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.

Elementary Somatology offers a rare chance to see Havelock-Bailie all by his lonesome. Although he has exhibited in town for more than a decade, he is rarely the subject of a solo show; more frequently, his work is seen in group shows with that of other members of the Denver Salon, an ad hoc association of local fine-art photographers.

The three shows at Rule display an extensive variety of expressions, but there isn't really something here for everyone. If that's what you're looking for, it can be found just a few blocks away, at Open Press.

Although Open Press is a printmaking shop rather than a gallery, it does present exhibits from time to time. The current show, 60/10 marks the tenth anniversary of the facility, hence the "10" in the exhibition's title. The "60" refers to the sixty artists who have had prints pulled by Open Press. This is slightly misleading, however, since not all of the artists are represented in the show.

Open Press is operated by Denver artist Mark Lunning, who serves as master printer. Lunning grew up in Westminster and studied fine art at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, where he specialized in drawing and art history. Lunning also developed an interest in printmaking and studied with Hin Shin, a Korean artist who taught briefly at UNC. "Hin Shin was very difficult -- he was a real ass, but I learned a lot from him," says Lunning, who also cites Lydia Rule as another important early influence from UNC. He describes Rule as "a fabulous teacher and a great artist."

Lunning came to Denver after his graduation in 1984 and began working as a sculptor. His relationship with the late, great Inkfish Gallery, which exhibited his work, lasted for a decade. In 1985 he joined the Pirate co-op, where he was a member for eight years and an associate member for two. Over the years, Lunning moved away from sculpture and toward printmaking, which he had always done to a limited extent. His skill at printmaking and the connections he made at Inkfish and Pirate helped his success when he started Open Press in 1989.

Lunning began modestly in the back room of the now long-gone Colors Gallery, at 1936 Market Street. He had one client, abstract painter Dale Chisman, who commissioned Lunning to create a series of monotypes. They were the first prints made by Open Press, but they gave Lunning a boost, because Chisman was already regarded as one of the top artists in the city.

In the early years, Lunning worked odd jobs to make ends meet. "I delivered artwork for various galleries and artists," he says, "I built shelves, painted walls -- I had to."

In 1993 Lunning met Kent Shira at the Denver Print Fair, which was held in the Tennis House of the Phipps Mansion. (Although the fair was an aesthetic success, it failed financially and was never held again.) Shira, who had helped organize the fair, and Lunning, an exhibitor, decided to team up. The next year they opened a glamorous space on Wazee Street's gallery row. Open Press was in the basement, and Shira's CSK Gallery -- which has since closed -- was on the ground floor. The idea was that Open Press would make the prints and CSK would sell them.

But what had seemed like a good match fell apart in 1995 as Lunning's easygoing style clashed with Shira's hard-driving business approach, Lunning says. "I came in late one day, and Kent's attitude toward me completely changed. Two weeks later he served me with divorce papers." Lunning is still bitter about the split.

After the breakup, Lunning took three months off just to think. "I could move away, I could change my life," he says. "I went camping a lot. And then, suddenly, I knew what I had to do -- I needed to get back to Open Press." It was four years ago this month that he restarted the print shop in its current location in the elevated basement of a nineteenth-century red-brick building in the Baker neighborhood. "At the time, I had a drying rack and one small litho press," he says. Things have changed considerably since then. Open Press now has several presses, and Lunning has two assistants, Liza Hubbell and Inga Clough, both of whom are accomplished printmakers in their own right. (Clough also teaches printmaking at the Colorado Institute of Art.) All three are represented in 60/10.

It would have been nice if Lunning had documented the history of Open Press in this show. Instead, he simply asked various artists to bring in something they'd done there. As a result, nearly everything is either brand-new or, at most, a couple of years old. There's no way for viewers to follow the development of Open Press as it expanded from the original monotypes to the later etchings and block prints.

But if Lunning isn't much good at history, he's terrific at attracting some of the region's best artists: The richly dense 60/10 is a veritable who's who of local talent. It is a skill that Lunning had since the beginning, when Chisman was his first client. Chisman is represented here by the monotype "Louie," from his 1996 "Jazz" series.

There are many other abstractionists here, including Steve Alarid, whose gorgeous untitled monotype from 1998 leads off the show. In this print, Alarid places a black circle in the center of a yellow, blue and red background. Nearby is another wonderful abstract, an untitled photo etching by Lynn Heitler. Heitler incorporates chine collé, in which bits of paper are permanently attached to the print. Other noteworthy abstractions include those by David Yust, Emilio Lobato, Myron Melnick, Homare Ikeda and Michael Duffy.

A real standout among the abstractions is Mark Friday's "Orion," a 1994 monotype. This print is related to Friday's sculptural wall pieces in that it suggests a physical, as opposed to an illusionary, presence.

In addition to the many abstractionists are a variety of artists working with recognizable images, such as nationally known landscape painter Joellyn Duesberry. Others, like Jesus Polanco and Matt O'Neill, combine abstraction and representation. In a different way, so does Amy Metier. And there are many, many more.

60/10 doesn't just mark the tenth birthday of Open Press. Rather, it is a wide-ranging look at a big chunk of Denver's current art scene.

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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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