Abstract paintings and sculptures continue to be popular draws at Denver galleries, and there are several shows on display right now, but abstraction — which I'll get to in a moment — is also in the news.
First up in the abstract realm is Galileo's Garden, made up of mixed-media paintings by Monica Petty Aiello and sculptures by her husband, Tyler Aiello, at Space Gallery. The Aiellos appeared on the Denver scene in 2002 when they opened Studio Aiello in RiNo, which in some sense was the ancestor of RedLine, since it combined studio space for artists with exhibition facilities. Studio Aiello was the city's largest commercial gallery at the time, and the couple used it to introduce a number of artists to local art audiences — in particular, those from northern Colorado. The gallery also established the Aiellos as players in the Denver art world, even if the business itself went under in 2005.
When I first approached Space and caught a glimpse of Tyler's abstracted, floral-based bas-reliefs, I was a little put off; they struck me as being sort of fluffy and not really serious. The pieces, from the "Caladenia" series, are based on a kind of orchid and have metal petals radiating out from the center. They've been painted in bright colors, with one shade on the front and another, nearly hidden, applied to the back. But as I looked at them more closely, they grew on me — excuse the pun — and by the time I left the gallery, I'd gained respect for them and felt that they worked really well with the rest of his pieces in the show, and also with Monica's paintings.
The title, Galileo's Garden, combines the two inspirational aspects of the show, with Galileo reflecting the influence of astrophysics on Monica's pieces and the garden reference pointing to Tyler's interest in organic vegetal forms. However, even Monica's impressions of the craters on Io, one of Jupiter's moons, look very floral and, to my mind, very neo-art deco, recalling the lacquer work of Jean Dunand and others from the 1920s.
The enormous exhibit takes up the main room at Space and the cavernous gallery in the back; all together, it's an impressive array. Though the artists each have their own separate oeuvre and style, the increasingly close interrelationship of their work has never been more obvious. In fact, the next logical step would be for them to make pieces together. I could easily imagine murals with Monica's paintings serving as grounds and Tyler's wall sculptures appended to them.
Next up on the abstract circuit are three solos at the William Havu Gallery, all showcasing recent work by prominent artists. It's no exaggeration to say that Havu has been on a roll since the first of the year, with these shows being worthy successors to the over-the-top salute to Emilio Lobato that came down last month.
The main exhibit, which covers the walls of the first floor, is Homare Ikeda: Time Is Floating. Ikeda, who was born and raised in Japan, has been regarded as an important artist since the '80s, when the Denver Art Museum first acquired an example of his work for its permanent collection. His style is idiosyncratic, with an instinctual approach to color and form, while his compositions are often awkward and pointedly unbalanced. For many years, Ikeda was known for his heavily worked canvases that often took years to complete — though he would work on several at the same time. But a few years ago, while completing a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Ikeda decided to streamline his process and work more quickly. Interestingly enough, the results, such as "Toki #5," look essentially the same as the older ones.
The Ikeda show shares space with Michael Clapper, which includes a handful of works in stone and metal that have been scattered around the first floor and one, a large Yule marble and steel sculpture, that sits in front of the gallery. I love Clapper's work, especially the way he adeptly mixes materials, as in the tabletop piece "Stylus," in which a cone made of Yule marble and gray limestone is partly surrounded by a halo of stainless steel. The cone is horizontally mounted, with the metal rod allowing it to rock without tipping over or rolling off its stand.
Up on the mezzanine is Amy Metier, devoted to recent paintings and works on paper by this well-known Boulder-based painter. Metier, who's been around for three decades, is by now an acknowledged master of Colorado abstraction. Though many might see her compositions as being related to abstract expressionism, there are clearly other forces at work as well, and the artist herself has frequently referred to the concept of simultaneity, a cubist characteristic in which different perspectives are merged into a singular one, and to dynamism, an aspect of futurism that attempts to record movement despite the inherent stillness of paint on canvas. Merging these disparate abstract motives, Metier surprisingly has come up with a coherent and unified style. She's also an accomplished colorist, and I always find her palettes to be fresh and cheerful. The Metiers at Havu are very harmonious with the Ikedas, and pairing them was an inspired choice by gallery director William Havu; the Clappers are simpatico, as well.
Finally — and this is the newsy part — although pioneering abstract expressionist Clyfford Still had virtually no association with Denver during his lifetime, he has become one of our own now that he's dead. This is owing to the construction of the Clyfford Still Museum, which will showcase nearly his entire output once the building is completed at the corner of West 13th Avenue and Bannock Street.
Here's a quick recap of what's happened so far. Still had been a recluse for the last decades of his life, cutting off his relationships with commercial galleries in 1951. When he died, in 1980, he left a will that read that any American city could claim the vast bulk of his output — 94 percent to be exact, or around 2,400 pieces — if it built a museum to house his work exclusively. In 2004, Still's widow, Patricia, chose Denver as the recipient of Still's posthumous bounty. A director, Dean Sobel, was hired, a site was chosen adjacent to the Denver Art Museum, and an architect — Allied Works Architecture, headed up by Brad Cloepfil — was brought on to design the new institution.
Last week, Sobel held a news conference — not at the construction site, but in New York, of all places — to announce that the museum would open on November 18.
I spoke with Sobel by phone the night before the announcement, and he was clearly up to his neck in work and excited to see things coming together. "It represents, more than anything else, the realization of Still's longstanding aim to see his work in a context like this," says Sobel. "And Denver did it, and we did it really well."
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The inaugural exhibit will feature sixty paintings, 45 works on paper, all three sculptures that Still made during his career, and an in-depth selection of material from Still's archive. "We're really featuring the work that leads up to his breakthrough and the late work, which is less well known," explains Sobel. "These things have been kept back over the years and are some of the most amazing things he did."
The landscaping will be installed this summer, and the CSM will take over the site in September to begin preparations for the grand opening. "It's really exciting — though there's still a lot of work to do — to finish all these plans that we've been working on for so many years, and I'm as thrilled as anybody to see it all coming alive," he notes.
2011 is shaping up to be the year of abstraction in Denver. It began with the unforgettable Dale Chisman retrospective at RedLine in January and will conclude with the Still exhibit (and surely other shows meant to coincide with that) in November and December — not to mention all the relevant stuff in between, like the shows currently being given over to the Aiellos at Space and to Ikeda, Clapper and Metier at Havu.