"Networking," by Erica Daborn, painting.
"Networking," by Erica Daborn, painting.

Venus and Mars

Bill Havu has put together a wild amusement park ride of a show called Women & Allegory at his prestigious William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle. The exhibit, which lasts through the weekend, features a quartet of artists who deal with both feminist and feminine imagery. The work, according to Havu, is "humorous," though there's no denying that the paintings and sculptures have a disturbing aspect to them as well.

The main front room is mostly given over to the paintings and drawings of Erica Daborn. A few of these may be familiar to some people since they were included in an exhibit at the University of Denver last season, but most of them have never been shown around here before. Daborn's style is idiosyncratic. She employs simplifications of the human figure to create abstractions, but her cartoon-like approach to drawing, which lends a whimsical quality to these pictures, is unnervingly offset by the disturbing scenes she depicts.

Daborn was born in England and received her MFA at the Royal College of Art in London in 1972. So she had already established herself as a mature artist with impressive credentials before moving to California in 1987 to teach at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Most of her paintings are autobiographical, and she has recorded the culture shock of her move along with other aspects of her life, including her relationships with her daughter and mother. Let's just hope her actual experiences aren't as bad as she makes them look in her work.

"Reconstructive Surgery" is the title of a major oil-on-Masonite painting from 1989 that is hung facing the main entrance of the gallery. In this piece, Daborn depicts herself being remade for her new American life. A distorted female figure lays prone across the mid-section in the manner of a traditional painting of a reclining nude. But rather than being alluring, the figure is repellent. Many of her features have been exaggerated, and her body is lacerated, with parts having been removed with the help of surgeons armed with power tools. The woman's face is scarred and stitched, and her breasts have been cut off and reapplied, but her hair is rolled up in curlers and her eyes are adorned with makeup. The multiple meanings are fairly clear: The painting shows the oppression of women, from the subtle reference to historic art's reclining-nude tradition to a blatant critique of the contemporary cult of vanity.

Another of the large paintings is "Networking," a 1989 oil on Masonite that cruelly conveys a cocktail party -- or perhaps an art opening. Figures are lined up across the horizontal picture and, as in "Reconstructive Surgery," this arrangement refers to the traditional compositions seen in historic paintings. The figures, both male and female, are perched on sculpture stands; their faces are hidden behind tribal masks. A wire links the figures to one another but is connected only through their masks.

Daborn must have really hated California.

With the birth of her daughter in the early 1990s, however, Daborn began to lighten up. Sort of. On the back wall is the oil-on-canvas mural-like triptych called "Family," from 1994. At first sight the painting looks like an illustration in a children's book, with a giant chick and a large rabbit in the center panel. Then we notice that the chick has the legs of a woman (which is distressing and not funny) and the rabbit has a sinister sneer on its face.

There are also dozens of smaller, easel-sized works in the show, many only recently completed, as well as a smaller group of Daborn's drawings. Interestingly, the smaller paintings, though stylistically the same as the larger ones, are typically more simply composed. Daborn reduces the elements in her paintings according to size. In this way, the larger paintings are as dense as the smaller ones in terms of their compositions. The drawings are scaled-down versions of the larger pieces.

Among the smaller paintings are several standouts, including "Girl Knight," an oil on Masonite done earlier this year. In this piece, a gigantic sword-wielding woman (Daborn) confronts a castle occupied by a dragon. In the foreground, a girl in the form of a doll (Daborn's daughter) lies prone on the ground. Oddly, Daborn points the sword at her daughter, not at the dragon.

For all the grotesque misrepresentations of representational images in her work, Daborn's technique is meticulous, and her skill as a blender of color is remarkable, as is her ability to create a smooth, homogenous surface.

Scattered among the Daborns are a handful of sculptures by Kristy Soltesz. These genuinely bizarre works relate very well to the quirky Daborns.

Soltesz is a young Ohio artist who just last year earned her BFA at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The sculptures on display at Havu are from her recent "Marionettes in Environments" series, which includes, not unexpectedly, handmade marionettes.

Hung from the ceiling in the front corner is Mr. "C. Gull in Flight," a mixed-media construction from 1999. The piece fills the corner with puffy cotton clouds hung so that the largest are toward the bottom. The clouds surround a suspended figure that is part man, part sea gull. Wires are connected from the joints of the hinged figure to an armature, just like a real marionette.

In "Two Puppets in Love," a mixed-media construction that includes a found hutch suggesting a doll house, a pair of anatomically correct marionettes, one male, one female, are hung in the center.

Also installed in and among the Daborns are a small group of the strange little figural sculptures by Michigan artist Susan Aaron-Taylor. According to her artist's statement, these pieces were inspired by her interest in the Tarot and its "22 Major Arcana cards." Aaron-Taylor uses found twigs that she alters with synthetic fills and compounds. The natural curves of the very gnarled twigs she chooses are used to flesh out the figures, becoming its arms and legs, as in 1999's "The Fool," in wood and mixed media. The figures are then painted to highlight particular details.

The last of the four artists in the show is the only local, Jean Roller from Boulder. Roller is well-known around here, and her work has been widely exhibited in the last five years; one of her pieces is included in the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.

Roller's stock-in-trade is the decorated box, in which a variety of objects come together to make a narrative statement. Though most of her pieces are on view upstairs on the mezzanine floor, there is a teaser downstairs. The piece, "The Discontinuous Life of Frank Prescott," is a wall-hung sculpture made of an antique gilt picture frame that has been sawed in half. On one side, a group of objects is clustered around a formal studio photograph of a proper Victorian gentleman; on the other, the same gentleman is seen in the garb of a proper Victorian lady.

One of Roller's oldest pieces, "Secretary of Culture," a mixed-media wall sculpture from 1988, is upstairs. In it, she makes references to the history of art, from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Americans. These boxes are reminiscent of the work of Marcel Duchamp, master of the found object, who must be an important influence for Roller.

Women & Allegory is not filled with "sugar and spice and everything nice," but it's clearly the work of women with a different perspective.

In Dopplegangers, a show at Artyard of rough-hewn sculptures by promising young artist Bryan Andrews, it is the opposite sex that gets representation. Part of what makes Andrews's work so macho is the repeated use of phallic shapes, a characteristic that the artist says is purely unintentional. "I use found boards and twigs, with the shape already there," he says.

Andrews moved to Denver from the Ozark Mountain country of southern Missouri in 1992 and attended the Colorado Institute of Art, where he began an industrial design program. This technical field didn't hold his interest, however, and he moved to the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in 1993. "I met Clark, and he told me that I could do anything I wanted at the college," he says, referring to Clark Richert, RMCAD's painting-department chairman.

This creative freedom was exhilarating to him, but since there wasn't a contemporary sculptor on the faculty at that time, Andrews soon became discouraged. Then he met Chuck Parson, a local master of sculpture and installation, and became his studio assistant, a title he has held for the last three and a half years. "It's been a blast," he says. "Meeting Chuck caused me to change my work." As did "picking up a wood chisel," a tool Parson would never use. "I borrowed a wood chisel from somebody at school, and I never put it down," says Andrews.

The carving -- which Andrews has been doing for the last five years -- adds a primitive quality to his otherwise contemporary work. "For a while I used Native American and African images, and then a friend pointed out that I had no right to use their symbols, so I made up my own," he says.

These self-made icons extend to his own body as well, in the form of artist-designed tattoos. On his left arm (he's left-handed) is a Celtic tree of life combined with a hammer and anvil representative of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. "I hope the tree will give me creativity and that Thor's hammer will give me strength in my left arm," says Andrews, only half kidding. Another tattoo on his left arm shows three stripes, each punctuated by a circle. These also have meaning related to Andrews's work: The three stripes stand for milestones in his career, solo shows in drawing, sculpture and installation.

The tattoos illustrate Andrews's theories about color that are also expressed in his sculpture. Rich cobalt blue, for instance, signifies the human soul.

This blue is seen in "Song of the Bluebird," a sculpture in oak, brass, stone and acrylic paint that is just inside the door. It takes the shape of an early cruciform on top of which Andrews has placed a figure of a bird whose wings have been clipped. On either side are two small stones painted blue. "The two blue stones are me and my brother; the bird is my mother," says Andrews. "She has no wings, which were lost in the sacrifice for the blue stones."

Everything in the show has a narrative content, despite its abstract form, but most are about Andrews and his family and his friends. "Paths," for example, is about the options Andrews and his contemporaries faced after graduation, he says, "but they don't know which way to go." The piece is made of six elements. On concrete bases of various heights, Andrews has placed fragments of an old oak beam. Five of the fragments are minimally handled and still retain their original rectangular form, but the sixth has been crudely carved into an androgynous figure.

In a series of three sculptures, Andrews uses the trunk of an elm tree to tell the story of a failed relationship. In "Not Forgotten the Attic," a figure is held tightly in an oddly shaped slot in the log. For "Not Forgotten Destined," two arms with missing hands reach out hopelessly from two square openings in the log. Finally, in "Not Forgotten Safe," the full figure reappears, this time in an opening fit to its contours.

Andrews also has three larger pieces in Artyard's outdoor space. Particularly impressive is "Elders," which consists of three large poles, each topped with a carved finial. The gorgeous surface is the result of scorching the wood. Another piece that has been burned as part of the creative process is "66 Kings," in pine and redwood.

Dopplegangers, Andrews's first important show in a commercial gallery, is a thrilling success. According to Artyard director Peggy Mangold, Andrews is "this year's discovery." And who are we to argue?


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