The distinction between recognizable imagery and abstract imagery is one of the key dialectics that has run through the modern and contemporary art worlds for the past 150 years. It's not the only one — others include linear versus formal, narrative versus non-narrative, and on and on — it's just one of the most obvious and easiest to illustrate. And these issues aren't limited to paintings and sculptures; they also may be applied to works on paper, installations, photos, films, videos and anything else in the visual realm.
Two solo exhibits on display right now feature work that not only addresses this dichotomy, but also attempts to reconcile it with pieces that include both kinds of imagery.
Through November 11, Kirkland Museum, 1311 Pearl Street, 303-832-8576, www.kirklandmuseum.org.
I'll begin with William Joseph: Sculptor and Painter, at the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art. This is a career retrospective of a Denver artist who died in 2003. If Joseph is remembered at all, it is as a sculptor; several of his works are prominently sited downtown, including "The Great Seal," from 1964, on the United States Court House at 19th and Stout streets; "In Honor of Christopher Columbus," from 1970, in the Civic Center; and the 1975 Beaumont Fountain, now at Welton and 19th streets.
A major part of Joseph's career, however, was devoted to making sculptures, altars, memorials and other kinds of religious accoutrements for Roman Catholic churches. Although the show at the Kirkland has a secular slant, Joseph's religious beliefs come through in some of the pieces included.
For many, the exhibit will provide a revelation, because Joseph was also a very accomplished painter — though that won't be a surprise to those who took in his 2000 career retrospective at the O'Sullivan Arts Center at Regis University, which was dominated by his paintings.
Joseph was born in Denver in 1926 and spent a year at Regis in 1944 before entering the Kirkland School of Art, which was housed in the studio part of what is now the Kirkland Museum. In a sense, then, this show is a kind of homecoming for Joseph. The school, run by Vance Kirkland, was at that time associated with the Denver extension of the University of Colorado. But in 1946, Kirkland returned to the University of Denver, and Joseph went with him, earning his degree there. It was just a couple of years later that Joseph would begin to build his local fame with his inclusion in a three-person show at the Denver Art Museum.
The Kirkland show was put together by museum founder Hugh Grant, along with Chris Herron, the registrar and assistant curator. To do it, they supplemented Joseph pieces already in the Kirkland's collection with loans from collectors and the artist's family — in particular, his widow, Barbara Joseph. The show has been laid out chronologically, with the timeline only violated where works were too large to fit in the correct slot. But it's close enough to give viewers a good idea of Joseph's stylistic development, which was apparently filled with twists, turns and switchbacks.
In the post-war period of the '40s and '50s, Joseph began to create work that made reference to pre-war European modernism. While others of his generation — not only in New York, but also here in Colorado (think Kirkland himself) — were embracing abstract expressionism, Joseph was sticking to the figure, even as he began to introduce abstract elements into his paintings. The main exhibition room at the Kirkland features two walls lined with paintings; in front of them are a variety of the artist's better known sculptures. In the smaller adjacent exhibition room, all four walls are given over to Joseph paintings, along with many sculptures on stands, in cases and on the Frank Lloyd Wright table that dominates the space.
As we follow the course of the show, we can see that Joseph's primary interest is in the figure, though he did experiment with completely non-objective compositions in the late '50s and would do works of this kind into the '70s. Among the many interesting pieces is one that I want to single out: a gigantic untitled oil on board that depicts a god-like man emerging from a tangle of geometric forms done in different shades of blue. It not only provides a big visual punch — and clearly shows how Joseph combined representation and abstraction — but it's intriguing, too. Here's why: The Kirkland includes a sketch for a triptych with this monumental painting at the center, but the other two paintings referred to in the sketch can't be found. In a very nice move, Grant and Herron located two different paintings done in a related style and palette and hung them on either side of the monumental one, which gives us a good impression of what the lost original triptych would have looked like.
I was struck with how much these Joseph paintings reminded me of the marvelous new paintings that make up Lui Ferreyra: Interregnum, one of several interesting shows at the William Havu Gallery. But I should say at the start that Joseph's hybrid abstract/representational paintings represent his struggle to adapt his interests to his times, whereas Ferreyra's work is very neo-modern and thus completely up to date.
Ferreyra was born in 1975 in Mexico and came here to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he studied with luminaries such as Stan Brakhage and Chuck Forsman. Even before he graduated, his work was exhibited in Mexico and Chile. Ferreyra received a BFA in 1998 and soon after began to exhibit his work in Denver. This show at Havu represents his formal introduction by the gallery, which signed him up a few months ago.
According to the artist's statement, these "Interregnum" paintings, many featuring paired images of the same subject, are about the distinction between masculine and feminine, with Ferreyra intending the subjects to represent the masculine and the backgrounds the feminine. Interestingly enough, you could argue that it's the other way around. The paintings are broken into vaguely geometric shapes that define both the subjects and the backgrounds, and to some extent, the shapes run across from one to the other.
Ferreyra has written that digital imagery is an important influence on his work, and that characteristic is front and center, with the soft triangles and rectangles having a computer-generated look. This is juxtaposed with the apparently hand-done character of the painted elements, which were clearly made without digital or other aids, as their margins have a marvelous meandering quality.
The Joseph show at the Kirkland closes in a week, while the Ferreyra show at Havu shuts down this weekend.
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Through November 3, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360, www.williamhavugallery.com.