Cool It

Being home on the Front Range in August brings new meaning to the old cowboy song about the skies not being cloudy all day. After all, it's the too-clear sky that leads to that searing, oppressive heat.

But there's an upside to all that blazing sun: the clear light that floods into the big front windows at a pair of LoDo art galleries, illuminating to the point of glowing the astounding woodcuts displayed in Carol Summers: A Graphic Odyssey. These prints, which mostly date from the last ten years, are so saturated with bright colors that they still look wet, which winds up being quite refreshing.

The Summers exhibit marks the first time that LoDo's adjacent CSK Gallery and David Cook Fine American Art have collaborated on a single exhibit. David Cook's normal stock-in-trade is American Indian art, so it's not surprising to learn that CSK director Kent Shira organized this show, which is more in line with his gallery's print specialty. Shira also arranged for Summers himself to come to the graphic atelier in the basement and conduct a well-attended workshop a few weeks ago. Shira says he was struck by Summers's down-to-earth approach at the workshop, during which the artist shared technical know-how and even some secrets of the craft with the forty or so attendees.

Summers is probably best known as a graphic artist who has created posters since the 1950s for such prestigious clients as the Venice Biennale and the New York Film Festival. But he has always considered printmaking his principal artistic interest.

The Santa Cruz, California-based artist was born in 1925 in Kingston, New York. Both of his parents were artists, which, Summers has written, "bequeathed me one great treasure--the total absence of the idea that there might be a living to be made as an artist." So Summers got himself a day job as an art professor, working coast to coast at schools from Columbia University to the San Francisco Art Institute.

In the 1940s Summers studied with Louis Shanker at New York's Bard College and with Arnold Blanche at Manhattan's Art Students League. Both Shanker and Blanche were accomplished printmakers who were nationally famous at the time, and their passion for the medium was passed on to Summers.

It was in the 1950s that Summers arrived at his signature style, which apparently originated from his studies in Siena, Italy. Subsequently, Summers traveled repeatedly to India, and he credits his interest in "pure, clear colors" to both the Italian Renaissance artists of the Sienese school and to India's seventeenth-century painters of the Basholi school.

Organizer Shira describes Summers's style as "primitive, with broad, generalized forms that are whimsical and loosely rendered." Summers's typical subjects are landscapes, which he conventionalizes into a handful of simple shapes, each made distinct through color. The resulting lyrical works, which often feature a central diagonal, are meant to inspire the viewer's contemplation.

Summers uses color like no one else, beginning with the way he applies it. He sometimes puts inks on the back of the paper and draws them through the weave to the front side, using solvents or rubber rollers known as brayers. The solvents he uses, typically mineral spirits, also melt the ink, making the margins between colors murky and indistinct. Summers enhances that blurry division between the colors by using a rasp to put a soft edge on his wooden printing blocks. And instead of inking his blocks, he inks the paper in the manner of a rubbing.

These attributes are shown off well in the masterly 1982 woodcut "Likiang," which depicts a mountain stream. Far-away peaks are rendered as triangular blobs in green and dark blue, and swirling through the mountain range is a gleaming turquoise river that creates opposing diagonals as it runs from the upper right background to the center of the foreground. The colors, which stain the thick rag paper like dye, look positively juicy.

Such simple, almost clunky shapes and saturated colors are the real strength of the 1985 woodcut "First Rain." This, too, is a landscape, but it's much simpler than "Likiang." In fact, without the clue provided by the title, we might miss the rain. But look closely, and there it is--delicate striations created by pulling the ink through from the back.

While Summers's wet and wild work has a visually cooling effect, another lower-downtown gallery is playing against seasonal type by featuring a cold-weather standard: the quilt. The spacious galleries of the Metropolitan State College of Denver Center for the Visual Arts are deliciously air-cooled, but The Artist and the Quilt '96 is bracing all by itself.

The show is a juried exhibition of the Front Range Contemporary Quilters, a membership organization formed in 1989 and dedicated to encouraging contemporary quilting in the region. The current show, the FRCQ's fifth annual exhibit, was organized by center director Sally Perisho and juried by Colorado fiber artist Tom Lundberg, and the two have put together a tight and coherent show.

As the exhibit's title indicates, these are artist's quilts--not the functional bed covers everyone is familiar with. So the lack of traditional styles isn't surprising--many of Lundberg's selections aren't so much quilts as they are examples of mixed media or fiber art.

One of the few exceptions is "Clashy, Trashy Feathered Stars," by Faye Anderson, a more or less traditional quilt made of nine quilt squares each featuring an eight-sided star medallion. It has been hand-pieced, quilted and trimmed in black, with the rolled edge of the red-colored backing serving as a frame. But Anderson confronts tradition by incorporating what she herself calls "ugly fabrics" in jarring color juxtapositions. She has carefully joined the fabrics, some of which have been printed with pictures of televisions or insects, to create an easy-to-read rhythm of light and dark.

Janet Robinson's "Urban Jungle-August 1994" is a pictorial quilt. Both printed fabrics and hand-dyed and hand-stamped fabrics have been machine-appliqued and -quilted. The quilt depicts a tree with a bower of leaves that on closer examination turn out to be a riot of images of food, playing cards and money. Perched among the leaves are birds. The background is covered with lurid black-on-white newspaper headlines from August 1994, such as "Shots From Car Kill Man" and "Nude Body Found."

Many of the stand-out works in The Artist and the Quilt look to geometric abstract painting for inspiration. This is particularly true of the two pieces by Diana Bunnell, most notably "Windows," which is made of strips of painted canvas attached to a backing--also made of painted canvas. The edges of the canvas strips, laid out log-cabin style, are frayed. Bunnell exaggerates the fraying by pulling and tying the errant threads and drawing additional "frays" with oil pastel. This same effect is seen in Bunnell's other piece, "Totaled Too," a four-panel work whose topic, inspired by a car accident, is a shattered windshield.

Another quilter whose interests apparently encompass both geometric abstraction and narrative content is Lynn Mattingly, whose "Fire in the Rock" seems to suggest a forest fire. Using preprinted fabrics with a predominance of red, orange, burgundy and pink, Mattingly creates a minimal abstraction with rows of short vertical bars, each row connected by a long horizontal bar in the same fabric. By cutting up and reassembling the fabrics, Mattingly turns even recognizable objects into little more than patterns or swaths of color. The maple-leaf fabric in the lower center, for example, provides a necessary touch of green in the otherwise mostly red piece.

Bunnell and Mattingly aren't the only quilters in the show who utilize the nature of their materials as an artistic device. Many of these works at first seem to be variations on abstract paintings--but they are not painted; rather, they are pieced and sewn. For example, machine-sewn zigzags and cable stitches in metallic thread hold Patricia Joy's "Mind Maze II" together, both visually and literally. In that beautiful abstract, triangles of fabric have been joined with light-colored handmade fibrous paper that has the consistency of lint.

Sewing techniques are also a big part of the visual appeal of Carol Moe's "Manhattan Fever," for which the artist strip-pieced fabric, cut the sewn fabric on the diagonal, then resewed and machine-quilted it. Moe has laid brightly colored bars vertically, then offset them with a few horizontal bars. Framing the piece are various shades of red fabric that have been sewn together.

Fancy mechanized stitching likewise shows up in Karla Price's "Textures," an elaborate arrangement of rectangles mostly expressed in muted earth-tone colors such as sage green or mustard yellow. The color panels have been embellished with prominent stitching, often following circular lines, which creates a pattern against the plain fabrics chosen by Price.

The quilts in The Artist and the Quilt are well-crafted, and the woodcuts included in the Carol Summers show have been executed to a supremely high standard. And if the unspeakably hot weather makes it difficult even to contemplate the undertaking of such arduous labors, rest assured that it's to your benefit to take a good, long look anyway.

Carol Summers: A Graphic Odyssey, through September 14 at CSK Gallery and David Cook Fine American Art, 1637 Wazee Street, 436-9236.

The Artist and the Quilt '96, through August 28 at the MSCD Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

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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