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Winter Wonders

"North," by William Stockman, charcoal on wall paint.

Despite the trends elsewhere, winter in Colorado, as much as fall, is high season in the art world.

This may have something to do with the way we handle the colder months. In New York recently, a few inches of snow almost shut down the city. In Denver, on the other hand, it takes a couple of feet before even the outdoor events are canceled. So regardless of the weather, people will have little trouble getting to a quartet of exciting contemporary shows at a pair of the city's toniest galleries, both on Wazee Street in lower downtown.

At the swank Ron Judish Fine Arts, two of Denver's best talents are given top-drawer treatment. In the front is the lyrical and compelling Stephen Batura: Frontier. In the center room and filling the large back space is the triumphant William Stockman: Sketchbook.

At the Robischon Gallery, the city's longest-lasting and most distinguished contemporary-art purveyor, the spacious multi-part gallery in the front -- which is usually divided into two or even three exhibits -- has been given over entirely to a massive solo, Trine Bumiller: New Paintings. In the intimate Viewing Room in the back is a small selection of large works on paper called Judy Pfaff: Recent Prints.

Gallery director Ron Judish is thrilled with the results of his inspired pairing. "I couldn't be more pleased," he says. "Steve's off in an exciting new direction, and Bill just keeps getting better and better." These remarks could easily be seen as little more than shameless promotion for Judish's gallery -- except that he's absolutely right: Both shows look fabulous.

As usual, Judish captures the atmosphere of a small luxurious museum within the confines of the rehabbed Victorian storefront that serves as his gallery's home. Also typical here is the creative and effective installation for which he is justly renowned. But this time it's wilder than ever.

Frontier is a continuation of a new current in Batura's work in which the subject, sometimes only nominally, is rushing water. Batura first exhibited a painting of water last year at Pirate. That piece, titled "floodplain," was a gigantic forty-foot-long multi-panel mural. In style, it was almost completely abstract, though Batura did capture the quality of light reflecting off water. It was also ambitious and appeared to have been done in a fury of creative energy in which Batura used quickly done, slapdash brushwork instead of his more expected meticulous technique.

In Frontier, "floodplain" has been used as an inspirational laboratory for newer paintings that are much smaller than the mural but more fully fleshed out, both pictorially and technically.

It was perhaps "floodplain" that led Judish to install the paintings in an unconventional way. Instead of lining them up, he arranged them in balanced yet asymmetrical clusters. Some are hung close to the floor, others are high up on the wall. It's amazing, but the effect is similar to that of "floodplain" because the installation completely transforms the exhibition space in the manner of an all-encompassing environment.

The paintings here are related to one another, but some are almost abstract expressionist and require some imagination on the part of the viewer to see the water. Others are nearly photographic in their accuracy and, aside from some idiosyncratic color choices, are readily readable as rivers or streams.

"Anamosa," a casein-on-panel piece done in 2000 (like everything else in this exhibit), is on the abstract edge. Using a muted palette reduced to shades of brown and a variety of off-whites, Batura records the surface of quickly moving water on which the sunlight is brightly reflected. But since it's a closeup, it's also just a series of swirling brushstrokes. "Fontanelle," another piece, is even darker and more abstract.

In contrast are the crispy, realistic views of water seen in "Salon" and, above it and to the right, "Emeraldo." In both paintings, the rocks around which the water rushes give us something concrete to focus on; they also lend the paintings a sense of scale. "Salon" features the dark palette seen in "Anamosa," but "Emeraldo" sports a luscious and luminous icy green.

Stockman's work begins in the connecting space that leads back to the large room beyond, and Judish has included an assortment of sizes ranging from small sketch-pad pages to large sheets to gigantic images applied directly to the wall. These signature drawings are consistently good, no matter their size.

Stockman apparently begins with the small sketches, which are both finished studies and working drawings. He then proceeds incrementally to the larger formats. It makes sense, then, to start with the unbelievable display of small pieces at the back. These drawings, done between 1990 and 1999, have not been framed or hung on the wall as expected. Rather, they've been arranged in a suspended grid that floats out a foot from the wall and are arrayed in horizontal lines like towels on a clothesline. Two alligator clips hold each drawing onto a wire that runs behind them.  

It takes a long time to look at the small drawings. All of them are different, but each reveals Stockman's approach to the drawn line. In his hand, the charcoal line is graceful and sinuous. This is quite traditional, recalling the style of Ingres and other School of Paris artists from the nineteenth century. But Stockman uses the old-fashioned methods to contemporary ends by including, alongside his lovely renderings of figures and animals, surrealist and fantastic elements, crossed-out and marked-out passages, and words.

It's the same with the larger frame drawings. Two of the standouts among these are "Self-Portrait As a Beautiful Spider" and "Lioness," both of which combine the human figure with non-human features. In "Self-Portrait," Stockman sprouts spider's legs. In "Lioness," an ample woman's head is decidedly feline.

A special feature of this show are the three huge drawings done directly on the wall. Sadly, these elegant pieces will be painted over when the exhibit comes down later this month. Applying art directly on the walls of a gallery, which has been done on and off for decades, is enjoying a revival in places like New York, Los Angeles, the major cities of Europe and, thanks to Judish and Stockman, here in Denver. (Bruce Price has also applied art directly to the wall in the Colorado 2000 exhibit now at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.)

The three wall drawings are wonderful, and each takes up a different subject. In "North," a fluidly drawn fish glides among the reeds. A seated figure is the topic of "Spine." And in "Flutter," the best of them, an outstretched hand is reaching for a heart that floats above it.

Both Batura and Stockman use representational imagery -- broadly speaking -- to create contemporary expressions. That's part of what connects them to Trine Bumiller, whose latest efforts are seen up the street at the Robischon Gallery. Other connections include the shiny surfaces attained by both Bumiller and Batura. What's amazing about this is that their methods are different: Batura seals casein in acrylic varnish, while Bumiller builds up layers of oil glazes, laying one thin coat over another.

Bumiller's latest work is an outgrowth of the kind of thing she's become known for during the last ten years. Using traditional Italian painting methods, she constructs abstractions based on natural forms, often done in diptych and triptych formats. Though stars and twigs and other natural objects are still here, so, too, are imaginary elements such as dotted lines and spirals.

These are seen in "Sotto Voce," an oil-on-panel triptych from 2000, which is one of the first things viewers see as they walk in the front door. It is both a successful change of gears and a logical progression from her earlier work. That's also true of "Sticks and Stones," another sumptuous triptych, in which the center panel has a pair of circles set dead center, one within the other.

Circles, ovals and other curving shapes show up in many of Bumiller's paintings, and the visual effect is great, especially when they're set next to images that suggest bare branches. In "Full Circle," a group of brown smudges arranged in a circle is placed on a yellowed, creamy ground next to a panel in which brown tree limbs are seen against a dusty blue sky. The painting, deceptively simple in composition, is visually rich because of Bumiller's accomplished technique and her able skill at balancing quiet and subtle colors in unexpected combinations.

Bumiller's paintings are tremendously consistent; one is simply a permutation of the next. Maybe that's how she's been able to produce a baker's dozen in just the last few months despite her elaborate process and the slow-drying properties of oil paint and glazes.

More modest in scope are the six prints in the Viewing Room, which is devoted to the work of the world-famous Judy Pfaff, an acknowledged master working in New York. Pfaff is best known for her installations, which have generated interest since the 1970s. The prints at Robischon are related to her installations, as both forms feature her baroque compositions. Pfaff crams her work with a lot of visual material, whether she's filling a sheet of paper or an entire room.

In "Feet First," an etching and encaustic on paper, Pfaff uses a pair of inverted feet at the bottom to suggest an entire figure. The whole picture is covered in lines and elaborate colored shapes. "The Double," another etching and encaustic on paper, also suggests the figure, even without the feet.  

With tremendous shows such as these four, even the skeptical might be fooled into thinking that Denver is actually a sophisticated place to be. At least it appears that way from the vantage point of a couple of galleries on Wazee Street.

Denver looked pretty good at the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission's meeting last week, when an insensitive building owner was stymied in his efforts to demolish a significant modernist house in the Seventh Avenue Historic District. Called the "Sun Ray" house, it is situated on the southwest corner of Eighth Avenue and Clayton Street.

The house was built in 1947 for realtor A.D. Jones; it's an early example of a structure that incorporates passive solar design, which gives it a special historic significance, since Colorado has long been a center for alternative-energy experiments. The solar features include windows placed to maximize exposure and the use of interior brick walls to store or reflect heat depending on their orientation in relation to the sun. There is also an integral indirect lighting system in the house, another unusual feature for a building this old.

The house has been allowed to run down, but it's built like a brick you-know-what, so it's hard to believe it has structural problems. But condition is not the reason the owner wants to tear it down, anyway. No, he wants to cram two mammoth, neotraditional monstrosities on the lot. And if the neighbors aren't alarmed by this, then they're in denial.

At the commission's meeting last week, the owner, Todd Hulme, called the unique and significant house "a derelict building of the Englewood type." His builder and the applicant for the demolition permit, Beth Hennessey of Arris Design/Build, added that it's a "nasty, trashed-out suburban house...that has no place in the historic district." (This is called the casting of pearls before swine.) These negative characterizations were contrary to what commissioner Barbara Norgren had pointed out earlier: that the "Sun Ray" house illustrated, along with only a handful of other houses in the district, the great shift in American architecture at mid-century from traditional to modern.

Luckily, on November 16, 1999, the commission had already determined that the house was a contributing element of the historic district. So the fact that Hulme and Hennessey didn't like the place was pointless. It was hardly an argument that was going to lead to a demolition permit -- and it didn't. After the commission voted against the idea of tearing down the house, Hulme and Hennessey stormed out of the meeting.

Let's thank the Denver Landmark Preservation Commission for reaffirming that the city's historic districts were created to preserve Central Denver's charming old neighborhoods and to protect them from those who are only out to make a buck.


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