Art Review

Art Review: Representational Art Meets the Abstract at Havu and Space Galleries

Broadly speaking, the Venn diagram of contemporary art as it applies to painting, sculpture and installation has three circles: representational, abstract and conceptual. This week, I’m looking at multiple shows at two venues that feature work that exists where the representational circle overlaps the abstract one. Next week, I’ll discuss shows that exist at the junction of the abstract circle and the conceptual one.

At the Havu Gallery is Re-Visions, which functions more like a set of four related solos than as a group show, because each artist’s work is seen in depth. It opens with the architectonic compositions of Colorado artist Laura Truitt. These paintings range from sketchy and atmospheric renditions of structures set in the landscape to heavily abstracted depictions of buildings that completely fill the picture.

An example of the former is “Re-envisioned Landscape,” a depiction of a ghostly structure receding into the mists. In the foreground is a series of geometric shapes that lay out the skeletal forms of an all but invisible building seen in perspective. In the latter, the rectilinear volumes rendered in perspective completely overtake the landscape element, which has been reduced to little more than its edges. The outlines of forms in perspective — a technique that by definition encompasses many diagonal lines — collide with one another all over the paintings, adding lots of visual interest in the process.

These works are dominated by strong colors in unlikely combinations, like hot reddish orange set against powder blue. That, along with all those colliding diagonals, makes the paintings seem like abstractions rather than representational pieces, which they actually are.

The Truitt paintings surround a major sculpture by Texas artist Stephen Daly titled “The Controller” that is made of cast and fabricated bronze. The piece is in the form of a table on which a monumental male head is mounted; the head’s features have been conventionalized and reduced to their basic expressions. The surface of the table is covered with smaller elements that suggest various objects — also conventionalized — including boats, vessels and towers. The most enigmatic of these objects is an egg that’s been encased in a cocoon-like structure of bent bronze bars.

For Daly, “The Controller” is both humorous and political. In explaining his iconography, including that monumental head, he writes that “corporate and governmental individuals have suggested they control us, but they really don’t.” According to this reading, the head is the ineffectual controller, while the other shapes represent those things that are not controllable. That reductive head is something of a signature for Daly, and the show, which meanders throughout the gallery, features a number of smaller works that also incorporate it.

Re-Visions is filled out by Utah artist Brent Godfrey’s paintings in either acrylic or oil, which refer to photography in different ways — with hand-painted versions of snapshots or with photo-based elements in otherwise abstract compositions. Finally, up on the mezzanine are remarkably meticulous views of nature by Colorado’s Jean Gumpper, who, unlike the others, embraces pure, unadulterated contemporary realism. Her depictions of plants are almost photographically accurate, which makes the fact that her medium is woodcut printing amazing, because it means that she had to carve blocks of wood before she printed on paper. Talk about hand-to-eye coordination!

Over at Space Gallery is Reconfigured, which is also dominated by artists who combine representational and abstract imagery. As with the show at Havu, this exhibit functions more like a set of solos than it does a group show. Though some of the artists included at Space have long been represented by the gallery, director Michael Burnett has pretty much focused on contemporary abstraction since moving to this location a couple of years ago. When I remarked on how unexpected it was to see him featuring such an over-the-top figurative display, he told me that he plans to stretch out beyond abstraction in the coming year.

Reconfigured begins in the entry spaces with the work of Jason Lee Gimbel, who renders the full figure through abstract-expressionist brushwork and non-naturalistic colors. Gimbel, a well-known Denver artist, has created what are essentially painted drawings, or maybe even sketches, conceived as full-blown paintings. He outlines figures, but only partly, and shifts the color he uses in a seemingly random and instinctual way. Those colors have been ably picked, too, with Gimbel’s taste often leaning toward light and sunny tones. The left-out parts force our mind’s eye to fill in the gaps, and from my perspective, the paintings in which the figure was the least finished — the ones in which elements of the body and the background would simply evaporate toward the edges — were the standouts. I was particularly taken by “se la mia morte brami,” “Yellow Bird” and “Through the Blue Window.”

In the enormous double-height gallery, two walls are lined with billboard-sized paintings of close-ups of faces done by Boulder’s William Stoehr. For Stoehr, the bold and somewhat violent brushwork of expressionism is used to convey fairly recognizable imagery with an almost photographic accuracy in places, such as the facial features. Stoehr has been doing these kinds of pieces for some time, but in this new body of work, he’s added lines and bars, as well as drips, slashes and smears, in unnatural colors. The idea of putting in the bars and lines came to Stoehr via his iPhone. He brought up a photo of one of his paintings and began to digitally draw over it. It marked a moment of inspiration, and he began to paint bars and lines on top of his portraits.

On stands across the floor are impressive ceramic and porcelain sculptures by Michael Rand, who lives in Glenwood Springs. The form of these sculptures is a conventionalized female, like a mannequin, which is then encased with clay and carried out in either wood-fired ceramic or, in the case of one, porcelain. Rand’s surfaces are lively, with lumps and hollows along with the visible traces of his modeling of the clay. These torsos, which combine neo-classicism with expressionism, have outrageous titles like “Dreams of the Super Ego” or “Nifiheim Dreamtime.” They also feature beautiful finishes, nearly all of them black. An exception is the porcelain one, which has a rich ivory color.

The show also includes a small group of Mark Sink photos of nude women, with some on the first floor and more on the second. In these photos, the figures are gauzy, harking back to antique photography. Unlike the works by Gimbel, Stoehr and Rand, Sink’s photos are not abstract in any way, and so he plays the same role Gumpper does at Havu — as a kind of counterpoint.

Representational imagery apparently has real staying power in contemporary art, and many artists are attempting to do something new and different with it.


Through February 27 at William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360,

Through March 20 at Space Gallery, 400 Santa Fe Drive, 720-904-1088,

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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