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They're Off

Martha Daniel's ceramic "Endless Tower," with Emilio Lobato's oil-on-panel "Bien Vestido" in the background.

William Havu Gallery is the only art shop in the city in its own specially designed building. That's why, when things are really cooking, as they are right now, the atmosphere is more like that of a small museum than a retail store. For his opening volley this season, gallery owner William Havu slotted in two important solos, with Emilio Lobato: Desde Siempre hanging on the walls and Martha Daniels: Golden Age displayed on pedestals on the floor. Lobato, a painter, and Daniels, a ceramics sculptor, are two of Denver's best-known and most respected artists.

Emilio Lobato's new paintings are stunning, and though they're clearly signature pieces for him, he's also shifted gears. As could be expected, Lobato used pages from found books as grounds. Also as anticipated, there are dark, rich colors and constructivist compositions crowded with geometric shapes. But what seems new is his use of brightly colored stripes laid on the uppermost layer of some panels. It's almost as though Lobato has taken his classic paintings and added an extra step that makes them look thoroughly new.

According to the artist's statement, the stripes are meant to be threads that reference his great-grandfathers, who were weavers in the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. The show's subtitle, Desde Siempre, means "since forever" and refers to Lobato's weaving ancestors as well as his own lifelong pursuit of art.

There are any number of great paintings here, including the majestic "Bien Vestido" and the equally fine "Sin Fin," both of which are hanging in the entry. In these oil and collage on panels, Lobato painted the squares and rectangles and then did the pinstriping, which does evoke the idea of weavings. Plus, like so much of Lobato's work, they have a Chicano flavor and simultaneously riff off international modernism. All in all, this is an extremely strong outing for Lobato.

Filling the floor space in between the Lobatos are some remarkable sculptures by Martha Daniels, a grand dame of Colorado ceramics. Golden Age includes several abstracted busts and plant forms displayed in the window, along with a handful of her "towers" -- architectonic piles of related forms that resemble spires.

As wonderful as the smaller pieces are, it's her tower sculptures that steal the show. Daniels has included four of them, though a fifth was planned. It was destroyed in a kiln accident, but the artist is philosophical about the setback, joking to Havu that it needed to be sacrificed to the gods to protect the others. Three of the smaller towers -- and by small, I mean under six feet tall -- are markedly similar to one another. "Maize Tower," right inside the door, "Temple Tower," displayed in the window, and "Mongo Tower," in the center space, were all done in multiple parts, with each section involving three-dimensional repeating patterns in an all-over configuration.

"Endless Tower," the most ambitious of these sculptures, is an aesthetic tour de force that stopped me dead in my tracks. It is slightly different than the others because it does not taper at the top. Daniels says it's meant to refer to Constantin Brancusi's famous "Endless Column," in which identical wooden shapes (and later, concrete ones) in the form of truncated four-sided pyramids were stacked up. Though Brancusi used simple flat-sided shapes, Daniels pierced hers to create radiating decorations on each element. She then gilded the raised parts and covered the recessed portions with dark-blue glaze, thus exaggerating the different levels of the sculptures' exterior surfaces.

I've admired Daniels's sculptures for a long time, so I can say with confidence that Golden Age is one of her best efforts ever. Neither it nor the Lobato show should be missed.


On the other side of downtown, + Gallery is hosting three solos, each installed in its own dedicated space. In the front is ROMANTIC COMEDIES: New Paintings by Jenny Morgan, featuring the artist's latest works in the realm of the self-portrait. In the center space is PALETTES, PATTERNS, LOGOS and SLOGANS: New Paintings by Colin Livingston, which pushes the artist's conceptual and post-pop sensibility to the limits. Finally, in the small back space are photo-based erotic portraits in VALLARI: New Photographs by Jeff Strahl.

Morgan, who graduated from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in 2003 and who just began graduate studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York, has made quite a name for herself with her striking self-portraits. Though her technique is fairly traditional, she adds something new by cropping the figure so that only a fraction of the body is within the picture plane. This device, and the use of a multiple-panel format, gives her paintings a fresh look. And, as we all know, the principal pursuit for contemporary representational painters is to make their work look different from that of artists of the past.

On the wall facing the entrance is the remarkable triptych "Round I, II, and III." Each of the three attenuated vertical rectangles is nearly identical, with renditions of draped cloth running down the centers and figures on either side. These figures -- Morgan's nude body on the left and an anonymous young man's body on the right -- are apparently in bed and holding hands. Given the nudity and supine position of the two, we're clearly looking at private moments shared between a pair of young lovers, though the paintings are in no way sexually charged or explicit. A more complicated scene is captured in "Recognizing the Pattern," a long horizontal that almost has the presence of a mural. On the extreme left are two male figures, who seem to be arm wrestling, and on the extreme right is the ubiquitous Morgan, who appears to be fleeing. The whole thing is set on what appears to be a king-sized bed covered in draping red fabric.

When Morgan was a student at RMCAD, her teacher and mentor was Irene Delka McCray, and their respective work has a lot in common. Morgan took an interest in the nude figure from McCray, as well as the subtle sexual content and use of billowing fabrics as grounds. Still, their work looks nothing alike, although I think it would be great to see the two in a duet -- or, better yet, in back-to-back solos.

Next up is PALETTES, PATTERNS, LOGOS and SLOGANS. Livingston is a RMCAD graduate, too, but his relationship to mentor Clark Richert is more complicated than Morgan's to McCray. Like Richert, Livingston likes hard edges and geometric abstraction, but he pushes his paintings into an entirely different place than Richert's occupy. Livingston's a conceptualist, and he makes work that gets to the very root of the relationship between the artist and the collector. In fact, his paintings can be made to order. For this show, would-be buyers are asked to choose one of six color palettes, a pattern taken from a list of six compositions, one of six pre-selected logos, and finally, a slogan, though there are twelve options, six sincere and six ironic. Everyone that commissions a painting will also receive a gallon of wall paint in a complementary color so that the piece will hang on a wall of the appropriate hue.

Since the show aims to get people to do their own choosing, Livingston set up the various options on small panels hung on one wall. The only ones that are in color are those indicating the palette choices, with examples of the other categories done in grayscale. There's also a helpful and very cool-looking brochure that lays out his ideas and explains how collectors may order their paintings.

Livingston prepared a group of hypothetical combinations as well. In "Attention Viewers," an orange-and-yellow rendition of conventionalized flowers is placed above a bar done in a different orange that displays the title, which is the slogan, bracketed by a computer and a disk. For "The Hotness," Livingston did an orange field that's dotted with stars in green, white and blue surrounding a lone palm tree placed off to one side. They are dynamite, as are all the other pieces in this show.

For the past few years, Livingston has been one of the most interesting young artists working in town, but this is one of the smartest and best-looking exhibits I've seen in a long time. I think it's time to start thinking of Livingston as one of the scene's genuine art stars.

The last of the trio of exhibits at + is VALLARI, showcasing Strahl's erotic portraits based on the goddess myth. Like Morgan and Livingston, Strahl is a graduate of RMCAD, the city's art powerhouse. The show's title is the Hindi word for Parvati, a goddess, but the Strahl pieces don't look particularly religious. In fact, they seem like illustrations from Penthouse or Playboy -- and the field of commercial illustration might be a lucrative route for the artist. Despite this, I think I know why + director Ivar Zeile decided to show them: In a sense, they lie somewhere between Morgan's and Livingston's. Strahl does nudes, which connects them to Morgan's work, and he uses a crisp, pop-y style, à la Livingston.

The trio of solos at + is definitely worthwhile, and I think it demonstrates Zeile's belief in emerging artists. Why else would he give these youngsters the choice slot that launches the season?


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