Art Factory

Ironton Studios & Gallery, which opened in April, is a hard place to find -- unless, of course, you work in the freight-hauling trade or some other light-industrial pursuit that might bring you to the corner of 36th Street and Chestnut Place. Actually, it's not far from Coors Field, but since neither 36th nor Chestnut is continuous, only a circuitous route will get you there.

The building, a large, nondescript structure made of corrugated metal, was formerly a garage and repair shop owned by the now-defunct Denver Mobility, a medical taxi company. It was purchased last year by sculptor Russell Beardsley, photographer Mike Mancarella and woodworker David Walter. Using plenty of sweat equity (and surely a lot of real equity, too), the three artists have lightly -- and effectively -- rehabbed the place. Capacious studios now accommodate fifteen artists, many of whom are sculptors who work on pieces of monumental size. They have also landscaped the sizable fenced yard, decorating it with trees, a community garden and several sculptures, some of which are unfinished.

Inside, beyond a reception area -- complete with kitchen and restrooms -- is a small but handsome exhibition space for which volunteer gallery director Deana Spinuzzi has put together an exhibition schedule that's still in its preliminary stages. The current show, Homare Ikeda: The Invisible Flight, is only the second one to be held here. (The inaugural exhibit last spring featured the work of the artist-tenants at Ironton, including Emmett Culligan and Debra Goldman.) It was Beardsley who suggested that Ikeda's work would make a good show -- and he was right.

Spinuzzi visited Ikeda's home and studio in north Capitol Hill and was immediately impressed. She selected pieces and, in cooperation with Ikeda, laid out the show. Spinuzzi's day job is with Fine Arts Express, a national art-handling company, so it was no trouble for her to install the exhibit herself.

Ikeda is a well-known Denver artist who has exhibited frequently in the region. However, he no longer has a relationship with any local commercial galleries, which is why Ironton was able to snag him. "I don't like commercial galleries; I have had bad experiences," Ikeda says candidly in his Japanese accent, noting that he's been stiffed for money by previous representatives.

Born and raised on Yoron Island, a small, isolated place near Okinawa, Ikeda didn't have much exposure to the world of the fine arts growing up, but he was interested nonetheless. He taught himself Oriental brush painting by copying pictures out of books and later became interested in contemporary art. "I was more of a naive artist," he says. "I gathered junk and made things out of it. I used to own a coffee shop; I painted all the walls inside, painted the chairs, tables, signs, everything, but I didn't have any idea about painting."

In 1978, he came to the United States with his new American wife, whom he had met in Kyoto. The couple settled in Southern California, and Ikeda began his formal art training at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton. It was there that he came under the influence of Bill Williams, whom Ikeda describes as "a wonderful art professor. He spent all his energy on his teaching. He created his own art scholarship by collecting aluminum cans. He bought students' works to help them out financially. He took me to museums, operas -- he increased my cultural awareness, he taught me many aspects of the creative process."

But if Ikeda owes a debt of gratitude to Williams, so do we. It was Williams who suggested that Ikeda complete his art education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "He said I should get a four-year degree and he just happened to have an application form for CU on his desk, and that's how I ended up in Boulder," says Ikeda.

In Boulder, Ikeda studied with Jerry Kunkel, Kay Miller and Chuck Forsman; he also cites Scott Chamberlin as an influence. He received his BFA from CU in 1985, and the next year his work was included in a show at the Pirate co-op. In 1987, he got his MFA in Boulder, and in 1989, he had become sufficiently established as a contemporary artist to have had his work purchased for the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum. Since then, he has been the subject of a number of solo shows and has had his work included in dozens of group outings, most recently in last fall's significant and history-making Colorado Abstraction at the Arvada Center.

Ikeda has also been influenced by a couple of artists whose work he knows only from history, notably the nineteenth-century American landscape and seascape painter Albert Pinkham Ryder and the twentieth-century Italian master of the modernist still life Giorgio Morandi. The role of these artists in Ikeda's development is obvious, especially in their similar handling of surfaces and their attempt to impose an individual vision on a traditional form. Though Ikeda's paintings seem to be entirely abstract, he sees them as landscapes, albeit clearly untraditional ones. "They are landscapes of the mind," he says.

Ikeda's paintings, drawings and prints in The Invisible Flight are signature works flaunting the distinctive elements of his style. The paintings especially are pure Ikeda, sporting heavily impastoed paint and awkward and unbalanced compositions that can be linked to CU's Miller. The show is installed in the two-part gallery at Ironton. In the first space, exhibition director Spinuzzi has arranged several paintings, some of them quite substantial; in the smaller space, Ikeda's more diminutive works on paper are displayed.

The paintings are tremendous. Although his sources may be easy to locate, his work looks like nothing else. All the paintings here are new, dated 2000. But describing an Ikeda painting as new is not entirely correct. Ikeda points to the large horizontally shaped oil and wax on canvas titled "the site," which hangs on the center of Ironton's only major display wall. "This is new," he says. "But I started it nearly ten years ago." His method is to re-address paintings over and over again until he's satisfied with the result. He gestures to another painting: "I already know what I'm going to do to that one when the show's over." If it doesn't sell, that is.

The painting "the site" has been heavily encrusted in pigment and wax, with every square inch filled by a pictorial element done with what looks like a half a tube of paint. Dominating the center is a luminous passage made from an innumerable list of pastel tints. Around the edges, the paint is dark and murky, with many shades of brown and dark blue used in relation to each other. It's hard to make out the subjects of Ikeda's paintings, but shapes that generally suggest plants, or at least plantlike forms, are seen, especially across the bottom and filling the right side of "the site."

Hung to the left of this painting is the very different "bird," which was also painted with oil and wax on canvas. In it, a diptych that's mostly done in ochres, pinks and tans, Ikeda has placed a shape only somewhat evocative of a bird of prey in the top center of the joint of the two panels. The bird is done in blues and greens. In a couple of places, in particular in the bottom center of the left-hand panel, Ikeda has crammed the area with crowded, automatist scribbles in a variety of dark colors.

Another oil and wax on canvas is "invisible you." Using mostly hot reds, yellows and oranges, Ikeda has placed a couple of heavily painted white shapes right on the surface, giving the impression that the rest of the painting exists behind, falling away into the illusion of three-dimensional space.

Proceeding to the smaller area to the left, Ikeda's drawings have been hung in a line on one wall, and across from them, a row of his monoprints. Some of the drawings are quick sketches, while others are full-blown preparatory studies for paintings. In this group are two real standouts, "messenger" and "pupate," both in mixed media on paper.

The monoprints are similar in style to the drawings and were pulled by Mark Lunning at Open Press, the Denver printmaking facility. In "with the wind #5," Ikeda contrasts light colors with a dark ground in burnt orange and charcoal gray, just as he does in his paintings.

Ikeda's work is linked to classic abstract expressionism, and to the later neo-expressionism, but it's hard to see any Japanese influence. For instance, his technique of building up layer after layer contrasts with the minimal method associated with Japanese art. But lacquering, a quintessential Japanese method, is created in a similar sequential and laborious way. And then there are the gestural lines that crowd his compositions. "My line, to me, is very Oriental, and the way I compose forms is Oriental, too," says Ikeda.

Surely it's this blending of East and West that gives Ikeda's work its unique look. But before seeing his latest efforts, you'll first have to find the obscure new Ironton Studios & Gallery. With no set schedule for gallery hours, the place is open only by luck or appointment, though I've been told someone's almost always there on weekdays. Nonetheless, it might make sense to call before starting out.

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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