Change of Scenery

I well recall the first time I saw Warren Kelly's work. It was the summer of 2002, and I had found myself at Pirate: a contemporary art oasis. In the main space was a thoroughly amazing and absolutely unforgettable painting solo. I thought to myself, Whoever did these pieces has to be considered Denver's worst living artist.

There was only one thing to do: get out before I was spotted. Alas, it was too late. As I headed for the door, Kelly came through it and asked, "What do you think of my show?" I gulped hard and tried to think of something polite to say, but he took me off the hook almost immediately by adding, "It's in the back."

Thank God.

I followed Kelly to the Associates' Space, where I was immediately surrounded by urbane abstractions riffing on the style of the mid-twentieth-century transcendentalists who worked in Taos, the artist's home town. As I look back, I'm surprised that my eyes didn't explode from the radical optical adjustment required to shift from the homely and ineptly done brown daubs in the front to the masterfully lyrical compositions done in brilliant colors in the back.

Kelly is still working along these same lines, but he's gotten even better at it, believe it or not. Original + Digital: new work by H. Warren Kelly is, like that first effort, installed in the Associates' Space at Pirate and grew out of the Taos transcendentalist tradition.

The title refers to the fact that Kelly combines traditional one-off methods such as paintings and drawings and puts them together with computer-generated imagery produced in multiples, such as digital prints. The different types of work are stylistically related, though the paintings and drawings are more minimal and are lighter in mood and tone, while the prints are richly dense in both color and detail.

There are only two paintings in the exhibit: "Another Roadside Attraction 1" and the closely associated "Another Roadside Attraction 2." The two works are hung side by side on the west wall, so it's easy to see how similar they are. Both are quite large, and each is crowded with a wide assortment of arching, swirling and looping lines done in an astounding array of vibrant hues on a field of essentially unadorned primed canvas. The lines are meant to convey the landscape around Taos, but you really have to use your imagination to see it: Other than in some kind of bare-bones way, the paintings include no obvious references to the scenes they purportedly depict.

These works have a structural component in the black enamel lines that define their pictorial elements. The lines correspond to the graphite in two drawings, called "Roadside Sketches," that are the preliminary studies for the larger works.

It would be easy to conclude that the paintings and drawings anticipated the digital pieces, but that would be wrong. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Kelly created the drawings and paintings -- long after he'd finished the masters for the prints. Kelly began using computers and high-tech printers because he liked the way his slides looked when scanned and printed out. The digital pieces at Pirate, though, are not simply scanned paintings and drawings. Kelly first creates drawings the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper. He then refers to those sketches as he "draws" in a newfangled way, using Photoshop and a mouse. "If I simply scanned paintings, there'd be pixelization when I enlarged them," Kelly explains. "This way, the files are so big, there's no pixelizing no matter how big I make them. I start by putting in horizontal lines -- like the lines on a piece of ruled paper -- and then I hang the compositions off them."

For the Pirate show, Kelly has done eleven prints: five from the "Arroyo Seco Theme Park" series and three each from the "El Prado" and "Rinconada" series. The spectacular colors he selects and juxtaposes -- like orange and pink with purple -- are absolutely right on.

Kelly's repetition of the imagery combined with toned-up color schemes seems to be a tip of the hat to late pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol, the most important mentor for cutting-edge contemporary art right now. Warhol strikes me as an unlikely New York-based source of inspiration, considering the Southwestern flavor of Kelly's vision. But there's no denying that this Warholian aspect is the perfect counterpoint to the overriding expressionism of these pictures, giving them a marvelously contemporary feel.

Pirate's back room seems like a weird place to find a display as drop-dead elegant as Kelly's. What makes it even stranger is that Kelly is represented by Denver's + Gallery, so it's a mystery why it wasn't presented there, a much more appropriate venue for it. No matter, Original + Digital is a great show right where it is -- beautiful, intelligent, coherent and completely consistent, with high quality being the hallmark of everything in it. You'd be foolish to miss it -- but hurry, because it comes down this weekend.

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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