One of the things that keeps art interesting is the way it's constantly flowing, with various currents periodically overtaking one another and, in that way, changing established ideas. Last year, for example, a series of shows launched by the Getty Center in Los Angeles, collectively known as Pacific Standard Time, completely changed established concepts about art in the West.
Likewise, a show called Inventing Abstraction, seen last winter at New York City's Museum of Modern Art, sparked a new awareness of historic abstraction and a greater interest in contemporary abstraction. Seen more broadly, the exhibit is part of a re-evaluation of abstraction that is taking place internationally. In fact, it seems like neo-modern or meta-modern is overtaking or incorporating postmodern right before our eyes.
All of these thoughts came to my mind as I contemplated a pair of remarkable solos by two of Colorado's best abstract artists, both of whom happen to be teachers at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design.
First up is Ania Gola-Kumor: Moving Paint, at the Sandra Phillips Gallery. Born in Poland and educated at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art and at Moscow's College of Art and Industry, Gola-Kumor first came to Colorado in 1982 — right after leaving Poland — but didn't settle here permanently until the late '80s. I first encountered her work in the 1990s, at the long-shuttered Inkfish Gallery, and have since come to recognize it by the lusciousness of her pigments, the exquisite density of her surfaces, and her never-off though instinctually generated palettes.
In fact, Gola-Kumor's work seems to follow a coherent trajectory, so that a Gola-Kumor is unmistakably hers. This latest group of paintings bears that out, though Gola-Kumor says the pieces actually represent something of a new beginning. The reason is because she was forced to give up painting for a year after falling off of a ladder in 2011 while painting — her kitchen ceiling, not a canvas — and shattering her knee and foot. What followed was a series of surgeries. Then, on New Year's Eve 2011, she'd had enough and began working again. In a frenzy, she did sixty — count 'em, sixty — works on paper in watercolor, oil stick and oil bar. Though they are very obviously related to the subsequent paintings, these works on paper weren't preparatory studies for them. The show at Phillips includes a grid of twenty of these gorgeous little abstracts.
The works on paper reveal that for Gola-Kumor, painting was like riding a bike: She got back on and pedaled away. She then created twenty large paintings in the course of a single year, with some anchoring the Phillips show and others viewable in the back room. The first to be completed, "Untitled #11," has seven distinct layers, according to the artist, and as crowded with painterly gestures as it is, it's hard to doubt her. Although it looks like there's some not-quite-discernable subject matter underneath, Gola-Kumor says there isn't. Still, she says the work is abstract rather than being non-objective, with the shapes meant to evoke the idea of movement — something that had special resonance for her after her injury. The palette is wonderful, with lots of greens juxtaposed with purples, and earth tones that are unified by the webs of dark lines dividing up the colors. Gola-Kumor says that she rarely, if ever, used green before, but that it was associated with healing and thus reflected her actual experience at the time that she created it. But don't worry: There are several examples of work in her classic ivory-tan palette, as well as her signature red one.
Even on paper, Gola-Kumor's pieces have a solidity that could be seen as the polar opposite of the wispy confections that make up Bruce Price: Works on Paper: 2007-2012, at the Denver Art Museum. The Price show, on level three of the Hamilton Building, is part of Spun, a multi-departmental extravaganza celebrating textiles either actually or metaphorically; it opens in stages over the next two months. The Price show was originated by senior modern curator Gwen Chanzit and finished by newish associate contemporary curator William Morrow. It doesn't technically open until this weekend, but it is installed and you can see it anyway.
I first became aware of Price in the 1990s. He was a protegé of Clark Richert's at RMCAD, and his early work was something of a critique and continuation of his teacher's approach. Over the years, however, he has stretched this Richert connection almost, but not quite, to the breaking point.
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As part of his process, Price, best known as a painter, knocks off works on paper by the dozens. It is in these pieces that he fleshes out his ideas. Early on, he painted hard-edged patterns, but in recent years he's discovered ready-made ones in the form of swatches of gingham and plaid. This use of cloth links these works on paper to the theme of Spun — as does the fact that the drawings are displayed unframed, their surfaces warped from the glues and paints he used, so that they ripple like textiles. Morrow points out that Price uses found patterns, including stripes, plaids and checks, in such a way that they are bent or even folded. By doing this, Price subverts the established order of the pre-existing patterns.
The show begins in the entry, where Price has created a piece, "Geology," specifically for the space. Made up of striped sheets of fabric that have been painted over and stained in places, along with bits of what looks like a former red-checkered tablecloth, it bears a resemblance to a conventionalized landscape — and is, in fact, based on a scientific illustration. To Price, its creation has something to do with the theory of "emergence," which argues that natural, social and cultural realities follow the same master patterns: Arteries, rivers and trees all have similar branching systems, as do family trees and art styles. It's also the way Price's conceptual abstracts come out of his earlier interest in minimalist pattern painting.
The pieces are tremendously informal, both in the organization of the pictures and in the craftsmanship. Fabrics have been rapidly and casually clipped or torn, with their unraveling threads appearing here and there. Smears of glue have become pictorial elements in some. My favorite pieces are the constructivist arrangements combining patterned fabrics and painted elements, such as in "Wedge Formation" and "Uplift." (By the way, another Price solo, Purity Is Death, Transgression Divine, opens on May 23 at the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus.)
As different as Price's approach is from Gola-Kumor's, there's an obvious bond, in that both communicate using abstract forms alone.