Back to the Present

As is his standard practice, Bill Havu, director of his namesake William Havu Gallery in the Golden Triangle, has organized a group show by loosely knitting together the work of three artists and giving it a generic, one-size-fits-all title -- in this case, Icons of Our Time. Also typical at Havu -- and this is a very good thing -- is that each artist is given his or her own clearly defined space.

The first of the three Icon artists is Bethany Kriegsman, whose mixed-media pieces are installed in the entry space and beyond. A respected Colorado artist, Kriegsman lives in the foothills west of Denver and has exhibited her work in the Mile High City since moving here in 1985. That year, she joined the art faculty at the University of Denver, where she's been teaching drawing and printmaking ever since.

For Icons, Kriegsman has created a stunning body of work that cogently riffs on historic modernism. This revival of interest in golden-era modernism -- that is, art from the 1920s to the 1970s -- can be seen everywhere right now, both locally and globally. At the same time, postmodernism is looking pretty stale. (Who'd have thought, in the late twentieth century, that in the race for control of contemporary art, the formerly vanquished modernism would be back on top at the start of the 21st? )

Kriegsman's neo-modernist paintings and mixed-media pieces are all wonderful, and they demonstrate her considerable skills as an artist. Her draftsmanship is meticulous; everything's covered with abstract sketches that, though delicately hewn, are strikingly precise, creating a perfect compositional balance. And the richly saturated colors she uses are completely captivating.

Facing viewers as they enter the gallery is the luscious and appropriately named "Abundance," an oil on canvas. The painting's surface is almost entirely covered with a breathtaking metallic-gold color field -- and what's not gold is an equally beautiful black. The gold field is variegated, with gold-on-gold effects in places, but the dominant motifs are done in a Chinese red on gold or, alternately, red on black.

The red elements in "Abundance" are clearly automatist scribbles, their placement determined by instinct and intuition. But Kriegsman also wants to organize them geometrically, and, as a result, uses a lot of (more or less) straight lines.

The artist has long been influenced by the nearly abstract style of African art, and there are African references in "Abundance." But they're less literal and more abstracted than those she's used in the past, and therefore more thoroughly and successfully integrated.

Off to the left, hanging side by side, are two more oil-on-canvas paintings, "Blue Math" and "Althea." These accomplished works are closely associated with each other and also with "Abundance." Both sport monochromatic fields that dominate the compositions, and both include delicate painted details arranged in spontaneous, all-over patterns. An especially nice feature of "Blue Math" is the three-dimensional cage image in a ghostly whitish-blue that's barely visible against the light-blue ground. The repeated geometric forms that run down the center of "Althea" are also very cool.

Nearby are related though distinctly different pieces done in mixed media on paper. In "Yellow Math," Kriegsman has laid down a bright-mustard-yellow ground and then painted organic shapes and lines in red and black. This piece recalls the abstract surrealists of the 1940s -- in particular, the pre-classic period of Marc Rothko and the work of the Indian Space Group artists with whom Jackson Pollock was briefly associated in his pre-classic period. And let's not forget good old Miró.

Associations with abstract surrealism are also suggested by Kriegsman's "Hawaii," another spectacular mixed-media-on-paper confection. In this exaggeratedly vertical piece, Kriegsman vaguely refers to the landscape by topping off a yellow color field with a blue one. If possible, "Hawaii" seems even more dense with imagery than most of the others.

The Kriegsman section finishes up on the wall at the bottom of the stairs with ten small and affordably priced oil-on-canvas studies from her "Invisible" series. The studies are essentially details of her paintings and mixed-media pieces, and quite a few of them are gems.

In some ways, Kriegsman has kept a low profile in the Colorado art world and has shown only rarely -- about once every other year. As a result, she is one of the area's most overlooked important artists, and that's too bad, considering how good she obviously is.

The second Icons artist is Stephen Daly. Best known as a sculptor -- he heads the sculpture department at the University of Texas at Austin -- Daly has combined sculpture and drawing for his wall-hung pieces at Havu.

One exception is "Hybrid," a sculpture that depicts a stylized figure holding a tray with a tower on it. The piece, which was shown here a couple of years ago, is placed just inside Havu's front door and seems only tangentially related to the wall-hung pieces.

Daly's work has nothing at all in common with Kriegsman's; in fact, it's postmodern rather than modern. The transition from one artist to another is pretty rough, but viewers should be able to manage, once they shift into the appropriate aesthetic gear.

The Dalys are pretty strange, with an edgy tension created by the juxtaposition of the casually done drawings on insubstantial paper to their polar opposite, carefully made sculptural elements in heavy-duty cast aluminum and steel.

One unifying feature is the conventionalized profile of a man. These line drawings variously recall the 1920s style of either Matisse or Picasso, quite an accomplishment in itself.

A Picassoid version is used for "The Engineer": The flat profile drawing is paired with an enameled-steel panel on which a cast-aluminum bas-relief of a tower has been mounted. It's very elegant and exquisitely made, with crisp joints and a high standard of finish to both the cast-aluminum element and the dye used to color it.

More clearly related to Matisse is the otherwise similar drawing of a man in "Afterthought." In it, Daly punctuates the colored-ink drawing with a scattered arrangement of colored metal knobs. "Man in the Middle" goes even further: Mounted to the surface of a dense drawing that incorporates written script is a variety of sculptural shapes -- not the least of which is the cage-mask that covers the profile.

Some will associate Daly's approach with that of Montana artist John Buck, especially the shared use of a simplified human form as a centerpiece. This link between the two artists is more than superficial or even stylistic, however; according to director Havu, the two have had a long and productive friendship, and they've been cross-pollinating ideas for years.

Installed beneath the mezzanine is the work of the final Icons artist, Mary Walker. Walker, who now lives in Baltimore, spent most of her thirty-year career in Minneapolis; like Daly, she is best known for her sculpture but is represented here by wall pieces.

All of the Walkers are done in acrylic on wood. Many are two-part pieces, and some are connected with hinges, but it's unclear whether the hinges are meant to change the planes of the paintings.

Walker lays down expressionist fields and places painted images of microscopic life on top. In "Roundelay," the most impressive of the Walkers in the show, odd, plant-like forms ornament a wonderfully blended taupe field that curves around a dirty white passage on the bottom left, balanced by a cut-away section on the bottom right.

This cutout, as well as other non-rectangular elements -- for example, sides that are not truly perpendicular to one another -- lends "Roundelay" and the other Walkers a false three-dimensionality. It's as though the pieces refer to sculpture without being actually sculptural.

While Icons isn't much of a group show, each of its artists is great individually. And that's particularly true of Kriegsman; I can't say enough about her work.

Upstairs on the mezzanine is Canvas, Paper, Board, a mini-exhibit showcasing the work of Julia Rymer and James Thomson, a pair of young artists on Havu's staff. Rymer serves as the gallery's assistant, while Thomson is its framer. Though the two work shoulder-to-shoulder in their day jobs, they take two completely different paths when moonlighting as painters.

Thomson works in a magical-realist style, lyrically depicting trees and plants in the landscape. In his "Salt Creek," two bare-twig saplings are nestled between the walls of a canyon, with the creek running between them. None of the painting's elements have been rendered naturalistically; they look more like cartoons. In fact, there's a children's-story quality to Thomson's paintings: The fat tree with gnarled roots in "The Seeing Pine" seems to have stepped right out of The Wizard of Oz.

Rymer, on the other hand, delves into an abstract-expressionist revival mode that's dead-on 1950s. This is not too different from Kriegsman's '40s retro. (As it turns out, Rymer was a student of Kriegsman's at DU.)

Rymer's "Blue Note" is marvelous. The painting's ground is mostly white, with dark, arching calligraphic lines running across the surface. Also very good are Rymer's drawings, several of which have already sold. Like "Blue Note," these drawings are mostly white.

The Thomson and Rymer show closes next week; Icons runs through the end of August.

Over at Edge Gallery in north Denver, a very nice installation is the sole attraction of lisa chicoyne: one by some. Chicoyne is a Colorado Springs artist who has been showing her work in Denver for only a couple of years.

In her last appearance at Edge, as part of the Blue Light Special show presented late last year, Chicoyne exhibited a group of waxy and gauzy drawings that really stood out in an otherwise fairly dreadful display. The show marked my introduction to Chicoyne, but first impressions can be misleading. Rather than drawing, Chicoyne is chiefly interested in ceramics -- and that's what she's showing at Edge: ceramics in the form of an intelligent installation.

For one by some (shouldn't that be 'some by one'?), Chicoyne has covered the gallery's front space with some 800 small blobby forms -- essentially closed vessel shapes -- made of fired clay. Their scabrous surfaces are colored in earth tones, with a brick red used for those that have been placed on the shelf inside the door, and a Japanesque brown for the majority that sit on the floor.

The forms are arranged in tight groupings around a meandering path of open floor. This was a necessity, of course, because viewers need to cut through the installation to make the unrewarding journey to the spaces beyond.

Chicoyne's approach to installation -- using almost identical elements and similar colors -- connects her to well-known Denver artist Judith Cohn, whose installations have mostly been shown at Spark Gallery. Also linking the two artists is a firm basis in the old-fashioned functional-vessel tradition. Pamela Olson, whose incredible cast-porcelain installations are currently on view at the Arvada Center, is another artist with a similar style.

The thoughtful one by some closes this Sunday.

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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