"Sun Pak," by Jeff Wenzel, mixed-media painting.
"Sun Pak," by Jeff Wenzel, mixed-media painting.


You can always expect to see some of the best and most interesting contemporary art by local, national and international artists at Ron Judish Fine Arts, because director Ron Judish is relentlessly searching for new material -- and he often finds it right in our own backyard. But the three current exhibits at Judish, each focusing on a different Denver artist, are among the strongest so far in what has already been a very strong fall/winter season for the gallery. (In fact, I dare say that, in general, this is the most impressive season in memory for contemporary art in Denver -- despite the wrongheaded decision by the Denver Art Museum to evict the Modern and Contemporary Department from the Stanton rooms.)

The first show, Emmett Culligan: Sculpture, is elegantly installed in the gallery's smart-looking front showroom and is visible from Wazee Street through the huge windows. Culligan, who is only a few years out of school, is one of the city's most interesting young artists. Although there are only four pieces here, with a fifth in a connecting passageway, they seem to fill the place to the brim because of their size and the way they interact with the space around them.

Facing us as we enter is "Untitled," a masterful 2001 sculpture that's about as big as any you'll see in a temporary indoor exhibit. Too large to fit through the door, it was assembled in the gallery. "Emmett used six husky men and a small crane to put it up. It was remarkable to watch," Judish says. Like many of Culligan's sculptures, which have been displayed over the last few years, there's the suggestion that it might fall over, or at least move. A massive form, made of roughly carved granite, is set at a diagonal and connected to a fragment of a found beam that leans the other way. The two elements hold each other in place. The resulting form makes a powerful statement.


Emmett Culligan: Sculpture, Jeff Wenzel: Painting and Dan Ragland: Photography

Ron Judish Fine Arts, 1617 Wazee Street

Through February 24, 303-571-5556

An interesting aspect of this piece is its luxurious surface, which includes a rich dark-brown patinated steel base, the pink and gray crystals visible in the granite, the peeling red paint and light-brown wood grain of the beam and the gleaming silver of the stainless-steel cap that Culligan placed on the top of the granite.

Two other monumental floor pieces and two small, jewelry-like wall-hung sculptures are also terrific, but this sculpture is Culligan's greatest triumph yet.

One of the two floor sculptures, also called "Untitled," features a freely carved rhyolite sphere on the end of a steel rod that has been counterbalanced by a big chunk of sandstone. It has been installed in the middle of the passageway leading out of the front gallery and provides a segue to Jeff Wenzel: Painting.

Wenzel is unquestionably one of Denver's most accomplished masters of abstract painting, and he's made compelling work of the highest standard for a decade or more -- so my expectations were high. But this show exceeds those expectations: The paintings here are spectacular.

Born in Denver, Wenzel launched his career in California in the mid-1980s after completing his graduate training in the fine arts at the University of California at Berkeley. He excelled in ceramics as a student and later worked as a studio assistant for the legendary Peter Voulkos, from whom he clearly got his inspiration.

Voulkos, one of the best recognized abstract-expressionist ceramic artists, created his vessels, plaques and sculptures by twisting, bending and distorting clay, often laying slabs over one another. Wenzel took this method and translated it to painting. His compositions are made by painting over torn and cut pieces of paper and then tearing the paper again and repainting it. He repeats this process as many times as his instinctual eye tells him to, then attaches the compositions to wooden panels.

Although Wenzel used this style for the pieces in the Judish show, these newer paintings are notably flatter than his earlier, more three-dimensional works. In this recent batch, the paper has been thoroughly and flatly adhered to a wood panel, as opposed to being only partially connected. The change isn't a rejection of his older method, but a refinement of it.

In addition, these new paintings are a lot lighter than the older ones, with respect to both the palette and the density of the compositions. "Jeff's exploring the white space in his paintings as he never has before," Judish notes.

This was seen clearly in the gorgeous and visually engaging "Black Steps," one of several eye-popping abstracts on display when the show opened (it has since been purchased and removed). In this painting, Wenzel used a variety of white and off-white shades set against geometric shapes in dark earth tones and black. The rectilinear shapes scattered across the panel's surface show up in other Wenzel paintings here, but they don't dominate the composition in the same way.

In the back gallery we're confronted with the majestic, horizontal "Sun Pak," which sets the mood for the main part of the show. The painting's surface is mostly made up of sparely painted sheets of ecru-colored paper. The paper was originally a wrapper for some kind of construction material, and the brand name, Sun Pak, is seen in places. Wenzel's color choices are always impressive, but they're brilliant here: The ecru ground is accented with cool tones such as black, ocher, blue and gray; these quiet hues are effectively juxtaposed with the one hot shade he uses -- brick red -- in a few perfect places.

Hung not far from "Sun Pak" is "Green Slot," another great abstraction. In this painting, one bottom corner is filled with different greens, but it's hard to locate a slot. The rest of the painting is composed of browns and golds and a lot of the off-white that is seen throughout the show. A wide bar across the top balances the densely clustered rectangles, scribbles and patterns that make up the rest of the painting.

At the top of his generation of abstract artists, Wenzel has successfully carried forward the mid-twentieth-century abstract-expressionist movement, and in the process, he's kept it relevant.

Whereas Culligan and Wenzel explore non-objective subject matter, the images in Dan Ragland: Photography are representational and figural. And while Culligan and Wenzel are interested in beauty, Ragland is not -- not in a conventional sense, anyway. His photos are beautiful as objects, but his subjects, huge menacing male nudes, are not.

Ragland is a new addition to Judish, but his work has been exhibited around town for almost ten years at prestigious venues such as the now-inactive Ginny Williams Gallery and the defunct Grant Gallery. Most recently, his photos were seen in a small solo at the Carol Keller Gallery last year.

This show, installed in the intimate and comfortable reception room off the back gallery, is to some extent a reprise of the Carol Keller show, at least with regard to the photos from Ragland's "Opera" series. This series is aptly named in that the photographer seems to have caught his subjects, nude male wrestlers, in mid-mayhem, and their poses and facial expressions are very operatic. The men are overweight and dangerous-looking, but Ragland uses them to convey an erotic content, albeit a highly personal one.

To create these photos, Ragland combined a high-tech method with some very low-tech ones. The photos are digitally scanned and printed out, but they are also hand-manipulated through the use of abrasives and both dry and wet pigments, which are painted over the image. After they're finished, they still look like photos, but they've been thrown out of focus, and their details have been blurred.

These three shows at Judish are not to be missed.


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