Thoroughly Modern Painting

"An Algid Statis," by Karen McClanahan, acrylic on canvas.

In the last thirty years, post-modernism, characterized by irony and self-consciousness, has made major inroads into the fine arts. For a while, the sensibility even managed to supplant modernism; more recently, street-level post-modernism has been expressed by the current retro craze in pop culture, especially in automotive design.

But off the street -- in architecture, design, fashion and painting -- modernism is back. Around the country, neomodernist painting of various stripes, representing both revivals and critiques of a variety of abstract styles from the mid- to late twentieth century, has been enjoying a clear increase in viewer, collector and critical interest. (Of course, the truth is that modernist abstraction never went away, even when it was thoroughly out of date in the 1980s.)

In Denver, many painters are following the path back to the light of modernism, and an astounding number of them are former protegés of a locally renowned master of geometric abstraction, Clark Richert, head of the painting department at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. The list includes Bruce Price, Mary Ehrin, John Morrison, and newer-than-newcomers, Warren Kelly, Michael Chavez and Clay Magidson.

Richert's influential work can be seen at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art for the next four days, where he is one of the gang of five included in 5Abstract, a fabulous and long-running show that looks at abstract artists in Colorado who emerged in the 1950s and '60s ("Broad Strokes," January 24). The other four are Al Wynne, Bob Mangold, Bev Rosen and Dale Chisman.

The Richerts at MCA range in date from the 1970s to the present. All are based on mathematical systems applied to pattern and color, and all have a post-minimalist conceptual basis. It's this post-minimal way of thinking that Richert imparts to his students; they are encouraged to conceptualize along the same lines he does without imitating his work. Thus the current crop of Richert-influenced artists are linked by being late abstractionists, even though none of them makes pattern paintings of the sort Richert does.

Also on the list of noteworthy artists who've fallen under Richert's influence is Karen McClanahan, whose very first solo show, Karen McClanahan: New Paintings, just opened at the Cordell Taylor Gallery.

The paintings in this elegant exhibit are a direct outgrowth of those McClanahan displayed last winter in a spectacular group show at the Andenken Gallery, where she was paired with young up-and-coming sculptor Jonathan Stiles. Like those paintings, the ones at Cordell Taylor combine flat color fields and hard edges -- as expected in paintings of this type. But McClanahan also adds painterly passages and soft shapes, which is sort of unexpected.

If there's any difference between the earlier and later pieces, it's that the painterly-ness and the organic lines in the recent group are given greater prominence. But even this difference is subtle, so that the approach that McClanahan laid out earlier this year is not undermined, but reinforced.

McClanahan is interested in juxtaposing two kinds of visual space. The one she calls "architectural" space involves hard-edged color fields; the other, designated "figural" space, refers to the organic or quasi-organic shapes set against them. Her decision to call the color fields "architectural" is more than symbolically inspired, because the walls of buildings are the inspiration for them, while the natural shapes on the fields are inspired by the shadows objects cast on the walls. Interestingly, McClanahan uses taped edges to create the architectural spaces, but she hand-paints the edges of the figural shapes. "I tried to hand-paint the edges of both," she says, "but it just didn't work as well in the architectural spaces."

The paintings in this show are closely related to one another and look marvelous together. One of the first is "Medicine Red," an acrylic on a large vertical canvas. As suggested by the title, the painting is primarily red, which is carried out in several distinct shades and within several distinct color fields. In the top two-thirds of the painting, the red field is made up of modulated tones ranging from light to dark. Standing out against the ground is an elaborate, dead-white form that seems to sit on a trapezoidal black form. The white form has various curves that reverse on each other; above the black form and against the variegated red background, it evokes the silhouette of a vase of flowers on a table.

McClanahan says that in addition to the figure, leaves, flowers and plants, she's been looking at architectural moldings seen on old houses -- and, of course, the shadows they cast. Though she didn't intend it, the shapes she uses also are reminiscent of maps.

The red, white and black palette used for "Medicine Red" harks back to classic abstraction of the early to mid-twentieth century. McClanahan is conscious of this, stating that the modern masters have influenced her more than other contemporary painters. And like the abstract expressionists of the '50s and the minimalists of the '60s, she considers herself a formalist. "My paintings have an aesthetic that's based on classic modernism," she says. "Post-modern was an anti-aesthetic and is unconcerned with beauty. My paintings are about beauty; that's really what I think about when I'm working." This idea isn't far from the spirit of the old chestnut "art for art's sake," and McClanahan embraces that philosophy: "My paintings don't need to say something, they don't need to be about something. It's enough if they just look good." And if looking good is her goal, she's succeeded in just about every case.  

One of McClanahan's great strengths is as a colorist. In addition to the riffs on classic color combinations like red, white and black, there are highly original and very contemporary combos. In "Quotidian Luxe," she uses a heathery lavender against a two-tone olive green, combined with a darker olive and an icy sea-foam green. For "An Algid Stasis," it's sunny, mustardy yellow and Air Force blue along with black and white (which is so '60s-'70s). The orange, black and white of "Aesthetic Pulp" and the greens and rust in "A Multifarious Scape" also form nostalgic palettes that are both contemporary and retro à la Austin Powers.

To come up with her odd titles, McClanahan says that she reads dictionaries, collecting words for her vocabulary in the process. The titles come to her as she completes paintings, but they aren't meant to suggest any specific meaning.

This show at Cordell Taylor, along with the pieces seen at Andenken, establishes McClanahan as one of the best and brightest of the young talent that's sprouted so far this season -- a season, by the way, that has been particularly bountiful.

Demonstrating that the late abstractionist trend isn't limited to Denver is Flavio Garciandía: recent paintings, at the Rule Gallery, featuring a Cuban artist who lives in Mexico. Garciandía's work is related to McClanahan's, though neither artist has ever had the opportunity to see the other's paintings until now.

Perhaps the explanation for the coincidence of stylistic interest in neo-modernist abstraction internationally -- what could be called "post-post-modernism" -- is that it's something that's simply in the air. Or maybe it's just an inevitable aspect of time, destiny and the constant hunger in the art world for newness. Whatever, it's apparently here -- and everywhere else.

Garciandía was born in Cuba in 1954. He attended the Escuela Nacional de Arte and, later, the Instituto Superior de Arte, both in Havana. He taught painting at the Instituto beginning in 1980, the year before he graduated, remaining there until 1990. By the mid '80s, he was exhibiting in the United States, throughout Latin America and in Europe. He moved to Mexico in the 1990s, but he has maintained his Cuban connections and still exhibits there.

The handsome, serene-yet-luscious show has been installed in Rule's main room. Although it is Garciandía's Denver debut, some may have caught his show at the Museum of the Fine Arts in Santa Fe a couple of years ago, which marked his introduction in the region.

Stylistically, Garciandía's oil-on-canvas paintings combine hard-edged minimalist and pattern-painting influences with elements associated with abstract expressionism. This represents a recent directional shift for the artist, and if his previous work, which featured garish colors and even glitter, has been called "tropical kitsch," no one could possibly say that about these chic and sophisticated paintings.

His palette recalls hues popular in the '70s -- dusty blue, burnt orange, acid green -- as well as the sun-faded tropical colors associated with his homeland. There are also color references to art history, a fact that we are tipped off to by the titles he chooses for his paintings. For example, the creamy, muted blue that Garciandía employs for the predominant color field in "Ives [sic] Klein Jumps to the Void From Havana's Seashore" is a reference to French dada-pop legend Yves Klein. The same could be said for "Barnett's Hallucination," in which the red field brings proto-minimalist Barnett Newman to mind.

So Garciandía is free-associating off classic modernism -- and sometimes, as in his obvious dedication to New York School painter Frank Stella, he employs more than colors to make the point. In "Stella, Stella, Stella," a seven-panel painting, Garciandía lays semi-circles -- classic Stella forms -- over one another with the edges of one cropping the end of another. The resulting pattern is entirely abstract but the arching shapes, which are done in burnt yellows and oranges, unquestionably convey the figure -- in point of fact, the female nude.  

The real standout is another piece that references Stella: "Stella Invaded," a huge, full-bodied vertical rectangle covered with fragments of circles and that juicy palette of red, orange, pink, purple and yellow, with electric-eel green spattered across the front. There's that Austin Powers thing again -- the colors are so shagadelic. Oh, behave!

As these three shows indicate, there is a continuing interest in the art world in formalist abstraction of the classic types. (Imagine that, what with painting having been a presumably dead art form for some thirty years now -- at least according to what the post-modernists believed.)

It's interesting to note how many artists in Denver and elsewhere continue to get good mileage out of some simple, straightforward ideas and time-tested techniques: that is, that "less is more" and "anything goes" -- as long as it's beautiful.

And what could possibly be wrong with that?

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