Bedroom Eyes

Painting is making its umpteenth comeback right now after having been declared dead an equal number of times over the years. The reason that paintings haven't been supplanted permanently by videos, installations and the like is that artists refuse to cooperate. As a result, collectors and curators won't let go, either. And to that I say thank goodness.

This situation makes sense for practical reasons as well. Most people don't have the space to feature more edgy art forms such as rear-projection video walls or a roomful of interrelated art objects. But they do have walls that need art to enliven them, even in intimate spaces like their bedrooms. And nothing fills the bill better than paintings.

In a way, this is the setup for Bedroom Paintings at the Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar, which explores "the potential for painting to provide immediate pleasure." It goes without saying that this is a fairly open-ended theme on which to build a show, giving Lab director Adam Lerner a great deal of freedom.

After taking in this extremely beautiful exhibit, I asked Lerner about his intentions, because while Bedroom Paintings is predominated by abstracts or abstracted works, two of the paintings had clearly recognizable subjects, making them out of step with the rest.

I was floored by his answer. "Abstraction is no longer a meaningful term," he says, "except in a historical sense." He explained that since some conceptual work as well as some representational pieces look like abstracts when they actually aren't, the term "abstract" has been rendered obsolete.

I certainly know what he was talking about and have thought about this very issue myself. But unlike Lerner, I'm not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to abstracts. Just because some artists do faux abstractions doesn't mean they have discredited this handy shorthand expression. In fact, for me, the term "abstract" is an essential word to employ when it comes to discussing Bedroom Paintings.

The exhibit is installed in the long, narrow enfilade of rooms that run along the south side of the Lab. To access it, visitors must first go through another presentation, Silent Films, which is more of a history lesson than an art show, made up of early documentaries from various film archives selected by Jennifer Peterson, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Surely part of the reason Bedroom Paintings looks so dazzling at first sight has to do with the radical transition that Lab visitors go through from the darkened space hosting the old movies into the brightly lit galleries hung with boldly painted pictures.

Lerner selected the work of seven contemporary painters for Bedroom Paintings — four locals and three from out of state. The show starts with David Reed's "#411," an oil and alkyd on solid ground that dates to the late 1990s. "#411" has a lyrical composition of phallic shapes scattered across a horizontal panel. The shapes are done in a dark blue and are surrounded by lighter-colored hallows that separate them from the deep-red background. In one place, a scribble of translucent white paint partly obscures the underlying interplay of the phallic forms.

Reed, a New York artist, made an observation some fifteen years ago that inspired Lerner to put together this show. He'd said that his "ambition in life was to be a bedroom painter," thus emphatically countering the heroic impulses of classic twentieth-century abstraction that took up issues such as life and death. In this context, then, it's an anti-heroic act to want to do something beautiful and restful enough to hang in someone's bedroom. Borrowing Reed's idea, Lerner assembled the work of other painters who he feels are also creating work based principally on "viewing pleasure," which he sees as representing a fundamentally "new phase in the history of painting."

I think Lerner is on to something here, and it reminds me of the rise of neo-modernism in architecture and design that we've witnessed over the past twenty years. Neo-modernist architects and designers embrace decoration in a way that doctrinaire modernists only rarely, if ever, did. In the same way, the neo-modernist painters build on the foundation of modernist abstraction but also embrace decoration as a positive element in their works, which their aesthetic forebears were mostly loath to embrace.

On the walls flanking the Reed, two Colorado painters are represented by three paintings each. To the right are works by the well-known Jeffrey Keith, and to the left are pieces by a relative newcomer to the scene, Frank T. Martinez.

The Keiths are signature examples of his painting style, in which he lays out a vaguely constructivist arrangement of painterly blocks that seem to weave in and out of one another. In "Pitch," heavy smears of different shades of blue collide and overlap and, save for the palettes, Keith's other paintings, "Ariel" and "Sargasso," follow the same program. I've long admired Keith's creations, and all three of these are great. And although I know Lerner included them to free them from associations with the history of abstraction, I can't help but notice how formalist they are and how they strike something of a balance between expressionism and minimalism, at least conceptually.

Martinez, who is self-taught, is rapidly becoming one of the city's best abstract painters, as indicated by his inclusion in this show. His paintings here, all of which are untitled, are luscious. Using a simple composition of organically derived shapes, each carried out in a different cheerful tone, Martinez succeeds in having them rise above pretty-picture level by adding a paint-drip motif in different places and having them run in different directions, indicating that he spun the paintings while he was working on them.

Next up is "Land's End," by Faris McReynolds, which is one of the paintings that doesn't fit the abstract character of Bedroom Paintings because it's representational: a neo-neo-expressionist view of a beach orgy. Lerner told me that he thought the painting was very fresh, and I agree. But it also reminded me of historic figural abstraction.

The second part of the show begins with the other representational piece, "Muffle," by well-established Denver artist Stephen Batura. The painting depicts a clutch of rich fabrics. Batura's "Floodplain" works, four of which are displayed to the left of "Muffle," are also not technically abstractions, being representations of floodwaters. But Batura has so reduced the imagery — and the subject itself, the surface of water, is so transitory — that these paintings can be labeled as being abstracted even if they aren't purely abstract. Batura captures the look of the water and the light reflected on it with a limited range of colors, including blue, amber and cream. The "Floodplain" paintings, which look as up-to-date as ever, are part of a massive multi-part installation that Batura did in the late '90s, and, like all of his work, is based on historic photos of Colorado.

Across from the Baturas are "Palace Intrigue" and "Licorice Shade," by Amy Metier, a prominent Boulder painter who is unquestionably doing abstracts. Metier is interested in the traditions of abstraction, and both of these paintings hark back to the classic modernism of the mid-twentieth century. This makes her a direct heir to the abstract expressionists, as well as their sources in European art of the early part of the century. In "Licorice Shade" more than in "Palace Intrigue," there's apparently a scene, perhaps a landscape, hidden behind the splashed flourishes of earth-toned pigments.

The last artist in Bedroom Paintings is Maggie Michael, from Washington, D.C. Her painting is the most purely decorative of any in the show. In latex wall paint, she has painted a series of attenuated hourglass shapes on top of a burnt-orange ground. It's almost as flat and simple as wallpaper, and maybe that's why it seems so retro-'60s.

Though Lerner sees putting on exhibitions as being only one small part of his mission at the Lab, what with lectures and other events to run, a great show like Bedroom Paintings is what it takes to get someone like me to head down there to see it.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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