resulting piece is removed from the mold, polished, primed, painted with acrylic and finally varnished.

The details of the figures are simplified, and the sculptures depict ordinary people. Sometimes they're paired with animals, as in "Arm in Arm," which shows a man embracing a standing bear in a collegial way. According to Nussbaum's written statement, this piece concerns the fraternal relationships between men. Less romanticized is "Arrows," which is about the interaction of men and women. The two figures in this sculpture--a full-figured woman in a red dress and a businessman in a dark suit--are placed on individual circular bases facing each other. On the right, the woman aims a bow and arrow at the unarmed man on the left.

Nussbaum has shown with Robischon for more than a decade, but his work has been little seen at the gallery in the last few years. That's because the Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-based artist has been focusing on large-scale public-art commissions, mostly on the East Coast. The pieces in this exhibit mark a new direction for him; in particular, the small size he is working in contrasts with the mammoth proportions of his publicly funded creations. As small as the charismatic sculptures are, however, they still convey an unexpected sense of monumentality.

The same is true of Natural Order, which pairs two accomplished Colorado artists, Trine Bumiller and Brad Miller. Bumiller is represented by a handful of paintings, while Miller shows ceramic and wooden sculptures and a group of monotypes.

The Denver-based Bumiller is well-known for her abstract paintings on board that juxtapose hard edges with gestural, indistinct ones. Her method is to build up the surfaces of her panels from countless coats of nearly transparent oil glazes, in the manner of the old masters. Her subject is nature, which is obliquely, and not explicitly, referred to in both color and shape. In the gorgeous "Heaven and Earth," Bumiller divides a substantial vertical panel into three horizontal stripes. The bottom stripe is covered with root-like golden-ocher-colored lines on a dark blue-black ground. In the middle, the colors are reversed, with dark lines suggestive of twigs against a light ground. Across the top, it's a dark ground again with an all-over pattern of dots hinting at the starry sky.

Nature is also the source for Miller, who lives in the Aspen area. Formerly the director of the celebrated Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, one of the state's centers for contemporary art, Miller has now dedicated himself exclusively to his own work. He is chiefly known for ceramic sculpture; Natural Order includes two wall reliefs made of rough-finished fired but unglazed clay elements held together with wire. The colors of these sculptures, "Flier" and "Chakra," are the expected earth tones of beige, brown, tan and pink. Another sculpture, "Uno I," made of twigs and plaster, takes the form of an egg. Like the clay sculptures, the wooden piece and the prints are made up of small organic shapes that collectively form other, larger shapes.

Robischon isn't the only blue-chip gallery laying out the wide angle taken by contemporary art. Down the street, at Ron Judish Fine Arts, I Saw the Figure 5 in...Sculpture celebrates the work of five disparate sculptors. In the back room of the gallery, a group of photos are seen in Stephen Barker: Selected Works.

Figure 5 marks the first anniversary of the gallery. Judish's debut show last summer, I Dreamed I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, featured five contemporary painters. The unusual titles for these shows are a reference to a famous 1920s Charles Demuth painting, which itself was based on a line from a poem by William Carlos Williams. Poetic, if sometimes incomprehensible, exhibition titles are a specialty of Judish's. His other specialty is expert installation and arrangement, a talent he shows off in the gorgeously presented Figure 5.

Instead of grouping the works of these five sculptors heterogeneously in individual displays, Judish has mixed them up, creating a pleasing rhythm in all three of the gallery's main spaces. The show makes a big statement even before visitors enter the gallery, since many pieces are clearly visible through the large front show windows. But the first things a viewer sees, both because of their placement and tremendous size, are two untitled stone-and-metal floor pieces by emerging Denver artist Emmett Culligan. With his work in this show, it's now official: The twenty-something artist, just out of school, is the hottest young sculptor in town.

The first Culligan sculpture, off to the right of the entrance, is a vertical spike made of pink sandstone that's held up by a black trapezoidal steel form on the floor, which serves as a counterweight. At the top of the sandstone spire, Culligan has mounted two white marble elements, held on with visible nuts and bolts. The second Culligan piece is considerably larger and heavier; a hydraulic lift was needed to erect it. Culligan has set a large wedge of sandstone on a metal plate on the floor. The wedge is held at an angle by a heavy circular arm made of black finished steel. At the top end of the arcing steel is a carved sphere made of polished maple. This sculpture, which dominates the front room, looks as though its about to roll over; it's a disquieting effect.

Boulder's Gail Wagner doesn't work with traditional materials, as Culligan does, but instead uses yarn to make crocheted sculptures. Judish discovered Wagner, who has exhibited nationally, at Edge last year. "I saw her show and was knocked out," he says. Little wonder, with pieces like Wagner's just-completed "Inflorescence." This relief, made of cotton yarn, dye, paint, felt, copper tubing and plastic beads, covers a long expanse of wall with twisting, chartreuse-colored tubes curving out in various directions. In the back is another sinuous Wagner sculpture, "Burgeon." This one is a floor piece carried out in yarn, paint and felt. Spilling off its stand, the deep-sky-blue "Burgeon" looks like an octopus with tapering crocheted tentacles uncoiling from the center.

Other highlights of the show are the slick assembled abstracts by prominent Denver sculptor Erick Johnson and the odd but compelling beeswax-covered pieces by New York transplant and current Denver resident Kate McPhee. Especially striking is "Seed Bed," a fanciful cradle/hammock with curving supports that soar above our heads. Recent stainless and bronze cast female torsos, some of them wall hung, by nationally known sculptor Carole Feuerman, who currently lives in New York, round out the exhibit.

Stephen Barker: Selected Works is a modest selection of black-and-white photos that concern the immodest behavior of men in porno theaters. Barker has recorded them using long exposures to compensate for the low light of the darkened movie house. "Aperture magazine had an article about a group of new photographers that everyone should know about," says Judish. "I thought, 'Oh, right.' But when I saw the illustrations of Stephen Barker's work, I knew I had to have some for the gallery."

The four artists feted at Robischon, along with the six at Judish, each take a distinctive path to the same goal: the creation of credible contemporary art. And with no tendency clearly dominating any other and no real paradigm emerging, it looks like pluralism in the fine arts is going to characterize not just the end of this century, but the beginning of the next as well.

Fay Jones, Tom Nussbaum and Natural Order, extended through July 10 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788.

I Saw the Figure 5 in...Sculpture and Stephen Barker: Selected Works, through June 19 at Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street, 303-571-5557.


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