Beauty, Strength and Weirdness

Bill Havu, director of his namesake William Havu Gallery, has taken an interesting observation and turned it into an excellent show. After noticing that many mid-career artists across the country were creating paintings inspired by abstract expressionism, Havu came up with Wet Paint, a marvelous group effort that examines the work of a trio of these neo-abstract expressionists.

Wet Paint could easily have been handled as three separate but related solos, and I do wish that Havu had done it that way. He would have only had to hang the space at the bottom of the stairs and opposite the information desk slightly differently, because otherwise, the three artists' works are hung separately.

The show begins with visually luscious monochrome paintings by Denver's Jeffrey Keith installed in the entry and the spaces immediately adjacent. Keith has had a long and successful career that goes back decades. In the 1980s, he was known for his funky found-object assemblages, but beginning in the '90s, his abstract paintings came to the fore -- and those are what he's best known for now.

The paintings in the Havu show represent a direct continuation of the things Keith exhibited a couple of years ago at Rule Gallery. In both bodies of work, Keith used rectangular shapes in essentially the same color arranged to form subtle mosaic-like patterns. This monochrome effect is something of an illusion, though, because Keith includes a rainbow of shades used sparingly as accents. For example, the oil-on-linen "Race Day" looks like a field of purpley gray, but there are also dashes of red, yellow, blue and other shades throughout.

In the spaces immediately adjacent to the Keiths are paintings by John Himmelfarb of Chicago. Though the two artists' pieces are distinctly different, their styles work wonderfully together. In the window space is a group of Himmelfarb paintings in which vaguely plant-like shapes are crowded across the picture plane. The palette is dominated by strong, clear colors.

In the space at the bottom of the stairs are the latest Himmelfarbs, which are more elaborate in composition than the earlier ones. In them, the artist has laid cartoon images of figures and inanimate objects on top of an abstract background. These newer paintings are very cool; in them, Himmelfarb consciously refers back to Philip Guston's watershed work of the 1970s, which also combines cartoons and abstraction.

The last of the three artists in Wet Paint is New Yorker Michael Rubin, the most doctrinaire abstract expressionist of the group. Rubin's paintings are all-over abstractions made of what appear to be thousands of evenly spaced brush strokes. The paint has been thickly applied and rises high off the canvases in a regular pattern of juicy pigment mounds. Milton Resnick, a New York School abstract expressionist, is an important source of inspiration for Rubin; in fact, the two were paired in a show a couple of years ago at the Singer Gallery. Like Resnick's, Rubin's compositions have no particular point of attention, instead giving the entire surface the same pictorial value.

Almost all of the paintings by Keith, Himmelfarb and Rubin are brand-spanking-new, and as I walked around the Havu gallery, I could smell the not-yet-dry oil on the paintings. I guess that's why the show's called Wet Paint.

This season has had more than its share of notable ceramics shows, from great solos to sweeping group displays. The latest show to be added to this clay cavalcade is Random Factors, at the Space Gallery. The exhibit features incredible ceramic sculptures and bas-reliefs by emerging Colorado artist Mike Rand, who was born in Leadville and lives in Carbondale.

Beginning in the 1960s, a significant ceramics scene developed in the towns around Aspen, including Carbondale, and by the '70s, it had begun to exert a worldwide influence. This Aspen-type work is best represented by part-time Colorado resident Paul Soldner, who maintains a studio in Basalt. Soldner's work combines Asian aesthetics with abstract expressionism, the two main influences in the area's ceramics scene. That scene has long been bolstered by the Anderson Ranch Art Center in Snowmass, where Soldner and other ceramic masters conduct workshops.

Rand is too young to have participated in the golden age of ceramics in the Colorado Rockies, as he was born at the tail end of it, in 1976 -- and apparently his mother wouldn't let him get involved. But he was allowed to attend some of the workshops by Soldner and his peers at Anderson Ranch, and he absorbed by osmosis the ceramics lessons that were all around him.

I guess that's why Rand seems to be channeling the collective spirit of that scene. Like Soldner's, Rand's own work combines Asian influences with the lessons of abstract expressionism. Also somewhat Soldnerian is his use of the vessel form as a basic element to build his sculptures. The creation of functional objects meant to hold liquids and solids is something people began doing several thousand years ago. But as Rand uses the containers -- connected together and turned this way and that -- they are completely non-functional.

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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