Almost Anything Goes

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Multi-panel formats such as that of "Kuan B97-7" are apparently something Hahn uses often. In another 1997 oil and mixed media on canvas, "Kuan A97-1.2.3.," the triptych arrangement involves three small square canvases, each emblazoned with red and gold horizontal stripes of various widths and lined up so the center panel rises above the two. In such a composition, which is also hieratic, the eye invariably goes to the center, though in this case it goes to the top--despite the distraction of the horizontal stripes.

Much different in both palette and effect is the earlier "She-Gong R94-4," an oil and mixed media on wood from 1994. In this painting, golden ocher vertical bars alternate with dark red ones, and in the center of the gold bars are thin stripes in shiny multiple colors. This dark palette lends a contemplative mood to the painting, a characteristic not seen in the new, more brightly hued pieces.

Another unusual painting is the long and lean five-panel "Kuan, A97-7" in which horizontal bars in a light sunny yellow are interspersed with dark, mustard-colored horizontal bars. The darker bars are arranged in such a way as to radiate out from the center.

The collection of paintings creates a transcendent atmosphere; Rule observes that the gallery "feels like a Buddhist temple." Whether that image works or not, the show is surely one of quiet elegance--which is as different from the adjacent show as night is from day.

In the gallery's tiny back space, Jeffrey Keith: Erotic Gouaches focuses on a small body of recent work by University of Denver art teacher and contemporary art-world fixture Jeffrey Keith, who has exhibited widely here and around the country during the last decade or so. He paints monumental abstract-expressionist paintings that are among the finest around. At the same time, he makes goofy and folkloric installations and sculptures, most often incorporating found objects. And at Rule, Keith also does neo-expressionist-style still-life paintings that capture recognizable subjects.

The show is subtitled Erotic Gouaches, which is misleading, since it is not the gouaches themselves that have sexual content but rather the found paper the artist uses as his ground. Keith has torn pages from hardcore pornographic magazines that picture heterosexual couples in various levels of embrace. Keith has then almost painted out the lurid scenes entirely and replaced them with images of sweet things like houses and animals, or even portraits. For the most part, the explicit photos are hidden, but on closer inspection, their details can be made out beneath the thin veils of gouache. In "Bust," for example, what at first glance looks like an expressionist essay on a classically inspired portrait head turns out to also incorporate a frontal view of a nude man. The face of the bust follows the contours of the man's shoulders. In that piece, Keith has painted out the X-rated details, but not so in the aptly titled "Monkey and Oral Sex," in which a monkey head in red, white and black floats above a coffee mug in whose glaze the named sexual act can be clearly seen beneath a light coat of grayish white.

The monkey's head makes a second appearance, this time as an element in the show's only sculpture, "Monkey Plane." The piece, which imitates an old pull toy, is made of an antique carpenter's plane with wheels, on one end of which is a carved wooden monkey head painted red.

With the unlikely pairing of these two shows, Rule has succeeded in giving expression to what is clearly the present reality: In the 1990s, nearly anything goes in contemporary art.

Anything, that is, except traditional representational painting. This is the kind of thing that is the mainstay of that old warhorse, the Artists of America show, now in its eighteenth annual version at the Colorado History Museum. The show, which is sponsored by the Denver Rotary Club, has established itself as one of the most predictable events of the art world.

Though the exhibit is billed as a showcase for "contemporary realism," only a few of the pieces can actually claim to be genuinely contemporary as opposed to old-fashioned, even if they are new. A real standout--especially when seen among the nostalgic depictions of little girls and mountain landscapes--is a lyrical neo-expressionist scene of polka-dotted horses arranged in an all-over pattern. The piece, "Painted Ponies Dance Like Rainbows in the Sky," is a mammoth oil on canvas by famous Santa Fe artist Earl Biss. Unfortunately, we won't be seeing anymore work coming out of Biss's studio, since he died last week from a sudden stroke at the age of 51.

Aside from the Biss and a couple of other things, the show is dominated by rigidly academic paintings and those of a sickeningly sweet sentimental character. And while most of the artists recall specific historical styles, most often impressionism, rarely do the new paintings come up to the level of their ancestral sources.

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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