Artists who embrace the straight line are the focus of two area exhibits

As I've looked at Colorado art over the years, I've noticed that certain approaches have emerged as predominant. The most obvious example would be the popularity of landscapes in drawings, prints, photos and paintings. And that's no surprise, since the Colorado Rockies (the mountains, not the baseball team) are this state's real celebrities. For more than a century, Colorado has attracted artists from all over the world who come here to artfully capture our famous views.

A less obvious trend in Colorado art is the ongoing taste for paintings and drawings in which straight lines are a key element of compositions. Colorado artists have been taking this approach for at least eighty years, and the aesthetic is still finding adherents in the contemporary scene. This is clear in two significant shows on view right now, one focusing on a key pioneer of vanguard art in Colorado, the other a group effort that pairs historic linear paintings with current examples of this persistent visual language.

Charles Bunnell is the aforementioned pioneer; Charles Bunnell: Rocky Mountain Modern is now nearing the end of its run at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Truth be told, Bunnell did a lot more than use straight lines, but he embraced the method before just about anyone else around here, and that alone makes his contribution extremely important. The show was curated by Blake Milteer, CSFAC's museum director and curator of American art. He built it around the private Bunnell collection of James Moffett and Virginia Moffett, who live in Kansas City, though he supplemented their examples with pieces from the Fine Art Center's own hoard and from local private collections.

Though the exhibit seems to include every dead end or cul-de-sac that Bunnell ever went down, I'm sure it doesn't, since the artist was relentlessly experimental. But the show does reveal those periods in which the experiments came together, when Bunnell was able to create some very solid work. If you ignore the wrong turns he made, you can definitely see how one successful experiment would lead to the next.

Bunnell's first important phase consists of his expressionist landscapes from the late 1920s. These reflect the influence of his original mentor, Ernest Lawson, an American impressionist who taught periodically at the Broadmoor Academy, later known as the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School, where Bunnell studied. Paintings such as "Eleven Mile Canyon" combine heavy brushwork and piled-up pigments with strong formal elements, often expressed through lines. These lines on top of the paint tend to undercut the softness of the scenes — and I mean that positively, since the lines add complexity to what would otherwise be a straightforward landscape.

His next important period is in the second half of the 1930s, when Bunnell embraced precisionism before developing his own cubo-regionalism. In these paintings, the landscapes of the earlier period are turned into abstracted compositions comprising geometric shapes. In the watercolor "Mining Town," for example, the mountains have been reduced to triangles.

Those works, most of which are on paper, lead directly to his greatest pieces — the pure abstractions in oil from the '50s that are made up entirely of roughly rendered squares and rectangles in various colors. In these paintings, Bunnell steps away from the landscape — though it's obvious that they come out of the formal revelations he's made about mountains and solid shapes. The margins of the different rectilinear elements have been reinforced with slashing lines of paint that has clearly been applied with knives. Many of these later works — notably, the masterpiece "The Magician's House" — have the characteristics of abstract expressionism, though even they are apparently emerging from the earlier constructivist abstracts.

Bunnell's interest in straight lines is obvious, but he was coming from a cubist sensibility, so he was doing something different from the artists who were embracing pattern painting, geometric abstraction and hard-edge abstraction in the 1960s and 1970s. It is these artists who serve as the launching point for Perception: Color/Line/Pattern, on view through this weekend at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, even if there is a Bunnell at the beginning. The show goes on to survey several decades of developments before finishing up in the present with a new group currently experimenting with geometric art.

Some of the earliest of the geometric abstractionists featured in Perception, including Vance Kirkland, Otto Bach and Angelo di Benedetto, were working at the same time as Bunnell, but in retrospect, their work is more associated with that of artists such as David Yust, Charles diJulio and Clark Richert, all part of a younger generation that came on the scene in the late '60s. And between these eras, artists like George Woodman and Bev Rosen emerged, both of whom were major influences on those who came after. But while Perception spans more than sixty years of work — from the '50s to this year — most of the show is given over to contemporary artists who play with classic approaches to this kind of abstraction and thus make them their own. This group includes Emilio Lobato, who uses book pages; Wendi Harford, who uses paint drips; and Lewis McInnis, who uses rub-outs and smears. There are also a number of relative newcomers to the scene, such as Adam Holloway, Andrew Huffman, Ted Rehm, Jaime Carrejo, Marty Jaquis and others.

Arvada Center exhibition director Collin Parson has laid out the field so that there's a rough chronology to the installation, which is in the gigantic lower-level galleries. In some cases, Parson has included the artist's latest works instead of the more appropriate period pieces — which throws off the story, particularly in Richert's case. And that's too bad, because it underplays Richert's importance in the development of pattern painting, one of the most important chapters in the state's modern art history. I have two other criticisms of Perception: There's so little sculpture, and Parson also chose to include artists who are not part of the Colorado narrative. While it's not wrong to put Colorado art with art from elsewhere, it detracts from the exhibit's key point: how this kind of cutting-edge work has flourished in Colorado for over a half-century.

Both the history of Colorado art and the current nature of the art scene are in their draft stages of documentation. That means that exhibits — both those with catalogues, such as the CSFAC Bunnell show, and those without, like Perception — are the chief ways to learn about the state's visual culture. As far-flung as these venues are, the two shows provide an essential lesson.

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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