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Ups and Downs

"A Free Radical Ideological Landscape," by John R. Morrison, acrylic on canvas.

A few years ago, it seemed that the art world was aging -- and aging fast. The problem wasn't just Father Time; it was that few, if any, young people seemed to be interested in art. Even many of those associated with the alternative scene -- presumably a bastion of youthful exuberance -- were already starting to get their 'Welcome aboard' letters from the AARP. At the time, it looked as though art might go the way of the buggy whip or the word processor.

But things have really turned around, and everywhere I look lately, there's some promising young newcomer doing something great. An example is John Morrison, who ranks up there with the best of his elders. This hitherto-unknown painter is the subject of John R. Morrison: New Paintings, a spectacular show at Ron Judish Fine Arts.

Morrison's quick trip to the front lines began last spring when his work was included in a pair of widely seen group shows at the Raven's Nest studio complex and at Denver's Museum of Contemporary Art. Judish gallery director Ron Judish saw Morrison's paintings in the MCA show and immediately signed him up, even though Morrison had yet to graduate from the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (though he has since). It's highly unusual for an art student to get picked up by a major Denver gallery, and for the life of me, I can't think of another example.

But it's easy to see what Judish saw in Morrison: his ambitious scale and the consistent high quality of his stuff. Looking at his marvelous paintings, it is hard to believe he's been painting seriously for only three or four years. Even more astounding is that, unlike most artists, Morrison didn't take an interest in art until he was an adult.

From 1999 to 2001, Morrison, in his mid-twenties, studied at RMCAD with painter Clark Richert and created his first fully mature paintings. "The most important influence Clark had on me was freedom," Morrison says. "He allowed me to be free in my painting." Indeed, Morrison's paintings don't resemble Richert's at all. But they're connected conceptually in that, like Richert, Morrison sees his paintings as an arena for expressing ideas.

This interest in the new led Morrison to the study of postmodernism. "But postmodern is a dead end for painting," he observes, "and I found myself going to modern, where a lot was happening."

His paintings are completely non-objective and free of any references to anything except other modern paintings, and Morrison can reel off the names and movements that he sees as having influenced him. "Matisse, Cézanne, Rothko, the abstract-expressionists, the minimalists, the painters of the last 25 years," he says. "A case could be made for the influence of any non-representational painter, because I see myself in the flow of modern painting."

Thus, like that of his modernist -- read: formalist -- mentors, Morrison's subject matter is the act of painting itself. "Painting is a visual thing, and it's not about the idea behind it," he says. "I want to attract the viewer to the painting and so, first and foremost, it needs to be about the visual." For this reason, Morrison uses bold and unpredictable color combinations and multifaceted painterly techniques like drips and underpainted passages. Unnervingly, he sometimes makes the drips flow up or sideways in order to move the viewer's eyes in a given direction. The multi-hued tones of the color fields and the jagged, linear or organic shapes he uses also help to move the eyes across the canvas.

All seven of his paintings at Judish were done in the last six months. In them, Morrison orchestrates a number of approaches at once. In places, the paintings are abstract-expressionist, but above, below, or adjacent are passages with hard edges. All of them have awkward compositions and seem ready to teeter off balance at any moment. An example is the best painting in the group, "A Free Radical Ideological Landscape," in which the multiple layers of the taped lines at the bottom are juxtaposed with the vast emptiness of the red color field above.

Further testament to the quality of Morrison's work is how well it holds up to that of acknowledged master Al Wynne, a Colorado abstract-expressionist painter with more than fifty years' worth of fine work under his belt.

Wynne is the subject of the stunning Al Wynne: Paintings, installed right around the corner from the Morrisons, which is a nice complement, as the abstract approach of the younger man is perfectly matched with the elder's.

Wynne, who is eighty, is one of the only living artists with a firsthand association to the now-closed Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, which made Colorado Springs the art center of the state from the 1910s to the 1950s. He studied there with Boardman Robinson, and, like other students of Robinson, notably Ken Goehring, another living connection to the CSFACS, Wynne rejected the teacher's regionalist style and turned to abstract expressionism.

 

The eight gorgeous paintings in this show fall into two camps: those that are abstract-expressionist and those that represent what's traditionally called second-generation abstract expressionism, in which there is a representational subject running underneath the abstraction. The lyrical "Festival," an oil on canvas from 2000, is a good example of the former, while the evocative "Two Windows on September," an oil on canvas from 1993, represents the latter.

The Morrison and Wynne shows are just two of what I counted to be seven attractions at Judish. There's also Keith Milow: New Paintings, a sophisticated show of pattern paintings by the famous English-born New York artist; Roland Bernier: Photographs, in which the highly regarded Denver painter, sculptor and installation artist displays still-life color photo enlargements of piles of plywood letters, a material he frequently uses; a pair of monumental heads by Javier Marin; New Gallery Artists, featuring work by recently snagged talent; and, in Judish's office, a post-minimalist installation by Bruce Price, which is similar to the one he did in the cafe at the MCA.

As I was leaving, Judish waved his hand over the muddy field adjacent to the gallery's main entrance and said, "This spring, work will begin on the sculpture garden." And, of course, there'll be a separate exhibit out there. When that happens, Judish's place will have so many things to see that visitors shouldn't be blamed if at some point before they leave, they go looking for the bottled water and a place to sit down.


Speaking of sculpture gardens -- and you might want to get some water and sit down before reading this bad news -- the spectacular one created by the late sculptor Starr Kempf in Colorado Springs will be taken apart at the insistence of that city. I learned about this a few weeks ago from Tracy Felix, a Manitou Springs-based painter and Colorado art-history enthusiast. Felix had been close to Kempf, who committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 77, and he was heartbroken and angry. "It's so typical of Colorado Springs to take something beautiful and destroy it," he told me.

Here's the story: The city sued Starr's daughter, Lottie Kempf, the garden's protector, because, believe it or not, the garden violated zoning laws. That's right, Colorado Springs -- a veritable theme park for mindless sprawl -- has decided to draw the line at a sculpture garden. And we're not talking about some Johnny-come-lately garden that was thrown up yesterday without a permit. Elements of the garden have been in place since the 1940s, when Kempf's Broadmoor area home, studio and sculpture garden weren't even within the city limits.

It's no exaggeration to say that the garden, located on Pine Grove Avenue in the ritzy Broadmoor area, is magical. On a large and handsomely landscaped corner lot opposite the mouth of North Cheyenne Canyon, a group of eleven large abstract kinetic sculptures have been placed among the mature trees. The sculptures are narrow spikes that soar into the air, the tallest of which is over sixty feet. Kempf created them by incorporating ready-made elements such as ventilator turbines and steel poles with studio-made parts like the heavy sheet steel. The steel is cut into delicate pierced shapes, giving the pieces remarkable aerodynamic qualities. And though the sculptures must weigh thousands of pounds each, they move gracefully and almost constantly.

About a year before Kempf died, neighbors began to complain that too many people were coming to see the sculptures and causing traffic problems. Things got worse after Kempf's death, and negotiations between the Kempf family and the neighbors fell apart a couple years ago.

It's tempting to blame the wealthy neighbors for the loss of the garden -- tempting, and right on the money. What's infuriating is that the garden was there before the neighbors, and those people bought their homes knowing that. Perhaps it did get crowded sometimes, but that seems unlikely: Is Colorado Springs so sophisticated that people throng by the thousands, or even the hundreds, to see abstract sculpture there? Gee, I wish it were more like that in Denver. In fact, in the scores of times I've visited the garden over the last couple of decades, I've never encountered anyone other than Kempf himself.

Lottie Kempf tried to argue in court that since the garden was there before the city annexed the land in the 1970s, the property should be grandfathered in, and she had a "land patent" that guaranteed this status in perpetuity. But Fourth Judicial District Judge David Gilbert rejected her argument.

 

Instead, Gilbert directed, the four largest sculptures must be taken down within ninety days, and four others must be moved back from the street. The expense of moving the sculptures -- many thousands of dollars -- is to be borne entirely by the Kempf family. There have been a number of suggestions made as to where the four largest sculptures could go -- most of them public parks or other civic settings in Colorado Springs. Which puts an ironic twist on the whole affair, as the city, the same entity that forced the sculptures down, could end up having the free use of them for years to come.

To echo Felix's thoughts, this is Colorado Springs, so what other than the worst could we expect?


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