Abstract art and sculpture blend beautifully at Havu and Z

Contemporary abstraction is a well-developed scene in Colorado, with roots that go back to the 1930s, and four of the most important artists who work in this style are being featured right now in solo shows. Three are at the William Havu Gallery, and the fourth is just a few blocks away, at Z Art Department. Together they function as an ad hoc survey of present-day takes on classic abstract approaches.

The main attraction at Havu is Amy Metier: The Space in Between, which is made up of nearly four dozen works on paper and canvas; it's a major outing for this well-established Boulder-based painter. Metier has been working for decades, ever since she was a student of the great David Yust in the '70s. Yust had emerged in the '60s with his own unique abstractions.

Not that her work looks anything like Yust's. On first blush, her pieces seem to follow in the footsteps of abstract expressionism, and surely there are a lot of abstract-expressionist gestures in her paintings. But I've always felt that her style comes out of the even older post-impressionist tradition; Metier used to talk about the importance of the cubists and the futurists to the development of her signature style.

The new paintings, collages and mixed-media pieces at Havu demonstrate what I mean. The compositions seem more obviously linear than those of her earlier pieces, with "drawn" lines slashing across the uppermost surfaces.  These lines often exist right at the picture plane, with the colored forms receding behind them and being defined by them. That relationship between the lines and the forms suggests that there are representational images hidden in the abstract flourishes, though what they are is hard to say. Landscapes? Still-life scenes? Obviously Metier gives us clues with her titles, but only sometimes. At other times, the titles provide even fewer clues than the pieces themselves.

All of the Metiers feature the artist's inspired sense for assembling colors, and if some have a moody feeling, all sport sunny tones. This color mastery is what Metier is perhaps best known for. "Wheelbarrow" and "Dandelion" are good examples, as both feature an array of colors, with some areas of the paintings having shades that are toned up to the max. It's harder to see the wheelbarrow than the dandelion, but even the flower is only referred to and not literally illustrated.

Installed on stands throughout the Metier show are six small sculptures that make up Michael Clapper. These sculptures combine different materials to create simple abstract shapes; they relate formally to Clapper's better-known monumental public works, such as "Nucleus," at the Arapahoe light-rail station, or even the smaller outdoor piece, "Celestial Echo," that sits in Havu's forecourt. The latter piece, though not a part of the show, functions as though it were, since it's the first thing visitors see before entering the gallery.

An interesting feature of these recent Clappers is the way they suggest that the pieces were bent into shape. In reality, that would be impossible, given the heavy-duty materials (metal and stone); thus, these "bent" shapes were actually carved or cast, depending on what Clapper started with. "Torqued Arch," in marble and basswood, and "Face the Music," in marble and limestone, both have this intriguing bent quality. And the combination of the materials is gorgeous, with the dead white of the marble and the golden hue of the basswood in "Torqued Arch" being perfect together. Using these materials to function as forms and colors relates to Clapper's background in furniture making. So do the fine finishes he uses to complete his works. Clapper is one of the state's most interesting sculptors right now, and these small studies prove it.

Up on the mezzanine at Havu is the self-titled Emilio Lobato, a small selection of wall-relief sculptures that look like paintings. Like Metier, Lobato has been working for decades and has a firsthand association with one of the state's most significant historic abstractionists: In his case, it was the late Mary Chenoweth.

Lobato has been doing collages for many years, but these new works, in which he translates the concepts of a collage into a wall sculpture, are a definite progression from his two-dimensional pieces. Whereas in a collage Lobato might choose to incorporate a yellow strip of paper to create a line, in these newer pieces, he uses a real yellow pencil instead. A square becomes a box; stripes are made from a row of cylinders.

They're really good, and they reinvigorate Lobato's oeuvre while staying within his key concern: creating abstracts using simple and often common shapes, and making them with found materials. In his collages, these found materials are often book pages or book covers that have been arrayed within a panel. In these wall sculptures, Lobato still employs the book pages and covers, but he assembles them in such a way that they come out of the rectangular format — not only because of their three-dimensional characteristics, but because the pieces themselves have irregular margins, with elements flying off the edges.

In a piece such as "Adomenio," which is relatively small, Lobato crams in a lot of visual information, but its various elements are harmonious. That's because the rectilinear shapes are all linked to one another, invariably illustrating Lobato's taste for rigid horizontal and vertical lines and forms. The rich colors — red, blue, black — and the constructivist compositions mark an interesting progression for Lobato, and both qualities can be footnoted to his old mentor, Chenoweth. I first saw this kind of work from Lobato a couple years ago in his major solo here at Havu, which coincided with his retrospective at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center.

The quartet of solos finishes up at Z Art Department, with Parson in Perspective, made up of scores of drawings, wall pieces and sculptures by Charles Parson. Parson has tirelessly followed his own course since the 1970s, building sculptures and installations that bridge the gap between abstraction and conceptual art, and between the figure and the landscape. This Z effort presents pieces that cover the period of the last decade or so, and includes many works never before exhibited in Denver.

Parson's typical materials are ready-made hardware like nuts and bolts, and sheets of steel, glass and stone, as well as found materials like iron fragments from demolished structures and broken pieces of stone. They have a decidedly architectonic character and could even pass as ornaments, but there's a lot more going on. First, in overall form, many are totemic, while others suggest the shape of altars; there are even a few that have the character of gates or stanchions. These associations give the work a vague and unspecified spiritual character. Second, Parson has used industrial materials to convey this spirituality — an unlikely choice when you think about it. And third, in size and shape, many of these pieces can be seen as stand-ins for the human figure.

The offerings at William Havu and Z Art Department provide us with a lot to see, and there's extra appeal in the way the shows help us understand the incredible depth of the local abstract scene, with Metier, Clapper, Lobato and Parson already being major actors in it. All four of them have spent a lot of time honing their varied skills and, in the process, refining their visions into their signature styles.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia