Crowd Pleasers

The three thoughtful exhibits that close this weekend at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery illustrate both the ingenuity and the taste of the gallery's director, Robin Rule.

What makes Rule clever is that she has converted her single-room space into three distinct galleries, which allows her to present three shows simultaneously -- a good thing, since her tastes are quite broad. Rule's interests include nationally known contemporary artists as well as some of our best local talent, from the famous to the obscure.

The current trio of offerings combines a little of both: The prints of big-time New York school artist Julian Schnabel are in the entry gallery; the paintings of little-known local artist Scott Holdeman are showcased in the main room; and the digital images of Eric Havelock-Bailie, a key figure in the Denver experimental photo scene, are displayed in the back.

Julian Schnabel: Tod, Cages Without Bars consists of nine images in a single portfolio. They were created in 1983, when Schnabel was the king of international bad-boy art and the standard-bearer for the neo-expressionist style, which was just emerging. In other words, the portfolio dates from his most important and creative period and marks the first time he made a series of prints.

The hanging of the show is stunning. On the south wall, eight of Schnabel's prints have been hung frame-to-frame in the so-called library style; all eight were done on ecru-colored Japanese Kozoshoin paper. The ninth image -- which is on the north wall -- has been printed on a darker-brown paper of the same type.

The prints are characteristic neo-expressionism, combining the scribbles and scratches of 1950s abstract expressionism with crudely done figural elements reminiscent of the German expressionists of the early twentieth century. The faces and other recognizable elements were radical for contemporary art in the 1980s, though the combination of abstract and representational images is so common now that it's hard to imagine how genuinely shocking it was when it was new. To a great extent, the neo-expressionists of the 1980s were reacting against the excesses of minimalism -- or would that be the limitations? In the 1990s, a new generation of painters has revived minimalism, in part as a reaction to the intemperance of neo-expressionism. Oh, well. What goes around comes around.

Scott Holdeman: Banded Discourses takes up that burgeoning neo-minimalism. Holdeman's compositions are strikingly simple, but he adds a level of interest by blurring the margins between his elemental forms or lines, thus throwing the entire picture out of focus.

Holdeman moved to Denver in 1997 from Baltimore, where he attended the Maryland Institute. His local debut was at the Mackey Gallery, which no longer presents shows. Banded Discourses is only the second time we've been able to appreciate the work of this fine painter.

In a number of his paintings -- all of which are roughly, but not precisely, square -- Holdeman lays on gestural patterns in the form of stripes or plaids. In "Signal," an oil on canvas, Holdeman has set down blobs of black paint in horizontal groups of three on an off-white ground. Then, using some kind of combing tool, he has raked the paint into three vertical stripes. The tool has gouged the paint and stretched it into parallel skeins. The same technique was used in the more elaborate "Circuit," a plaid-patterned oil on canvas.

Holdeman takes a different if related approach in "Presence," the finest painting in the show. This oil on canvas sports a couple of blurry dark ovals accenting a luscious red field. The vivid color scheme of "Presence" is unlike that of most of the other paintings, the majority of which feature muted palettes.

Eric Havelock-Bailie: Elementary Somatology, the last of the three shows, is a group of untitled digital photographic prints of paired nudes all done in toned-up colors. This is expected from Havelock-Bailie, an experimental photographer who often uses color in his enigmatic and content-laden photos and photo-related works.

All of the prints are closely connected, and the title of the show reveals the subject: Somatology refers to the comparative study of the human body. In each pairing, the out-of-focus nudes are seen in two different poses, although they are all standing in front of a background of red and purple curtains. Havelock-Bailie used a different model in each -- some male and some female.

The poses of the models -- who invariably turn away from the view- finder -- are, no doubt, a narrative element. But the strongest feature of these prints is the way Havelock-Bailie reduces the human figure to an essentially abstract element. He does this through his use of blurred details and by having the nudes strike awkward poses in front of the all-over background of curtains.

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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

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